Sketch Review: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

“You take delight not in the city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answers it gives to a question of yours.” – Invisible Cites by Italo CalvinoPrint

Recently I have been reading more books about cities to inform my art and writing on this blog. On my reading list was “Invisible Cities” by Italo Calvino. As an exercise after finishing Invisible Cities I wanted to try writing about some cities in the style of Calvino. This seemed like an excellent opportunity to consider the many Portlands in the world and how they have influenced each other.

Portland, Oregon

A city of roses and conifers nestled on the banks of a tributary of a grand river running out to the sea. A flash in the pan, a mirage, a facsimile that one cannot be sure. That sits as the furthest tip of the ancient hegemony from who’s shore it hop scotched across time until it can hardly be recognized. As one sits in its shops, cafes, and stores, one has to wonder where one is in time, the here-and-now or that distant imperial shore.

Yet as one walks Portland its shape emerges as from the haze of faerie’s phase to take on life from ancient ways and put new mutations as may be. The languid coffeeshop on an overcast green, postmodern edifices from architect’s dream, the many theaters with flashing marquees, calling to the illusion of this world. People laughing, smiling, gay, treading the slabs of asphalt grand. A distortion of the historical past, now lost to most, but known to the last.

Portland, Maine

A city unvisited and unknow, on the furthest shores of the ancient land. What is there I do not know. In my mind’s eye I see a city of low blocks and colonial cottages wreathed in dark forests of conifers in gentle waves to the ocean’s shore. Where ships from a far ply their trade and wander lost upon the waves.

One could visit, but what would you see, but the briefest glimpse of fantasy. For other edifices of stone and wood call with siren’s songs of glory and home and lost chances of yore. Here is the steppingstone lost in time, that passes as in a dream of yesterday’s meal. For its importance is as progenitor, but now faded to a footnote in time.

Portland, England

Ancient faerie clothed in myth, were ships of high masts once past. Now tattered illusions as they always were, replaced by the diesel furnaces of steel trading bergs. Its tattered stones now hung with moss, its nation bent with age and dross. Never was faerie as grand as it seemed, but merely a poor start to a copy without end. A faded original now worn and dim, haunted by golems spread across the lands.

Yet there too people live lives, dream dreams, and laugh away the night. They sing songs from a Portland unknown, unaware that they dance to their far flung memetic. For what empire can escape its own forgetfulness. The copy is now a rose blooming by a snow swelled bank, while the progenitor fades into the happiness of long sought contented dreams.

The cities in Invisible Cities are invisible as they do not exist. Instead they are in the imagination of the narrator, Marco Polo. This illustrates how even real cities are more in the minds of their inhabitants and visitors than in any objective reality. Cities are built in layers of imagination and physical substance to serve human needs.

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