I don’t think I am the only person to have thought once or twice that it would be nice to have a name like the ones you hear in Westerns: Soaring Eagle, say, or Jumping Raccoon. In one film, of which I remember nothing else, one of the characters said that Native American children were given names on the basis of the first noticeable thing spotted after their birth. I don’t know if that is true, but if it is, it means that in Central Rome, where I live, there would be no chance of being called Soaring Eagle, because there are no eagles, not even drooping ones.
But if I were a member of a native tribe here and the criterion used was the one described, the roll-call of our braves would go something like this:
I was listening to an interesting podcast called 99 percent invisible. I got distracted at some point and lost the thread, but a few minutes later my mind was reeled in again when I heard the words “the distance a shout carries in the city“. The voice continued to read what seemed to be a list of unconnected things. And as I started listening again I found that several of the items (the distance of a whisper; how to design a corner; the difference between a ghetto and a neighbourhood; the meaninglessness of borders; the angle of the sun at the equinox; the smell of concrete after rain …) sparked the thought: “I’d really like to know about that”. When the list finished, my mind had been massaged out of a state of numbness into one wanting to go out and look at everything, read new books or listen to interesting people.
In the credits to the podcast I found that the items read out were from a list entitled “Two Hundred and Fifty Things an Architect Should Know” by Michael Sorkin and included in his book “What Goes Up”. In case you find it interesting as well I have reproduced the list below.
Listening to the list being read out was like standing in a strange rain, one drop falling at a time, each one from a totally unpredictable angle and each drop waking my mind a little more. If you want to reproduce my experience, I have recorded the whole list here. Sit down, try to remember the smell of rain on concrete and start:
TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THINGS AN ARCHITECT SHOULD KNOW
1. The feel of cool marble under bare feet.
2. How to live in a small room with five strangers for six months.
3. With the same strangers in a lifeboat for one week.
4. The modulus of rupture.
5. The distance a shout carries in the city.
6. The distance of a whisper.
7. Everything possible about Hatshepsut’s temple (try not to see it as ‘modernist’ avant la lettre).
8. The number of people with rent subsidies in New York City.
9. In your town (include the rich).
10. The flowering season for azaleas.
11. The insulating properties of glass.
12. The history of its production and use.
13. And of its meaning.
14. How to lay bricks.
15. What Victor Hugo really meant by ‘this will kill that.’
16. The rate at which the seas are rising.
17. Building information modeling (BIM).
18. How to unclog a rapidograph.
19. The Gini coefficient.
20. A comfortable tread-to-riser ratio for a six-year-old. Read more…
My city with its uphill loves,
my Genoa all full of sea and steps and, rising from the harbour, whirlpools of living life all the way up to reach the ridges
of the sheet-metal roofs, now with what
forcefulness inside me, here where each word has turned to lead, does it quiver once again with iodine and salt upon my fingertips which ache on my type-writer’s keys? Oh, the coal at sky-blue Di Negro! Oh the foghorns, at night just when one’s eyes have closed, and in one’s heart the pain of the future is opened by a roller shutter crashingly shaken by a closing door.
Listen to the poem here:
La mia città dagli amori in salita,
Genova mia di mare tutta scale
e, su dal porto, risucchi di vita
viva fino a raggiungere il crinale
di lamiera dei tetti, ora con quale
spinta nel petto, qui dove è finita
in piombo ogni parola, iodio e sale
rivibra sulla punta delle dita
che sui tasti mi dolgono? …Oh il carbone
a Di Negro celeste! oh la sirena
marittima, la notte quando appena
l’occhio s’è chiuso, e nel cuore la pena
del futuro s’è aperta col bandone
scosso di soprassalto da un portone.
Commentary: Giorgio Caproni grew up in Genoa. He spent the second part of his life in Rome and many of his poems are about his love for Genoa.
The title is “Sirena”. Caproni uses the word in line 10 to mean the foghorns he heard in the harbour. But “sirena” also means one of the sirens of antiquity who called out to sailors. I believe the title refers to the ceaseless call of Genoa which he always felt. I have therefore decided to use “Siren song”.
Caproni begins: “my city with its uphill loves”. He explained that when he was young the only place you could be alone with a girl was one of the narrow alleys which climb steeply from the seafront. Thus loves were always uphill (for the girls, presumably, they were downhill).
