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Al Purdy

Purdy Among the Etruscans

"In the dark tombs of a lost race
a poet binds mortality, obsession and
the light touch of D.H. Lawrence"

Alfred Purdy is an unusual manifestation of energy. He has kept from childhood his curiosity as to the cause, motives and importance of organic life and its setting wherever he has discovered it - both in the events of his personal life and in the books he has read. Living to him has always been a major enigma to whose solution a chance meeting, a book read or the touch of another mind might, at any time, provide a clue. His empathy, however, although ever present, displays itself in a series of saturations in which Purdy himself tends to be taken over by his latest enthusiasm. Almost always, however, his mind, has added fresh insights to the material that had originally stimulated him. To find a relationship between the succession of stimuli in his poetry would embrace a biography in itself. What do, for example, Bliss Carman, Dylan Thomas and D. H. Lawrence have in common? The answer is the passionate energy of life. Purdy's power to absorb into his own thought and imagination and feeling the essence of what originally attracted him is remarkable.

In "Purdy Among the Etruscans," Purdy, perhaps prompted by his own intimations of mortality, is concerned with the symbols of death and why it is that the social Etruscans, so concerned with the affairs of the moment, expended so much energy on marking death.


The girls picked us up at our hotel around 9 a.m.: Roberta and Daniela, English-speaking grads of Rome University. The Canadian Embassy had sent them around for us, since my wife Eurithe thought driving in Rome too dangerous for timid Canadians. Daniela and Roberta were "perky," meaning being able to talk and not especially shy. They were nice girls.

And driving in Rome is dangerous, even for the Romans (Eurithe was right). There are all sorts of small signs, meaning do this or do that, turn here or don't turn there. Besides, we were both feeling like foreigners, getting used to Italian money, the names of things and how to get around in all the traffic without being knocked down. And now, as Roberta drove us serenely through the suburbs, on our way to the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri, it felt reassuring to have someone else take responsibility for things.

Daniela and Roberta weren't shy. They chattered away to Eurithe, while my own mind centred itself on the Etruscans. Everyone knows about the Etruscans, D.H. Lawrence said in Etruscan Places. I sure as hell didn't, being aware of them in name only, until the DHL book aroused my curiosity.

Most of what we know about the Etruscans' daily lives comes from the tombs of their Twelve Cities, stone tombs that time has buried deep in the earth. Their houses, lifetime places of being born and dying, laughter and sorrow, were nearly all built of wood. And presto, time swept the Etruscans off the earth, slowly and swiftly, and fire burned their houses, rain rotted them; but their stone tombs remained, unknown for centuries under the earth.

Then zing, the car turned a corner fast. Daniela said, "That was a wrong turn," and Roberta said, "No it wasn't," and Eurithe said, "Girls, girls, you're giving your elders a bad example." I kept my mouth shut.

The Etruscans emerged in Italy about 1000 years before Christ. At first they were farmers and hunters, then gathered into villages; over time, they formed cities, secure walled places, often atop mountains more easily defended against attack.

The Etruscans occupied central Italy, and their southern boundary was the Tiber River. To the west was the Tyrrhenian Sea (Lawrence called it "low and lead-coloured and depressing"), to the north the Arno River. Rome, when the Etruscans built their cities, was a small and not very important village. The Romans learned much from their northern neighbours as time passed; and of course both of them were in contact with the sea-venturing Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the myriad peoples of the Mediterranean basin.

Etruscan-Roman relations were curious. The Romans, when they became powerful, and despite having learned so much from their neighbours, despised them nevertheless and thought them effeminate, condemned them as pirates, etc. Being both effeminate and pirates on that lead-coloured sea doesn't seem a very accurate assessment of character to me.

Anyway, the Etruscans spoke a different language, not the Indo-European tongue of the Romans. Their origins are still a mystery. They may have come from somewhere to the east, moving as people always moved at that time on earth, emigrating from place to place until they found the great good land, or thought they had. Another school of thought calls them natives of the Italian peninsula.

