From the Life of Iris Origo – poetry by Anne Whitehouse

FROM THE LIFE OF IRIS ORIGO

(a cento, mostly)

“The days go by waiting for better times.”

	I

Day after day we sat in the library 
of our isolated country house, 
listening to the voices on the radio
with an increasing sense of doom —
Hitler and Dolfuss, Eden and Chamberlain,
schoolchildren and soldiers singing Fascist anthems.

On June 10, 1940, we were ordered
to listen to Il Duce’s speech.
We set up our radio in our courtyard
where a hundred people gathered,
who lived in the local villages
or were tenants on our estate.

In the long delay before the broadcast,
Antonio and the keeper 
discussed the young partridges
and twin calves born that morning.
The keeper said one wouldn’t live. 

Mussolini’s speech was pompous,
bombastic, and full of lies, 
the gist being that Italy was at war 
with England and France. Afterwards, 
people shuffled away in silence.

We stood looking at each other—
Italian husband and English wife. 
“Ci siamo,” said Antonio.
“I’m going to inspect the wheat.”
Gloomily, we fetched our hats and coats.


II

At seven she lost 
her beloved American father
who died of TB at thirty. 
At seven, her only son 
succumbed to meningitis.

These losses defined her life
with the negative space
of their cancelled lives
and her unfulfilled longings.


	III

As a fatherless child, she was feuded over
by her American and English grandparents,
but they were defeated by her father’s dying wish
that she be raised without a national identity.

At nine, her artistic mother moved them to Fiesole,
where she spent a lonely, fairy tale youth
in the magnificent villa designed by Michelozzo
for Cosimo di Medici, with its terraces and gardens

restored by her mother with her father’s wealth.
Raised in a hothouse atmosphere of intellectual 
expatriates, tending to her invalid mother
or accompanying her on journeys in quest of culture,

she found solace in books and could read
three languages by the age of six. “Although 
any language will do for telling a story, some things 
are better said in one language than in another.”

Her happiest hours were spent as the private pupil
of Solone Monti, who decided to try out on her
the Humanist education Vittorino da Feltre
gave Cecilia Gonzaga in the fifteenth century,

in which Greek and Latin were learned together,
as living languages, and poetry was considered
the fittest instrument to train the mind.
Without school syllabi and exams,

her mind was free to roam. Say it in any
language you like, said Monti, but feel the poetry.
The path of learning was enlivened 
and made easier by elements of surprise. 

“For nearly three years, from ages twelve to fifteen,
my imagination was entirely filled by the world
he conjured up for me, and I owe him
not only what he taught me then,

but, in enthusiasm and method of approach,
all that I have learned ever since.” In 1917,
Monti died of the Spanish flu. Her dreams
of Oxford were quashed by her mother,

who insisted she ‘come out’ as a debutante
in three countries. In New York and London,
she was clueless and miserable. “The only dance
I enjoyed was the one my mother gave me

at Villa Medici on a moonlit night in June.
I had a ball gown from a couturier
in shades of blue and silver shoes,
and I almost felt pretty. The terrace,

where supper was laid on little tables, 
was lit with Japanese lanterns. Fireflies 
darted among the darkened wheat 
in the farm below, and the air 

was perfumed with roses and jasmine. 
At midnight, fireworks from the terrace
soared like jeweled fountains
between us and the valley.”

IV

Although it is necessary, sooner or later,
to learn something of the ways of the world, 
I would have been happier at Oxford,
working at subjects I cared about, 

instead of exposed to values I did not share,
but was not yet brave enough to disregard.
I encouraged men whom I did not like
and was distressed when they fell in love.

At eighteen I met my future husband
chaperoning his younger sister at a dance.
Two years later, when we met again,
he was caring for his father dying of cancer.

After long nights at his father’s bedside,
he would walk up the Fiesole hill
to meet me in the early morning.
Eventually we reached an understanding.

In marrying Antonio, I chose life in Italy
over England or America. We bought
a large, neglected estate in southern Tuscany,
seeking a pastoral, productive existence.

Of life’s pleasures, only books and reading, 
at every age, have never failed me,
but in the early years of my marriage, 
I stopped writing, bound up with the farm,

my son, and my husband’s interests. Only
after Gianni’s death did I return to writing. 
Seeking impersonal work to absorb my thoughts 
and distract my grief, I chose biography.

Might I, who always preferred
being an observer to being observed, 
assemble the parts of someone else’s life
and character into a pattern?

The only tribute the biographer can pay
to his subject is to tell the truth. 
But what is the truth about any of us? 
A record of happenings is not a life.

There are facts about ourselves
 we do not tell or do not know.
The biographer must seize the small facet 
of truth that catches the light.

The biographer’s real work 
is to bring the dead to life
in the context of the universal drama.
George Santayana, my father’s teacher,

wrote to me after Gianni died,
“All our affections, when 
not claims to possession,
transport us to another world,

and the loss of contact, here or there,
with those eternal beings,
is like closing a book which we keep
at hand for another occasion.”

Anne Whitehouse’s most recent poetry collection is Outside from the Inside (Dos Madres Press, 2020), and her most recent chapbook is Escaping Lee Miller (Ethel Zine and Micro Press, 2021). She is the author of a novel, Fall Love. She is currently writing about Edgar Allan Poe. You can listen to her lecture, “Longfellow, Poe, and the Little Longfellow War” here.

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