It is 1278 and I am sitting with Kublai Khan, in Xanadu, as Marco Polo describes the many cities he has visited on his numerous expeditions. There is a faint scent in the air of sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers.
It is 1970 and I am sitting with Italo Calvino in an apartment overlooking the Square de Châtillon, Paris, as he writes about the Khagan of the Mongol Empire and the Venetian explorer who visited him, later becoming his foreign emissary and travelling the Emperor’s lands for seventeen years.
It is 1972 and I am sitting with Calvino’s emissary, William Weaver, in New York, as he translates the former’s Le città invisibili into Invisible Cities, mapping Italian into English and, in so doing, opening a window for me onto a new landscape, and a new kind of literature.
It is 1996 and I am sitting in a cold room somewhere between Cressington and Garston, Liverpool, just off the A561, with the Mersey half a kilometre away. The window is open, and I can sense the river’s motion, its ceaseless pull towards the sea—across the Atlantic to Weaver’s New York; across the Channel to Calvino’s Paris; across the many bodies of water between here and the East China Sea, to the site of the Khan’s legendary capital.
It is 1996 and I have put down Calvino’s book, my head swimming. I am in all these places at once, and I am in none of them. They are here, within me, their lines blurred, merged, impossibly enmeshed. They are here, surrounding me, superimposed upon each other, as if their maps were printed on translucent parchment. They are here as a dream or vision. A chimeric amalgam of a city. An impossibly conflated, hybrid assemblage that flickers at the edges of my reality.
The avenue that leads to the Da’an Pavilion turns instead onto Montemartre, and to the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur. The Boulevard Beaumarchais turns not onto the Place de la Bastille but 5th Avenue, as it skirts Madison Square Park. Each stone lintel, each cornice and pillar is no longer merely itself, discrete, isolated. The world is unmoored, ebbing away down the Mersey to I know not where.
It is 1987 and I am lying in bed in a world governed by five kinds of magic. The fantasy writer Lyndon Hardy has communicated its rules to me, and I am entranced. The first of these five occult arts is governed by the Principles of Sympathy and of Contagion. The second is governed by the Doctrine of Signatures. The third is governed by the Maxim of Persistence. The fourth is governed by the Rule of Three. The fifth is governed by the Laws of Ubiquity and Dichotomy. But there is another, hermetic form of magic, a metamagic, an art that reveals the universe to be subject to innumerable laws, only a handful of which come into play at any one time. Practitioners of this magic can shift these laws from one node on the metaphysical lattice to another:
[He] pushed the final lever slowly, holding his lips in a tight line. He felt the strain of the stretched rope and then a sudden snap as the universe started to drift.
Hardy’s novel is called Master of the Sixth Magic, and in it, each metamagician—or pilot—facilitates a decoupling with a magical device of their own choosing, a device that is completely ordinary and unassuming in appearance. For his protagonist, a wanderer of the inland seas, this supranormal artefact is a coin-changer. A contraption comprising a series of metal columns that dispenses dranbots, galleons, regals, coppers and brandels.
It is 1970 and in this universe, Calvino, the metamagician, uses a book. A book disguised as a novel that can nevertheless be approached from multiple points of entry and departure. To read it, jumping non-sequentially from here to there, is to move along tangential nodes in its textual lattice. Somewhat analogously to Hardy’s laws, Calvino’s cities are grouped into eleven themes, but they are, of course, innumerable. What follows is simply the configuration he settled upon in the Square de Châtillon, Paris, some fifty or so years ago:
cities and memory
cities and desire
cities and signs
cities and eyes
cities and names
cities and the dead
cities and the sky
It is 1996 and I want to walk through the city as he sees it, as he enumerates it—not just in these permutations, but all permutations. I want to know about cities and rivers, sonorous cities, chthonic cities. I want to know what happens when cities dream.
This city, Liverpool, is no longer itself, can never return to what it was. Calvino has decoupled us, moved us onwards, to somewhere else. A year earlier, living in Anfield, I had sought escape from the tedium of my daily commute by walking alternate routes to Mount Pleasant. In 1996, five miles south-east of Anfield as the crow flies, I read the following lines about the mythical city of Esmeralda:
[…] since the shortest distance between two points in Esmeralda is not a straight line but a zigzag that ramifies in tortuous optional routes, the ways that open to each passerby are never two […] And so Esmeralda’s inhabitants are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day.
Calvino had foretold my own wayward passage through the labyrinth between Oakfield Road and West Derby Road, between Islington and Oxford Street.
A map of Esmeralda should include, marked in different coloured inks, all these routes, solid and liquid, evident and hidden. It is more difficult to fix on the map the routes of the swallows, who cut the air over the roofs, dropping long invisible parabolas with their wings, darting to gulp a mosquito, spiralling upward, grazing a pinnacle, dominating from every point of their airy paths all the points of the city.
A decade later, and Calvino’s words are still filtering like rainwater through my inner sediments. It is 2006 and I am standing on an expanse of moorland in Lancashire, looking for passage across its water-logged landscape. How do I navigate a place that has no paths?
[But] there are other pathways of which there is no trace. Pathways that overarch the landscape. The flights of birds, of insects. Transits of the sun and moon. The earthbound trajectory of leaves, blown from trees in the autumn. Pollen grains in the spring. And most of all, there are the pathways of the river, with its hidden tributaries, its countless runnels, its myriad subterranean passages. What would a map of all these paths look like? Could such a map exist?
It is 2021 and I do not know if Marco Polo regaled Kublai Khan in Xanadu with tales of far-flung cities in the year 1278. Neither do I know if Calvino wrote Le città invisibili in his apartment overlooking the Square de Châtillon, Paris, in 1970. Nor do I know if William Weaver wrote the English translation in New York, in 1972. The only thing I can say for certain is that I have never read Calvino’s book from cover to cover, just as I have never walked each and every street in Liverpool. That pleasure is still ahead of me.
Richard Skelton is a British artist. His books include Landings (2009), Limnology (2012), Beyond the Fell Wall (2015), The Look Away (2018), And Then Gone (2020) and Stranger in the Mask of a Deer (2021). He is co-director of Corbel Stone Press with the Canadian poet Autumn Richardson. Together they edit the biannual journal of eco-poetics and esoteric literature, Reliquiae.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. by William Weaver (1974)
Lyndon Hardy, Secret of the Sixth Magic (1984)
Richard Skelton, Landings (2009)