Our second morning, I rouse myself at five, leaving my sister asleep. “I saw them in many different hours & lights,” Margarett had written of the temples. Driving in the darkness, I am startled when the Temple of Heracles, a sequence of columns at the summit of the hill, blazes into view, still illuminated, orange against the black sky, the moon silvery and small. Leaving the car, I breathe in the cool air, standing there as dawn opens the sky to blue, the hills turn bright green and, their artificial light suddenly turned off, the columns fade to golden pink. If I can just hold this vision—“ever changing temporal geometry,” I write in my notebook, “against an eternity of sky.”
Taormina, said to be the most romantic place in Sicily, was on Margarett’s list, and I have chosen it for our last two days. A legendary seaside resort, it offers a heart-stopping craggy shoreline—one offshore island is called, simply, Isola Bella, “beautiful island.” In the distance is Mount Etna, the still fuming volcano that had its most serious eruption in 1669 and was known to the ancients as the forge of Vulcan, the god of fire.
After settling in at the San Domenico, a hotel built as a monastery in the fifteenth century with a view of the water, we visit the Greek theater, built into the side of a hill, the sea flashing azure in the distance, the columns of the stage framing what would have been a magnificent view of Etna, had it not been fogged in. It wasn’t until dark, when I slipped out onto my balcony to take in a breath of the fragrant air, that I saw evidence of the volcano, the distant orange of molten lava through the dark. “A jagged scribble of fire,” I wrote in my notebook, feeling suddenly the surge that comes when my imagination hooks up to a possible image.
I wondered what Margarett would have been thinking seeing these same sights. She never resumed painting and never had another exhibition during her lifetime. I’ve known that forever, but here, now, after a life full of the satisfactions of writing and teaching young writers, thinking about her life makes me terribly sad. This image of fire may not turn up in my writing, but I know that I will find my way again to my desk and to the wonderful silence that tells me I’m going to start another poem or write another book.
Etna is still fogged in the next morning when we take an exploratory walk down the Via Bagnoli Croce toward the ocean, only to stumble upon an unexpected marvel: the public gardens. Set overlooking the sea, the park is a maze of cedar, palm and exotic plants, and its pathways are a mosaic of multicolored pebbles. Half-hidden are Victorian follies, small houses for picnics or tea parties, constructed of bits of lava, stone and architectural fragments that reprise Sicily’s heritage: the Greek, the Arabic, the Roman. Exotic ducks swim in a tiny pond, and a flock of green parrots resides in one of the follies. When I step out to the palisade, I can almost see Margarett gazing at the changing light of the Mediterranean. “Nothing equalled the day I left,” she wrote, “when the sea looked like a maddened opal—still & wild simultaneously. Everything excites me so superbly here . . . ”
Driving away from Taormina, I know I will someday return to Sicily, if only to see Mount Etna freed of its shroud of fog. As I left the hotel, I asked a man with an iPhone to e-mail me a picture if the mountain became visible. When I arrived at the Rome airport and turned on my BlackBerry, there it was! Against the bluest sky, Taormina in the foreground, was Mount Etna blanketed with the whitest snow, looking nothing like the volcano I’d imagined when I’d seen those flames in the darkness.