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Write on... A detour

【明報專訊】It was a mild October afternoon in Venice, we took a vaporetto — a small passenger ferry — across the Bay of Naples to the nearby island of Murano. For more than eight hundred years the island has been famous for its glass factories and its glassmaking artists. Known as Venetian glass, it's treasured throughout the world. Soon after visiting three factories, we found our way back to the dock to await the next vaporetto going to Venice. A slight mist had settled over the water, and the quiet scene reminded me of a painting I'd seen in the Louvre. Numerous stray cats kept us company as we waited, and eventually, looking across the water dotted with its squat green islands, we saw the boat coming.

We paid our fare and stood at the rail watching the trail our boat was making in the smooth surface of the water. Then turning sharply, it made for another island and as we drew near I could see a lone woman dressed entirely in black standing at the pier. A black lace veil covered her face, and when our boat rocked to a gentle stop the woman stepped aboard. At that instant, my eyes were diverted from the woman of mystery to a sign on the dock: Cimitero.

"That might be interesting," I said aloud, and gestured that we wanted to get off. We watched for a moment as the boat drifted slowly into the misty bay and began chugging its way toward Venice.

We were now truly alone, and walking a short distance down the pier we went through a gate to find ourselves in an area of elaborate vaults and tombs, of huge crypts and jumbled rows of crosses. There were bundles of flowers in pots and containers at every turn, some of them real, most of them not, and there were a great number of elaborate war memorials dedicated to the hundreds upon hundreds of regional soldiers, sailors and airmen who had been lost in that nation's various wars.

And then, amid the many tombs I saw a crude handmade sign: To the Grave of Ezra Pound. We turned and followed it, soon entered a small area behind high walls in the section containing the tombs of foreigners.

My interest was in finding the grave of Ezra Pound, a half-forgotten American poet, a man who had championed the works of such writers as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, a man who had been a friend of Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway in Paris, a man who had, during my university days, thoroughly confounded me with his cryptic Cantos. At the same time, he was someone who had inspired me enormously with his transliterations of the poems of Li Po(李白).

We searched for his grave, moving in ever-widening circles, and after several moments Ching Yee called over to me, almost whispering her words: "It's there. You're standing on it."

"Ezra Pound," I thought to myself, "you were an enigma to me then, and you are an enigma to me still."

Thanks to that mystery woman in black, we had been lured to that nearly forgotten place in the waters of Venice to pay respect to a man who had once been regarded as one of the world's truly great poets, and as we turned to leave, something on a grave nearby caught my eye. It was a stone of pristine white marble set flat on the ground, and in the fading light it seemed to shine. On it was a worn white ballet slipper, and next to them were two freshly cut flowers. They were daisies, and there was a note tucked under it. I moved close and bent down to read it:

"Thank you," it read.

I looked at the name on the gleaming marble slab: it was the grave of the composer, Igor Stravinsky.

■(C) John Bell Smithback

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