Book Review

This book has come at the right time; Venice is sinking and rapidly being taken over by right-wing political groups. Having a voice rise out of the sea of anonymity and remind us of the kind of worldly place that Venice holds in our hearts and in the underbelly of history—both economically and spiritually—seems appropriately timed. It has always been considered a communal city, a secret city, a city invented in an attempt to flee from barbarian oppressors and begin life anew a few miles from the mainland. Its eccentricity, its architecture, and the way in which a person experiences sensory delights throughout the city are pivotal parts of this book.

In these poems, delicately and profusely braided together in a loose narrative of nine sections, Daneen Wardrop envisions medieval life in Venice and the Silk Road through the eyes of Marco Polo’s wife, Donata Badoer. Hardly a thing is known about her, which means that Wardrop is able to make her visions distinctly flavorful, interior, and in some ways modern.

Since Venice is sinking one centimeter per year, these poems have an uncanny urgency about them. They are a reminder that as the digital becomes more prominent, the authentic romance and chivalry of a place like Venice cannot be replicated and, therefore, should be preserved. Wardrop succeeds in conserving not only the detail of the place through her descriptions, but also a certain romantic, hidden consciousness that perhaps whispers through the streets today. It is a voice that Wardrop has caught with precision and mastery.

Venice in these poems is a “port with a thin whistle” that has a distinctly Eastern smell and haze masked over it. Throughout our roaming of Venice, and indeed Badoer’s mind, we are hit with “paste and paper” as well as a multitude of imported spices and scents from China. What we see is a ghostly vision mixed with a dialect lost to history now recovered: “the Ponte de le Somewhere trains the west under it— / the Ponte de le Tell Me Something True doesn’t.” The voice is fragmented, broken up, designed for us to get lost in just like Venice itself. As we weave through the concentric, broken trails and canals of the city built on upside-down alder trees, we get a variety of emotions and inflections. Whenever the voice becomes serious, stern, or even cutting, it just as quickly becomes witty, nonchalant, and vivacious. This oscillation between tendencies of emotive drives makes these poems exciting, but also propels the loose interior narrative from section to section. Take her decision to change outfits for example, and note the oscillation—not only between humor and romance, but also between the colors of thirteenth century Venice, wrought with the palette of something deeper coming in from the East:

Mine, a change—I’ll wear a moretta of black velvet
            sleeked with red plumes
                                          to hide in me all that loves blue.

Who knows but tonight the Pope himself
                              Might nod from behind a flamingo’s swayings.

                                          Forgive the naughty.
I hold my face on by biting a button.

And later, the oscillation becomes a struggle between language and nature:

Stop talking to me in Rustichello’s grammar.

I wonder why I try to speak above

                              water stirring limbs and debris when water

            can take us down to its town at the bottom—

A length of flexing bridges
                                          crawls with merchants walking over
                              the tops of gondoliers’ heads—

            underneath, waves knead patiently.

The unknowability of the speaker becomes a vehicle for the universal. Her distance, harbingered with the detail she grasps at every turn, gives voice to the anonymity, not only of the past, but somehow (and miraculously) our own anonymity in the here and now. In a poem that imagines Venetian spices as spiritually and physically more purposeful than gold and silver, the city of canals is imagined “going about its morning / thinking about itself going about its morning.” All things—clouds, gondoliers, lives—are sailing and transient. But the anonymity of the speaker becomes most universal when it penetrates the surface—and in some way breaks the cycle—with an “I” that speaks to the human struggle inherent in every age, precisely because of its detachment to orthodoxy and communal ritual:

I, Donata Badoer,
no curls glossed
as a blessed

madonna, no jade skin
as an Eastern empress,

sit to watch coins’
haloes and crossed
spark finger to finger,
give one to another’s
rounding hands.

Carpets sail
on wrought balconies,
women look out
from behind them,
foreheads painted
by clouds.

The suggestion is that history’s momentum is on its own course. Venice is its own monster—human beings a mere attribute to its ecology and economy. The underlying message of these poems then is that our anonymity is sacred, precisely because it is part of a larger human and spiritual world. The spiritus mundi in the great cities and trade routes is far beyond our comprehension. It must be listened to, Wardrop tells us, through the small voices that weave through the marginal canals of life and history.

Reading these poems serves as not only a wonderful sensory experience, but also a great reminder that the roots of history, upon which we stand, should be looked into with precision and closeness. Whether those voices are anonymous does not necessarily mean that we can’t reap value from their experience and their view, even if that experience is imagined through the eyes, ears, nose, and touch of a contemporary writer. The voice of Donata Badoer throughout these poems is so particular and detailed that, at times, it is not only history and the economy that we are not completely in control of, but also the anonymous ghosts of the past, who have decided to resurface at an important time and speak through us in the ever-present now. The poetic risk inherent in adopting another’s voice becomes validated since it claims the common struggles and perceptions fundamental to a multitude of stories. The outsider, through a careful weaving of history and conceit, becomes everyone—transcending time and even social roles through a poetic interior.

About the Reviewer

Chris Viner is a writer and teacher. His first book is Lemniscate (Unsolicited Press, 2017), a collection of poetry that explores the eternal and terror in Paris before and after the attacks of November 2015. He was educated at Goldsmiths, University of London and St. Anne’s College, University of Oxford where he was a recipient of the F H Pasby Prize in 2015. Recently, his poems were nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.