Memory and Our Mothers: Peg Boyers in Venice

Introduction to a Reading by Peg Boyers
Thursday, July 18, 2012
The New York State Writers Workshop
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, New York

I’d like a show of hands: who here has been to Venice? Now, here’s my real question: who’s gone to La Serenissima with their mother?

The English art critic, John Ruskin, visited with his mother, Margaret. Marcel Proust went to trace Ruskin’s steps with his mother. Ezra Pound’s mother first took him there when he was 13. Thomas Mann’s Tadzio, of course, showed up at the Lido with his mother. Here’s something to picture: imagine bar mitzvah-aged Ezra as Tadzio.

More to the point, Peg Boyers has spent countless occasions in Venice, first with her own mother and, still, as a mother to her own sons and now to her grandchildren.

Imagine, if you will, that I’m your mother, reading Ruskin aloud, as Madame Proust did to a not-so-young Marcel, as their train approached Stazione Santa Lucia.

From the beginning of The Stones of Venice:

… such a city had owed her existence rather to the rod of the enchanter, than the fear of the fugitive; that the waters which encircled her had been chosen for the mirror of her state, rather than the shelter of her nakedness …

Enchantment, narcissism, nakedness … let’s go, kids!

Proust himself wrote later in a letter, not to his mother, but to Mme Genevieve Strauss, daughter of composer Jaques Halevy, widow of Georges Bizet and Proust’s model for the Duchesse de Guermantes:

‘When I went to Venice I found that my dream had become – incredibly, but quite simply – my address!’

“My dream had become my address.” I’m happy to steal from Proust what I think is the perfect way to describe what happens in the poems of Peg Boyers’s forthcoming book To Forget Venice.

Peg has been to Venice so many times that it has become her address; it’s ever-present in her memories and dreams. These poems of, in, about and trying to get over Venice are beautiful, blunt, erudite, emotional observant as your nosiest neighbor, sensuous, sensual, sometimes soft-core pornographic, wistful, and often brutally self-critical.

They frequently demand that you turn to other sources in order to unpack their meaning, the histories they draw on: art books, maps, poems, novels, collected letters, memoirs, You Tube recordings of songs and scenes from films, your own memories and sentimental education of Venice if you’ve been lucky enough to have that schooling.

I didn’t bring up Ruskin, Proust and Thomas Mann to brag about my own liberal arts indulgences. They are all there in Peg’s poems—along with Casanova’s wife, Lenin’s mistress Nadya Krupskaya, Titian’s Magadelena, Tadzio’s sexually competitive mother, the celebrated filmmaker and another one of Boyers’ famous friends, Margarethe von Trotta.

I mean to emphasize this latter list of women. Peg’s Venice poems frequently give voice to and occupy the biographies, imagined memories, emotional and intellectual lives of remarkable but too often unremarked upon women whom she conjurers among the canals and churches of Venice, at their writing desks and dinner tables and in their beds—sometimes alone, sometimes with confident, celebrated men who gave these women pleasure or more often il mal de testa.

This occupation of voices, of other works of art, this ekphrastic impulse to paint with words that might fill out the story of a painting or, more importantly, of a hidden past, is a rare, daring achievement. Peg is remarkably good at it. Whether through mimicry, mockery, or ventriloquism, the pitch is always perfect, if only because she doesn’t trust herself: she knows how difficult it is to imagine another. And that is what is thrilling and daring: it is never possible to be prepared enough.

As Peg writes in “Mrs Casanova”:

But she is not yet adept at using the mask. It will take practice and discipline to achieve the necessary mastery.

This is the discursivity of biography—biography of a city, of artistry, of the self—that poetry can sometimes capture better than prose: to be digressive, unpredictable, and justified by emotional truths rather than the logics of narrative.

Peg’s Venice poems are a tour de force in their examination of the uses of memory, of the ways we wonder about others, otherness. What was that time? What will be remembered?

To forget Venice, though? Ain’t happening.

It’s a sly untruth Peg shares with Calvino in “Invisible Cities”:

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it, or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”

Perhaps, of course, it’s some necessary wishful thinking. What do you do with a fantastical, erotic, but drowning city—at a rate five times faster than the Venetians had thought? What do you do with your experiences of privilege and high culture, your study of the lives of great artists in our mash-up culture of sampling and forgetting?

Odd as it may seem, I often think of Rimbaud when I read these poems:

“One evening I took Beauty in my arms—and I thought her bitter—and I insulted her.”

No matter how gorgeous, art-crazed, opulent and impossible to follow, what do you do with a city always associated with your own—shall we say, complicated—mother? Your mother who lost her own memories, her own physical and mental address in her waning years, and who has now lost Venice, lost you, lost life?

The writer, performer, dandy and threadbare flaneur, Quentin Crisp, once described many a child’s history when he wrote; “My mother protected me from the world and my father threatened me with it.” Crude, schematic, true. In a way, the novelist Colm Tóibín makes a similar point when he argues that “mothers get in the way of fiction; they take up the space that is better filled by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality.” Not that he gives fathers much shrift, either. “The novel,” Tóibín says, “is a ripe form for orphans.

Not a novel, not a biography, not a memoir, not a travelogue—it is poetry that make Peg Boyers’s Venice unforgettable.

The prologue of Peg’s book is a poem about Proust and his mother, Peg and hers. There are always others that break in on that fraught duality of mother and child: family, readers, friends—us.

After he’d fought with his mother, Proust went back on a second trip to Venice. In the mornings, he set out by gondola from the Danieli Hotel with the sexy, but closeted Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn to visit all the churches Ruskin described. I’ve also had the privilege of setting out to explore Venice on foggy mornings with a sexy former resident of Venezuela. Not someone closeted, except, perhaps, in the sense that some trust in her own talent might be too deeply locked away.

My guide, that friend, that conjurer of La Serenissima, I’m lucky to say, was the brilliant and beautiful Peg Boyers. Peg showed me—and continues to show me in friendship and poetry—the beauty and mystery of places we live in our imaginations, Venices we’ll never forget because we’ve made them in our minds.

Related: Introduction NYS Writers Institute Saratoga Springs poetry