Another difference from both the Greeks and Romans: the Etruscans developed better social relations between men and women. Male and female ate together, and together they watched the cooking fires while light flickered on their ghost faces. The Romans didn't entirely approve of that; the Greeks didn't either. But it was rather odd behaviour for pirates, one would think.

Finally, the Romans had their way: they defeated their neighbours in battle and rejoiced in their triumph as people do. The Romans were doing a lot of conquering then, and quite a bit of rejoicing about it too. Over the centuries Etruscan cities, being built of wood, were destroyed and the people killed or dispersed. Their tombs were covered with earth, grass, trees and shrubs.

As we all know, the way of life is death. I think of the Beothuks in Newfoundland, wiped out by white invaders of the island, and the Carib Indians of Cuba, who died from Spanish ministrations and the diseases they brought with them. But I expect it was impossible for the Romans to kill every one of the Etruscans. Some few of them must have escaped the pillaging of their cities and fled to the countryside. The escapees would have mated with nomads and wanderers, their blood joining the blood of other races, flowing in the veins of strangers who knew not Etruria. The Etruscans weren't like the Great Auk and Tasmanian Tiger who, when they vanished from the world, left nothing of themselves behind except their bones. Paradoxically, the Etruscans lived and survived in a sense through their tombs and the artistic contents of the tombs kept in museums.

There is a deep sadness in all this death and destruction of peoples. It seems to me there was a potential greatness in the Etruscans: what might they have accomplished if the Twelve Cities had remained intact? There is a terracotta image of a married couple at the Etruscan museum in Rome: their calm faces seem to exemplify what the relations between men and woman should become. I can feel the oneness and twoness of them in my bones, their thoughts, if terracotta were able to think: "What have we to do with you?"

Cerveteri - once the Etruscan Caere - is undoubtedly much changed since Lawrence's visit in 1927. In late December 1997, there is a large gatehouse. The ticket-taker looked at the four of us incuriously, three or four lounging guides hopefully. They had been chattering together when we came in, probably about women or the price of things, and now were silent.

But Daniela had spoken in Italian, which told them we had our own guides.

The necropolis is still - so quiet that petals fall from flowers in a dream of falling. Oak and pine trees, the plumes of cypresses, are green cloaks in a world much like a silent green painting. I don't know the names of the wild flowers here, but Lawrence knew.

And I think, what is this damned obsession I have with Lawrence? I ask, but I know already. Meat and drink in my mind is what he was, and still is to me. To visit the places he visited 70 years ago, to retrace his steps on these moss-grown conglomerates of ancient stone, with tiny brown lizards flashing at the eyes' corners - this is to eat and drink at DHL's table, shortly before his own life ended. To feel him in your blood, cross his path among the beehive tombs, know him as a near presence.

But is all this silly nonsense? Of course, but so what? To feel yourself in close conjunction with a great writer is to believe in the value of words, words like swords, words that comfort and gently lull to sleep. Above all, words as immortal things, impossible to kill. Words that live. So there is my obsession, and I love it.

Before going to Italy I had wavered in my decision several times, since my age and health were against such a trip; neuropathy had made my legs undependable. Several times I had said, yes I'll go, then changed my mind. But finally, I thought what the hell. Yes, I said, yes yes yes, like Molly Bloom in Joyce's Ulysses (or was it Bloom himself?). So that is the how and why of it, the reason Eurithe and I, along with a couple of Italian girls the Canadian Embassy gifted us with, are crawling, tip-toeing precariously, down mossy steps into sandstone tombs, and the reason I am feeling my age and infirmities, depressed and exultant at the same time.

At Cerveteri there are family tombs with several underground rooms, and one-room tombs, which would make fairly comfortable bachelor apartments if you could devise some method of heating them. They are, of course, very damp at this season. The sarcophagi that once contained Etruscan bones, the urns that held the cremated ashes of slaves and such lesser beings, have vanished into museums. That seems tragic to me. We know the Etruscans lived, we can even decipher their language at this late date; but they are gone from the surface of the earth, and even disappeared from their own graves at the hands of the Romans who hated them so virulently.

