I bought Robert Clark's Dark Water: Flood and Redemption in the City of Masterpieces last November when Clark came to St. Paul for a reading sponsored by Garrison Keilor's Common Good Books. Starting to read it, I settled in for 320+ pages in which Clark would weave his life around and through the Arno River, Florence, Italy, and the region's art within the context of the damage caused by the great flood of 1966. Clark was one of my mentors in the SPU MFA program and lived in Florence at the time, flying back and forth for residencies. Every three weeks I received his feedback on my latest writing submissions in a large white envelope postmarked Florence, Italy. I was eager for insight into his life over there while we, his students, had been diligently at our desks.
Clark disappears on page 10. The chapters flow on without him down a timeline of Florence history that begins with Dante and St. Francis, Cimabue and his Crocifisso. Undergirded by a bibliography of more than 120 references, Clark tells the story of how Florence came to be the City of Masterpieces, which is the story of its artists and expatriots.
But where was Robert?
Although surely present as the narrator persona, the "I" had gone into hiding. Since "I" had been there in the first chapter it was reasonable to look for its return on the next page or the next, but the story continued without this character. The Arno floods again and again until the big one. Angels in the form of college students come from around the world to salvage books and art. Photographers, journalists, and art historians take center stage. Finally, on page 261 the "I" returns. The year is 1997 and two pages later, 2005.
In a literary permutation of Where's Waldo? a wave of the author to his reading audience just before he steps away becomes a technique of suspense, much like the gun mentioned in chapter one of a mystery surely will return before the story's end. But more than a technique of suspense, Clark as self, and not just narrator, emerged at the appropriate point on the timeline. Until then the timeline belonged to Cimabue, Vasari, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Mary Shelley, George Fairholme, John Ruskin, Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Henry James, Bernard Berenson, E. M. Forster, Dorothy Lees, Edward Gordon Craig, Frederick Hartt, Ugo Procacci, Nick Kraczyna, Umberto Baldini, David Lees and many more. Page 261 was Clark's turn. Only here does he return, and we see what he and Florence make of each other.
I like the humility in this restrained use of "I". The point at which any of us intersect a unique moment and a unique place is borne up by centuries of what came before. To assume one's role within that timeline, to withhold the "I" until the appointed time seems respectful and true.
For more discussion of Dark Water, a truly beautiful book, see Greg Wolfe's Good Letter's blog post and Brian Volck's review in Image journal, issue 60. Click here to listen to Clark reading excerpts from the book.