The second line is “Genova mia di mare tutta scale”. You could read this simply as “My Genoa, on the sea, all steps”. But Caproni uses no punctuation and you could read “di mare tutta” as meaning “all sea”. So all sea and also all steps if one reads the words as compressed together. This, actually, is a feeling one has in Genoa, where the steep climbs mean that you even at a distance you feel and see the sea as right behind you.
Di Negro is a wharf in the harbour where coal was unloaded.
I interpret the last lines as the poet thinking of the cradle-like sound of foghorns (at least in my experience, having lived near a harbour myself) and being brought back to reality by the noise of a metal shutter. The Italian “scosso di soprassalto” (suddenly shaken) mimics the sound, and I felt that “crashingly shaken” could reproduce this effect at little cost since “suddenly” is understood anyway.
Darkness has its swings of mood.
It also has long arms and countless
fingers. Those nights your worries
start to make the floorboards creak;
first one, then several, then all
(and if you have no floorboards
they bring their own) then
darkness slowly tries to strangle
you all the long, steep and
staggering and ever-louder
climb till light.
But on those nights when darkness
shimmers like a honey-watered
river, after the crossing of a desert
day, it fits itself around you
snugly, better than a glove,
it gently sifts a cradle
from your breathing,
out and in and out,
sets you inside
to float downstream,
then paints a parting lullaby upon your brow.
Every time I board an Alitalia plane to fly to Rome, where I live, I wonder who thought it would be a good idea to name the in-flight magazine after Ulysses, a person who took all of ten years to make it home.
At the conferences I work at as a simultaneous interpreter, the audience can listen to a translation in one of the available languages through headphones connected to a receiver. The receiver has a volume control and a channel selection system. Sometimes, people who are not used to these things find them hard to use. They may not know how to turn them on, for example. Or they may not know that there is a dial to choose the language you want to hear.
At one conference, the chairperson was a French lady speaking English with a very strong accent. She started the meeting very quickly and was already down to item 2 on the agenda when someone in the front row shouted that they couldn’t hear the translation.
She peered over her stylish glasses and said, ” I sink you ‘ave ze rong number Chanel. The last word was pronounced as if she were talking about the famous perfume.
This in itself was delightful enough. If I had written the script, even better would have been for the member of the audience to indignantly protest, “But I have number 5!”.
One of the best things of the French Revolution, in my opinion, are the beautiful new names which were assigned to the months of the year. I especially like misty Brumaire, frosty Frimaire and fruity Fructidor. Rainy Pluviôse is quite nice too.
Compare our tired names, particularly September, October, November and December. These just mean seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth month, respectively, although they are now the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth, because Julius Caesar and Augustus elbowed their way into the calendar by force, dedicating July and August to themselves. Augustus even pinched a day from February to ensure that his month was just as long as his uncle’s.
Julius Caesar was definitely genocidal, Augustus in comparison merely enthusiastically homicidal. So why have we kept the names of these monsters in our year? I think the time has come to deal with this. There are a few ways of doing this:
Go back to the lovely French Revolutionary names. This would involve a couple of problems, though. Namely that you would need to reverse the order of the names in Antipodean countries so as to keep track with the actual seasons. Frimaire would not be very good to use in an Australian summer. Also, in order to keep some coherence, tropical countries would have to have one year-long month called “Solaire”, with 365 days. At most they could have a month of Pluviôse for the monsoon season.
To maintain consistency, keep July and August and name all the other months after equally nasty dictators and tyrants. We could have a global poll to decide which figures of history we dislike most. Done on live TV, it would be quite exciting and would earn a lot in sponsorship.
Ditch Julius and Augustus and replace them with something nicer. My suggestion: instead of July and August have Laurel and Hardy.
The chapter is mostly about an artificial language called Dervish and the attempts of a woman called Confucia Wang to bring it under control. Dervish is invented in order to overcome the unavoidable misunderstandings and ambiguities in drafting treaties and conventions using natural languages and thus improve the quality of the output of international organisations.
It starts out as a very promising instrument but its effectiveness begins to be dulled when the introduction of new mood-tense forms make it over-complicated and the language later attains dizzy heights of baffling complexity when mood-mood combinations are invented, so as to create forms of speech such as the Valedictory Terminal, the Nugatory Inconsequential, the Absolute Abject, the Pandering Proximate, the Counterfactual Extortionary, the Vacillatory Optative, the Expletive Introspective, the Minatory Merciless, the Presumptive Hereditary, the Spectral Apparitional, the Bovine Ruminative, the Alcoholic Indeterminate and the Hemorrhoidal Inflammatory.