“Isola Bella,” The New Yorker, Aug. 25 2008
I know very little about C.K. Stead except for that he’s an elderly New Zealander and a prolific writer of poetry and prose with numerous books to his name (a brief, but worthy bio of him can be found at the New Zealand Book Council website). I know just as little about Isola Bella: it’s a very small island in Lago Maggiore of northern Italy (bordering France) and is the precise size of the palazzo the affluent Italian Carlo Borromeo III built there for his wife, Isabella, in 1632. That having been said, Stead’s “Isola Bella” is a quaint semi-lyric, semi-narrative about a moment on the islet in which the speaker gets something other than what he came for.
Ten tercets long, the poem is built of two-beat and three-beat lines of a loosely trochaic meter. “In the stony garden / with the bronze plaque / that misquotes her” the poem begins, dropping us into the palazzo’s magnificent, prodigious (from what I understand) garden. The basic pacing of the lines persists, which keeps the poem lilting along, almost gleefully, as though the speaker is having a heck of a time meeting Isabella—or the island itself (the poem’s “she” never made explicitly clear). This dancing-like rhythm is created, too, with constant enjambments. The beat-structure makes for short lines, which make for fragmented phrases and sentences, and as a result our ears listen more to Stead’s poetic phrase than to his sentence(s), which construct the poem’s length. The sentences, for their part, are rather short. Most are made of short phrases, though they may strung together to build longer clauses. Consider the opening stanza plus a few lines of the second: “In the stony garden / with the bronze plaque / that misquotes her // she called down / from the terrace, ‘Friend or / for?’” The sentence proper (as in subject-verb) doesn’t begin until line four, the first three lines consisting of two, four-word prepositional phrases and one, three-word relative pronoun clause respectively. Pretty clipped diction, here. The sentence core—“she called down”—is only three words long, and it is followed by a three-word prepositional phrase that’s succeeded with a three-word question. And, so far, Stead’s only used three bi-syllabic words. The rest are all monosyllabic.
The effect of all this is the poem’s gleeful cadence. Whether or not we know what the speaker is up to, why he is at the island, what his relationship is to it (to the “she”), we can’t help but feel a little uplifted by the poem’s rhythms. It’s as if the speaker is a tourist getting his first experience with some kind of exotic, singular beauty he’s heard so much about but of which he’s allowed only a distanced view. He’s standing in the same garden as she is, but they don’t occupy anything close to the same space. The poem’s opening is reminiscent of the famous balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet in this way: heightened moment, yes, but things just ain’t gonna pan out the way the speaker would like them to.
The imagery detailing the woman supports this conflict: “Her hair / was a shiny cap, / her face a mask,” her smile is only a “half- / smile,” and she shadows herself beneath a parasol. If her hair is capped, then it’s covered. The lovely, flowing locks we’ve been trained to associate with the typical maiden in her balcony on high just aren’t there. Any emotion she might reveal isn’t, as it’s masked. Even her welcoming smile seems forced, distanced. Her inquiry of “Friend or / foe?” precedes these few details, our first real clue that the poem’s “she” is guarded to visitors.
The speaker is quick to shift his gaze as a result. In response to her question, he answers “Friend of friends.” Rather than introduce himself by name, he backs off. He puts up a wall just as she has. And the names he mentions seem…spurious. Half-truths. The ellipses between them—“Lawrence…/ Carco…Bertie Russell…”—indicate he’s considering what/whom he should say next. This tonal shift creates tension with the poem’s rhythms and seems to lie at the heart of the speaker’s central problem: here’s this beautiful woman/island that isn’t meeting his expectations. How, now, does he conduct himself?
After the exchange, one other name is mentioned but only in the speaker’s internal monologue, the conversation dead. And the name, Jack, is entirely anonymous, representing an unknown identity and furthering the notion that the speaker and his subject share no common ground. Nevertheless, he doesn’t seem too jaded by this glitch in his plan, whatever that may be, and salvages some semblance of beauty from the experience. Stead writes how sunlight “glittered” in the bay water and in the trees, how the palazzo imitates the color of its Alpine backdrop. The final image is of the sea as it “preened itself in / the sky’s blue mirror,” which is a pretty inversion. “Preened” does carry negative, connotative weight, but the final product is nonetheless a pretty one. Perhaps the speaker, despite the initial setbacks, is able to stand back and still get what he came for: a picture.