Sirens Rising, Capri and Norman Douglas’s “South Wind”

July 14, 2010

August 2, 1990. I’m on a boat heading from Naples to Capri. We’ve just learned that Iraq has invaded Kuwait and the United States will likely declare war on Iraq. The world will soon be changing.

I’ve just had an article published in the Naples daily newspaper, Il Mattino, and have been praised and regaled by all sorts of Napolitanos about it.  (It seems everyone reads the papers here!) Similar treatment awaits me on Capri, the home island of my friend Francesco Durante (now editor of Corriere del Mezzogiorno).

On the trip, I’m reading SOUTH WIND, a 1917 novel set on Capri (Nepenthe in the book) by Norman Douglas. (The Bishop of Bampopo is a central character.)

Capri is an intoxicating place, I can see why writers flocked there or settled there over much of the last century: Shirley Hazzard, Graham Greene, Norman Douglas, among many others.

The heady combination of my local celebrity, limoncello, the scirocco (the south wind itself), and the island’s many delights, inspired me to write my poem “Siren’s Rising,” which was published in the journal SLANT nine years later, and then translated into the Italian by Francesco Durante for Almanacco Caprese. Here is the poem:

Sirens Rising
Isla Capri, Italia

“O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” Romans, 7:24

I.

Like Tiberius I’m torn
between the flesh & its blood.
Like him, too, I’m of this island’s
dark side facing the sea.
You can languish here, succumb
to the madness this island provokes,
or you can flee, denying
your venereal appetite.
Night after night, I give in
to the relentless lure of Pan.
The raucous Neapolitan song
calls to me, instructing my lust,
filling my ears with its chaos.
I am full of life, full of limoncello;
blood hurries through my veins,
as if it had some destination–
beyond circulation.

I chase the Roman beauties:
sloe-eyed enchantresses
with slate-black hair and aquiline noses
and arched brows of la seduttrice.
Their spry and conclusive limbs
stretch from capricious figures
–they are entanglers.
I may as well be on all fours,
as I creep from taverna to piazzetta.
Together, we fall to my bed,
oozing sweat: couple, come away,
con amorosa cura.
We are sargassum
drifting in a pelagic daze.
In the wretched heat,
the moon is as still and cold
as a marble floor.

II.

Sister Serafina,
the unassuming saint of this island,
once induced the prince of darkness
into an adoration of the Savior.
With me, her task is doubly difficult, I’m afraid.
She tries to inveigle me to the Grotta Azzurra
–that knife-wound across the ribs
of Capri’s beguiling torso–
for she knows the blue grotto yields up
not the bagno where Tiberius
cooled his erotic fires,
nor the relentless lust of legend,
but the Madonna’s bluest robes
–the color of sanctity.

It’s too late.
I’ve already gone over the edge,
like the Bishop of Bampopo,
I turn a chaste eye to murder
and drink the sweat of my lovers
in an evaporating recline.
“How shall that come out of man
which was never in him?” the Bishop proffered.
I defile the flowers of Capri,
and search for the power of wild beasts,
deep within the grottoes, dank with sea-wrack.
The dizzy swirl of heaving breath echoes
from every corner of the cyanic cavern.
“Sono io, sono io,” they claim.
“Sono io!”
The Sirens respond to the cry:
“We will succor your willfulness.”
“We will cater to your whim–”
Once again I go to them,
into the depths of an endless night.
They lure me with their dancing
as exquisite as their song
–daughters of Terpsichore!

III.

Within sight of Vesuvius,
I follow the trail of obscure desire,
rounding the mealy stone groin
of Arco Naturale. I grow fins,
am lost.
Atop the Salto di Tiberio
and his Villa Jovis,
Tiberius revels in my plight.
He is the dragon of Capri,
whose fiery breath still infects the island.
I see, as if for the first time,
the island’s bone-white prominence,
rising above the loam-dark sea.
Grey-pink tufa crags, white limestone,
tender mauve reflexes
upthrusted in pulpy stillness.

And I am born of salt
scorched from the sea’s clutch;
the scirocco dashes the island
with its dry spite.
Born of desire,
I return to desire–
The heat
renders my body viscous,
my skin a rubbery porpoise-armor.
I leap from the sea
to plunge to its depths;
the Sirens guide me down
like pilot fish.
I am blessed by their bodies’ charms,
their sea-feathers slicked back
by my expert tongue, their breasts
rouged the color of pomegranates
from my rough beard.
“Possess these shores,” they whisper.
It’s more likely they’ll possess me
the Sirens,
in their pagan trinity:
Persuader, Brightface, Bewitcher.

IV.

The piazza is a droning blur
at this hour.
The handsome waiters are busy trafficking
caponata and spaghettini alla puttanesca.
Women are smoothing their dresses and reapplying
lipstick and rouge, between sips
of dry gin with lemons.
The brackish aroma of homemade wines
and barrels of oil-cured olives,
mingles with the tourists’ perfume,
which trickles down their salty cleavage
–intoxicating mist!
I am seated, most nights,
at the table nearest the bar.
It’s the closest thing
I’ve had to home.
This place for a brief time mine.
Leviathan among the Siren victors
–my life, their spoil.

(For Francesco Durante & Alessandra Carolla)

–Scott Edward Anderson, SLANT, Spring 1999

12 Responses to “Sirens Rising, Capri and Norman Douglas’s “South Wind””


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by ScottEdward Anderson and Enriqueta Turanzas , Enriqueta Turanzas . Enriqueta Turanzas said: RT @greenskeptic: My poem "Sirens Rising," Capri and Norman Douglas's "South Wind" (from my poetry blog: http://bit.ly/9Fz6Rc (HT @EnriquetaT) […]

  2. Artswebshow Says:

    such a powerful poem.
    Nicely done

  3. Pat Moran Says:

    WOW!!

  4. @mckra1g Says:

    This poem is evocative. The use of word viscous is probably my favorite, as it sums up the nebulous, transitory, fleeting, escapism of the entire work.

    Nicely done. Best, M.

  5. greenskeptic Says:

    Thanks, everyone. I’m glad you like it! Nice to have an opportunity to dust it off and give it a wider audience.


  6. I happened to be doing some work-related researching in Yahoo today and found your blog. I have to confess that I have gotten a little distracted going through and looking at a few of your articles… I should probably be doing work. Good stuff here and I will be back again in the future to see more. Kudos!


  7. Helloi Scott: You might like to know that “Lunch With Elizabeth David”, my novel about Douglas and Eric Wolton, the boy who travelled with him to Calabria is now available as an ebook or pdf – you can just look at a sample: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/29680


  8. […] Sirens Rising, Capri and Norman Douglas’s “South Wind” (seapoetry.wordpress.com) […]


  9. […] Sirens Rising, Capri and Norman Douglas’s “South Wind” (seapoetry.wordpress.com) […]

  10. champagne Says:

    This is incredible. I loved the journal entry and your poem which is powerful and fascinating. I’ve just returned from my latest jaunt to Capri and I am still filled with the scirocco. I can’t believe I’ve only just recently discovered Norman Douglas! But I think I would have felt he was kindred in a pagan to the core kind of way. Yet more books I must read to extend my experience of a place I never want to leave.


    • Thank you for your very thoughtful comment — and for enjoying my poem. Douglas is a fascinating and complex writer. There’s also a wonderful book by Shirley Hazard about Graham Greene’s engagement with Isla Capri that you would enjoy, if you haven’t already.

      • champagne Says:

        That book was on my list before my visit, I will definitely read it this summer! Thank you! And thanks for the poem again!


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