Damien Hirst, Skull

One saw the skulls everywhere in those fin de siècle years and, like the memento mori of the Renaissance they were meant to recall, once seen they were hard to shake off. A British artist had encrusted a real skull with diamonds, and this objet d’art became the signature of its age. A Russian bought it, and it disappeared from view, except in photos: it declined from memento mori to meme.

Then repro-models appeared with fake diamonds – who knows? – fake skulls. Limited edition cufflinks turned up on the smart cuffs of businessmen. A skull tie-pin became a fashion statement. And then in the stone shops, diamond skulls were lined up among the pyrites, the new-age polished stones. It went viral. There was a site where you could upload a 3-D image of your own skull, choose your diamonds, and encrust yourself. These 3-D self-portraits became screen-savers, dongles, key-rings. An app became a surprise best-seller on the Cloud. Millions were downloaded.

A new game called Charnel House outsold Scrabble. As a competitive ploy, Scrabble launched letter pieces made from real human bone. They didn’t take off. Briefly, a social network site had a cult following among the tweenies. Called Skullbook, its existence was apocryphal. There was an undernet, an underworld trade in stockpiles of human skulls and bones. Provenance was an issue. The original artist died and plans were made to boil his head, strip his skull, empty his cranium for science. Glitterati dames paid millions to encrust this original creator with their own donated diamonds. A Russian bought it. It disappeared from view.


Rainer Maria Rilke 1875-1926

Last resting place, Rainer Maria Rilke, Raron, Canton Valais, Switzerland

I came across Rainer Maria Rilke’s grave by accident, driving through the Valais late on a hot September Sunday. The grape harvest was in but the Indian summer seemed to be going on and on. To get to the village of Raron on the northern slope of the valley you come off the road at Turtig and cross the river Rotten, which becomes the Rhone at Sierre.

The village, which takes the moniker Rilkedorf, is charmingly tucked under the church perched above it on an outcrop of rock. There is a small museum. Big fleecy sheep struggled in the heat and flocked under the shadows of the trees. The lambs were turning into hoggets. The slopes were alive with running water. There was a crisp smell of oxidised vine leaves on the mountain air. The poet composed the Duino Elegies and many of the Sonnets to Orpheus in the Chateau de Muzot, near Veyras in the Valais in 1921-22. His grave is up against the south-facing chapel wall, and looks across to the Weisshorn and the passes south to Italy. It bears an ivy-fringed inscription which reads:

Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
Niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel

Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
of being no one’s sleep under so
many lids.

...sleep under so many lids...


Poetry on the Lake

Isola di San Giulio, Lago d'Orta

Lago d’Orta is one of the smaller of the Italian lakes, scooped out by a retreating glacier beside the better known Lago Maggiore. The town of Orta San Giulio, perched at the end of its peninsula on the eastern shore, faces a tiny picturesque island. For the eleventh year, lake, town and island have hosted a festival of English poetry. The patron is the current Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, Poetessa della Corte Inglese, as the programme rather grandly puts it. Present too is Gillian Clarke, Poeta Nazionale Gallese – national poet of Wales. The organiser is Gabriel Griffin, who resides on the island, and who has assembled a motor-launch full of poets from all corners of the world. There ought to be a collective noun for poets: a posse, a pod, a pride of poets? The weekend includes readings, an impromptu jaunt around the Sacro Monte, a Franciscan complex of chapels overlooking the town, and the kind of elevated feasting that occurs whenever hungry poets get together. There could not be a more beautiful place in which to to assemble the muses.

Poetry in lights

On opening night, at the excellent Ristorante Imbarcadero, after the raspberry-drenched panna cotta, a notice from the local police catches my eye. It informs us of the slim possibility a satellite fragment might land in il nostro paese. We are advised to stay indoors between 21.25 and 22.03 and not to approach any strange flying objects – di non raccogogliere o manipolare eventuali frammenti rinvenuti… But the stars are out, the low-slung motorboats make their way to the island, and nothing falls from the heavens except the poetry of the occasion.

Hortus Conclusus: enclosed garden, from the Song of Solomon 4:12: "Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus..." (A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up.)