As I said, Etruscan blood still runs in Italian veins, Roman veins. In the course of time it's dispersed throughout the world, to Patagonia, Quintana Roo, even to my own Canada. Their demise as a separate people occurred before Christ; although I met a girl in Siena, Tuscany, who said "I am Etruscan." Etruscan blood shimmers in the veins of their conquerors.

Viewing the wall paintings they left behind, Lawrence thought the Etruscans a life-loving people, even gentle in ways the all-conquering Romans were not. Women mingled with men in public places; the sexes ate together, as shown by the tomb paintings. Both were perhaps part of each other, in ways we hope the world may achieve again in some future millennium.

I don't actually know the Etruscans were like that. I suspect Lawrence of having had a brainstorm about them, gifting them with his own heart's and mind's desires. Besides, he was not far from death at that time. But that doesn't matter. He had strong feelings about them, and I'm inclined to feel the same because of him, and because of the Etruscans themselves, and because I am who I am. But enough.

Exploring these damp mouldy last resting places (actually, museums are probably the last resting places), we note how the tombs have been plundered and desecrated, robbed of their gold and silver, their exquisite pottery, both native stuff and foreign ceramics originating in all corners of the Mediterranean basin. It's as if the dead were stripped naked of their loved possessions. Of course, death does that anyway, strips us of everything. But in some strange way, it hurts the living to have the loved things of the dead taken away from them. It hurts the living.

I find the stone, tufa they call it, comforting in this place of death. Oddly enough, Lawrence disliked stone intensely. To me it's something your hand can reach out and touch, a close contact with past ages.

So we move from one tomb to another, each one a little bit different, larger or smaller, stone biers where the dead were laid out running alongside the walls, names and inscriptions, sometimes paintings for the edification of the artistic dead. Skidding down mossy precarious staircases, my legs wearing out after three hours of pretending to be a mountain goat. Returning to the car, driving to a restaurant in Rome's suburbs, and the sound of the city again penetrating my consciousness, like a series of physical blows striking at body and mind.

We stay at a Roman hotel for a few days, then take a train up the east coast of Tuscany to Tarquinia. We book a stone-cold room at the San Marco Hotel, with doorways only about five feet ten inches in height. I'm over six feet tall and keep hitting my head until the pain makes me remember to duck. But the hotel's advantage is its location directly across the street from the Tarquinian Museum. The coloured wall paintings Lawrence saw in Tarquinia long ago are now removed to Rome, because of dampness and deterioration.

Then from Tarquinia to Siena, via Grosseto, by train. We have to pay the equivalent of another 10 bucks to the conductor, since we weren't aware you're supposed to punch your tickets at a little machine to prevent them being used again. Pleading that we're stupid Canadians doesn't get us off the hook.

We stay more than two weeks in Siena, securing a small apartment in the ancient, walled inner city, courtesy of Laura Forconi of the Siena-Toronto Centre. Siena was probably founded by the Etruscans, a few centuries before Christ. Our address is on Via Camottia ("Kam-o-lee-ah" - pronounced as if you were trying to sing opera).

The inner city of Siena contains many churches and public buildings more than 1000 years old, giving me the feeling of blocks of solid time. We live our daily lives through the passage of light and darkness, a small sliver of time chipped from eternity. Time passing in such small amounts is scarcely noticed in the aggregate of day-to-day living. But these old buildings are like barriers in the mind (I think of the Great Wall of China, the pyramids of Egypt). They send you backwards instead of forwards in time.

Il Campo, a huge cobblestoned amphitheatre the size of a football field, dominates the inner city. The Palazzo Publica, 'seat of the ancient Republic of Siena,' now the city's townhall, is located there. Eurithe and I wander over the cobblestones, among housewives with baby carriages, noon people with time on their hands.

