Issue 38 |
Winter 1985


(Or, Sr. Calvino's Shaving Brush)

In a note accompanying "A Letter from the Sahara," Italo Calvino described that piece of writing as a page "from life." It was just days before his death last September in Siena, Italy. Had he lived, he would be in the U.S. at the time of publication of this issue, probably working on a new book, lecturing at Harvard, giving readings, and joining the Ploughshares party in Lamont Library.

It was during a reception in the Lamont Poetry Room that he and I met, following his reading from a new work, in April of 1983. It was a memorable evening in many respects: the first glimpse into the world of Mr. Palomar; the small invited group of friends, poets and writers, including Seamus Heaney and Sven Birkerts, who also appear in this issue; the conversation with Signora Calvino about Ada and Transparent Things; the library's fire alarm system, set off by Seamus' pipe and the hasty evacuation of the building, with all that fine wine and hors d'eouevres left behind to the mercy of Harvard security guards and firemen; and the dinner later at Monroe and Brenda Engels', during which more wine and conversation. Italo and Chichita returned to the Poetry Room the following morning for an exchange of presents and addresses, and to listen to the recorded voice of Vladimir Nabokov, their favorite author.

I ran into the Calvinos once again the following spring. Early morning in Harvard Square, the stores still closed -- or was it Sunday? So mild, clear, and so unusually quiet was that morning that the slightest noise resounded as though the air and the light were contained in Murano glass. I do not recall how I happened to be there, one goes out to be out of oneself, but I will never forget the unanticipated pleasure of that encounter, brief as it was. The Calvinos had arrived the day before, apparently to work out the details of the Charles Eliot Norton lectureship at Harvard for this year, and to check out the riverside residence made available to them by the University. But Italo had forgotten to pack his shaving brush, and right now he and Chichita were out looking for one so he could shave.

A shaving brush? when was the last time I had to use a shaving brush? Out of the distant past and into a notebook I'd recalled, only a few days before, an old world barber shop replete with crystal, cobalt blue, and chrome-plated bottles, scissors, hand-operated clipping machines, turtle-shell combs, shaving and hair-dusting brushes, talc-shakers, perfumed soap, aetherial oils, rose water, brilliantine, and more often than not a disagreeably scented eau de cologne, more often than not the barber's own after-shave lotion, and mirrors, mirrors multiplying everything all the way to the vanishing point of their perspective, crowded shelves and self-examining portraits, the quiet or small talk a mere vocal accompaniment to the sight and smell burdening the senses.

There were two drug stores on Brattle street, Billings & Stover and The Colonial. Maybe one of them carried shaving brushes. Failing that, perhaps the Greco-Italian barber shop between The Colonial and Reading International. We shook hands, and they headed toward Brattle Street, promising to return in the fall with a complete shaving kit. Likewise, I would be sure to render the smoke detectors in the Poetry Room useless, should another party be in order. I headed toward Lamont, thinking about the contents of Calvino's shaving kit. If he used a brush, he definitely used a strop razor, the fine long steel blade folding into its handle of mother-of-pearl, a whetstone, a double-sided strop with coarse and smooth hide surfaces, a free-standing portable mirror, soap flakes and bowl, a silver bowl perhaps, for the lather, and a stick of styptic. I could see his mirror image, observing his lathered cheeks and chin with considerable amusement as his right hand guided the razor's edge to the bottom of
his left sideburn. Was there an allegory in shaving? I never learned whether or not he found a brush on Brattle Street, and it wasn't until later, in fact not until the following morning that I considered hair, beards, and fingernails as motifs, and their clipping or shaving as a metaphor for the creative process. A pagan custom still practiced today in the Greek Orthodox Church is that a child's hair or nails may not be clipped before name-giving, the very first clipping performed as part of the baptismal ritual by the priest. In other traditions the significance of what grows on one, or out of one's face and scalp, and fingertips, relates to one's intelligence (a man who is asked why his hair has turned gray before his beard, answers that it is twenty years older). Now there was that mirror-image, more sleepy than hypnotic, and the hand holding the razor reaching from outside the mirror once every morning to harvest, beards and dreams that grow mostly at night, ideas profound and ironical,
themes and utterances: joy, love, the artist's work, memory and emotion, the paradox of life, the puzzle of death -- you name it. No, Calvino would never have used a can of aerosol-propelled shaving lather and a disposable or electric razor; and he wouldn't have grown a beard either. Think of it and remember him through the reading and re-reading of his tales, stories, and novels.

Love, spirit, friendship, the world of art, memory and emotion, war, political oppression, the paradox of life, the puzzle of death, to name a few, are also the harvest in this issue of Ploughshares. Now as clear and accessibly crafted as each particular sensibility could perceive and devise at the hour of creation (and translation); and now as elliptical, abstract, or round-about as the particular style, state, or circumstances demanded, now and then as outspoken against such states, as such states deserve, despite the awful risk of reprisals. The translators' effort to do justice to the original text is fashioned after the poet's, story-teller's, and philosopher's own effort to transform flawlessly the stammer of pain into orderly speech and music. As a rule there are exceptions; but there are also enough theories of translation around to accommodate almost any approach.

Solicited and unsolicited works came from authors and translators, the latter also making available works by poets who lived many years or centuries ago, such as the entranced Scotellaro, the passionate Pavese, the broken Trakl, the self-destructive Rigaut, and the sainted Cavafy, Racine, Hafiz, and Chuang. How familiar their preoccupations! How simple and difficult their mastery of the arts of language, arts that harness emotion and discipline thought! Exception: Jacques Rigaut's reckless cliche, referring to the Jews of the stock market, in an otherwise lively polemic. At the age of thirty, he put a violent period to his restless boredom and to his life, years before the outbreak of the Nazi horror -- the culmination of centuries of such naive or nasty stereotyping.

But here are the works themselves, waiting to embrace you. For as another French poet suggests in the pages that follow:

The embrace of poetry,

Like love's impossible, perfect fit,

Defends while it lasts

Against all the misery of the world.