Traveling at a young age always seems to be a good idea. I went to Europe for the first time at 15, with a good friend's family. We drove through eight countries in about as many days, and it was my first taste of a Parisian croissant, German Black Forest cake, springtime snow (also in Germany), and appropriately, the travel bug that followed me into adulthood.
During college, I studied abroad in London for six months, traveling around Europe more while I was there, and through work have gone to places like Romania and Nepal. Travel sings to our soul. It opens our eyes, challenges us, inspires us, and offers a more expansive view of the world and its people.
But what of the perspective of traveling later in life when you've had the chance to gain some real perspective? Perhaps you've suffered a loss or two, and instead of sightseeing, spend entire afternoons on terraces, less interested in making new memories in favor of wrestling with all the memories you brought with you.
When I heard the New Yorker podcast on this poem, it moved me, and I think you'll find that the uncertainty and unanswered questions somehow provide comfort despite the circumstances. Also, there will be cake.
Roads shouldered by enclosing walls with narrow
cobbled tracks for streets, those hill towns with their
stamp-sized squares and a sea pinned by the arrow
of a quivering horizon, with names that never wither
for centuries and shadows that are the dial of time. Light
older than wine and a cloud like a tablecloth
spread for lunch under the leaves. I have come this late
to Italy, but better now, perhaps, than in youth
that is never satisfied, whose joys are treacherous,
while my hair rhymes with those far crests, and the bells
of the hilltop towers number my errors,
because we are never where we are, but somewhere else,
even in Italy. This is the bearable truth
of old age; but count your benedictions—those fields
of sunflowers, the torn light on the hills, the haze
of the unheard Adriatic—while the day still hopes
for possibility, cloud shadows racing the slopes.
The blue windows, the lemon-colored counterpane,
the knowing that the sea is behind the avenue
with balconies and bicycles, that the gelid traffic
mixes its fumes with coffee—transient interiors,
transient bedsheets, and the transient view
of sea-salted hotels with spiky palms,
in spite of which summer is serious,
since there is inevitably a farewell to arms,
to the storm-haired beauty who will disappear.
The shifted absence of your axis, love
wobbles on your body’s pivot, to the carriage’s
shudder as it glides past the roofs and beaches
of the Ligurian coast. Things lose their balance
and totter from the small blows of memory.
You wait for revelations, for leaping dolphins,
for nightingales to loosen their knotted throats,
for the bell in the tower to absolve your sins
like the furled sails of the homecoming boats.
In the first stanza, there is sunlight and hope and picnics and love, and then I find a knot in my stomach. It's easy to find yourself wrapped up in the language hat you forget there is a clear tightness, almost claustrophobia announced in the very first line with "enclosing walls" and "narrow cobbled tracks." From the first line, the walls are closing in.
We know the speaker is no longer in his youth, and has come to Italy hoping to find some kind of wisdom or clarity. Here, we find a portrait of an Italian village, but this is not just a travel poem.
In his conversation with Paul Muldoon, Major Jackson says that he admires the emotional pitch and the “the spirit of attention” in the poem, which contains lush imagery but doesn’t feel like “the equivalent of a landscape painting.”
I like this description, because here the landscape serves as a frame to pull us deeper into the interior of human experience. The speaker finds himself in a place unchanged for centuries, and church bells become a metaphor for the errors that have spanned his lifetime. Yet there is the hope of possibility and change in "torn light" on the hills, sunflowers, and the rush of sitting with unanswered questions.
In this kind of situation, there should be cake. I'm not one to spend my weekends baking elaborate layer cakes and whipping up frostings. Perhaps for a birthday or anniversary, it's important to me, yes. But I like simple cakes, too. Every day cakes. Cakes that don't have many ingredients and aren't too sweet, and simply need a dusting of powdered sugar to become dressed up.
As far as recipes go, this pairing is a looser interpretation. The poem's lone reference to coffee fumes spurred my idea for a simple cake one might nibble on in the afternoon along with an espresso or cup of tea, hopefully overlooking the Tuscan hillsides. This particular cake would also make a nice picnic accompaniment, and seeing as we're entering the season for outdoor dining, it's a good time to think about it.
I came to this recipe by way of Nigella Lawson, actually. My eye was on a luscious lemon cake that I ultimately deemed too fussy due to the fact that I didn't have enough almonds on hand to grind them into meal. On the heels of my disappointment, Food52 announced a simple almond cake was the one you'll make over and over again, and as it turns out, they were right.
ALMOND COFFEE CAKE
Recipe ever so slightly adapted from Food52
Almond cake is something I've long held affection for, because it composed one of three flavors of my wedding cake. Although this version has no frosting or cream filling to speak of, it's bright with almond flavor thanks to extract, tender, and reminded me of the little crumbly cookies I used to eat from the local Italian deli that were speckled with sprinkles the color of the Italian flag. In short, this is a cake to sit with while reminiscing, which is why I felt it paired so perfectly with this poem.
1/2 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup creme fraiche
1 1/2 cups organic cane sugar, plus 2 teaspoons for sprinkling
1 1/2 cups sifted spelt flour (or AP flour)
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/3 cup chopped almonds
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 10-inch cast-iron skillet
Combine the butter, creme fraiche, and 1 1/2 cups sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed until well combined.
Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing until well incorporated.
Add the flour, salt, and extract. Mix well, then pour into the cast iron pan.
Sprinkle the cake with the remaining sugar and scatter with the almonds.
Bake for 30-40 minutes, or until golden brown. Let cool for 1 hour before serving.