Here most of all my mind cannot avoid time. And that omnipresent, omnipotent Something that we cannot see is all around us in Siena. The silent old buildings speak of it, even the street people seem aware of a door opening here and returning them to the Land of Somewhere.

After a few days I read poems in nearby Arezzo at a branch of the University of Siena. The audience consists, of course, of profs and students, come to hear the stranger from far-away Canada. It feels very odd to me. I read a poem, then a faculty member explains the poem in Italian, while I stand by with a vacant look. At the reading's end, I'm given the university's medal, a bronze medallion whose meaning still eludes me. Then we all go to dinner at a fine Arezzo restaurant.

From Siena we take a bus to Yolterra, another Etruscan site. Part of a hill near the city, the part containing Etruscan cemeteries, has been carried away by enormous landslides. We ask somebody about the museum, and they direct us down a long, steep and seemingly endless hill. At its foot, the landscape stretches so far it seems to make the rest of the world into a wide valley.

We gasp a little at the sight, then gasp some more climbing back up the hill over wet cobblestones, holding onto each other for moral and physical support. I try to remember the traveller's curse for misdirection. And wonder: is it possible I'm damn near tired to death? Probably not, since I revived after sitting down to rest for a few minutes.

Back in Rome after enchanting Siena (and no Laura in Rome), we have time only for a visit to the Etruscan museum before flying home. This museum is said to be the largest of its kind and no doubt the best in Italy. The paintings, pottery and metalwork in the museum's collection convey a sense of such human ancestors, such a vivid people. Men and women with obvious affection for each other, whether watching public events, or just eating: that togetherness the Romans and Greeks thought scandalous.

Etruscan artwork, statuary, ceramics and bronzework have nothing to do with great events, marching armies, monuments to victories in which thousands died. M. Pallottino, an authority on the Etruscans, says the concept of "art for art's sake" so evident in Greek classical culture is entirely missing among Etruscan artists. And he concludes that such a concept is necessary for "greatness," thus condemning all pre-classical civilization to mediocrity.

We stand among dozens and dozens of sarcophagi, all with a stone sculpture of a dead man or woman atop them, all seen from the viewer's right, all resting on their left elbow in a half-reclining position. This leaves the right hand free for the banquet they are presumably attending after death. The faces of the dead are overwhelming. One can't help but feel that all the blank stone eyes are fixed unswervingly on one's own disbelieving irreligious self.

In at least a few instances here, I expect the man or woman watching me died before he or she could commission an artisan to undertake his or her sculptured image. Then, of course, a surviving relative would ensure the memorial was created. They seem to me a handsome people, most of them. I wonder, could flattery have been involved? Was the sculptor expected to improve on nature, just a little: make the men better-looking, the women more beautiful?

Then I look at the "Capitoline Brutus" (obviously named by the Romans), an elderly man in bronze whose face spells integrity, the look of a judge without harshness .... I cannot believe flattery was involved with this bronze honesty. He reminds me, of all people, of judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first commissioner of baseball. I would like to have known that face.

Rarely is there more than one sculpted stone memorial atop the Etruscan sarcophagi. But in one instance, an aged married couple are portrayed on a small terra-cotta urn, not grandiose like the huge sarcophagi with their riders to eternity. I believe the couple must have desired this double memorial. They are both reclining, the man staring outward, in deep thought; the woman is lying close to him, the man's arm around her. She looks directly into his face, chin resting on her right hand.

It's hard to agree with M. Pallottino that most of these sculptures escape greatness. That notion doesn't occur to me when observing the terra-cotta fragment of a young Apollo, or watching the calm faces of another Etruscan married couple from Cerveteri, circa 520 BC. The man is pointing something out for the woman to see. They are old, but have a freshness about them, the man with a pointed beard and long hair, the woman with braids and a conical round hat. It is more than 2000 years since these people were alive. I think they are very beautiful.
-Al Purdy, June 1998