We keep coming back to contrast. It’s such a wonderful tool, the sharpest and most precise, perhaps, in the writer’s toolbox. Finding examples isn’t difficult and reading them is not only easy but downright pleasant on the eyes.
Consider the minor misery of being a tourist, for instance. Obligated to go here and there, to see this and that, the weight of history or great art or imposing architecture on our shoulders.
It’s enough to make you feel like Atlas saddled with the world against his will. Or to cheer for the little guy who rebels in the great tradition of Mark Twain.
Exhibit A is today’s poem from my good friend (OK, we exchanged all of two e-mails, so good enough) George Bilgere.
Really Eternal City
by George Bilgere
After we’d walked for at least an hour,
heading toward the Vatican
on a broiling August day,
I began thinking about how long
the tour we’d signed up for was going to be,
and how many sacred things would be on view,
and how much complicated information
the guide would tell us about the ancient paintings
and Roman numerals and relics
and tombs and holy knuckle bones.
I knew it would all kind of just melt together
and congeal into one big lumpen mass
of guilt and suffering and miracles
and gloomy old men in sandals.
And as I was thinking this
we were passing through a shady little square
where a couple of bare-breasted marble nymphs
were playing in the fountain,
and there were no tour guides anywhere,
there was no suffering or crucifixions,
nor was there even one important name or date
I would have to try to remember.
And the cheap red wine at the sidewalk ristorante
where we ended up spending the afternoon
instead of going to the Vatican
was wonderful, even miraculous,
as was the spaghetti bolognese.
In the penultimate stanza, the tone begins to shift. It’s like the winter freeze’s first crack under the glory of an unseasonably warm March day. Mercy, then, for “bare-breasted marble nymphs…playing in the fountain.” And mercy for “no suffering or crucifixions” or important names or dates to remember, too.
Instead we see “cheap red wine at the sidewalk ristorante / where we ended up spending the afternoon / instead of going to the Vatican.”
It can’t help but be “wonderful, even miraculous, / as was the spaghetti bolognese.”
It’s a neat reminder that history and art and architecture are undoubtedly wonderful things, but nothing beats the prime pleasures of life: food and wine shared with the one you love.
Of course we knew that already, and of course it’s a most ordinary thought. But put in contrast to the rigors of touring the Vatican, it becomes new again.
Pass the contrast and the parmesan, in other words. Oh. And the bottle, too.