Inspired to re-read Italo Calvino, I am at present in ‘Invisible Cities’ (1972). It’s a fantasy dialogue between two 13th-century contemporaries, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which accounts of exotic cities leave one wondering if they existed, or are all in the mind of Italo Calvino. Remarks by a critic on the jacket are a spoiler: “Calvino is describing only one city in this book. Venice, that decaying heap of incomparable splendour…” It is true Marco Polo was a Venetian, that he travelled to Shangdu, and that on page 86 he says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” But this is too literal an explanation, too final, as if the author’s intentions could be summarised. Each city described by Polo, or in Kublai’s dreams, is one of childlike impressions grounded in adult experience. The cities enjoy an existence that is only spoken about, that may have been like that then, but may not be now. Their precariousness is as valuable a quality as their beauty, or the specific mystery details that Polo finds memorable. Any of them could be a place closer to home for Kublai, because every time Polo describes a city he is saying something about Shangdu, a city that no longer exists except in archaeology and imagination. In our own indwelling, if we turn our mind to it. This is what Samuel Taylor Coleridge did after taking too much opium and reading Samuel Purchas’ 1613 paraphrastic translation of Polo: “In Xandu did Cublai Can build a stately Pallace…”, writing a poem about Xanadu, the archaic anglicised version of Shangdu in Mongolia, pleasure domes, mazy motions, and all. Calvino was fortunate not to be visited by the Person from Porlock, which means we are lucky enough to read dozens of versions of ‘Kubla Khan’ in his novel, each one different. Later in the story, Kublai says to Polo, “confess what you are smuggling: moods, states of grace, elegies!” In other words, he speaks from memory of these many named cities that conjure Venice, a city that has survived, but also Xanadu, one that has not. Because this is the mood of the novel: to relate that which exists, or existed, but may now only exist in words. They are states of grace in which we may imagine our own city past, present, and future. The Melbournes, say, of river mangrove, Victorian sepia, and creambrick expanse. Australian cities in general, hardly imaginable in this medieval tale. Polo’s accounts are elegies of Venice, yet of what Venice may become, Xanadu. Life lived in a metropolis sinking into a lagoon is precarious. And what Xanadu was and became, words of fortunate travellers to foreign parts, translated words transformed by an opiumhead. Polo’s writing continues to raise debate while Kublai wrote very much poetry almost all of which, like his summer capital of Shangdu (or Xanadu), is now lost.
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