The asinella’s head reached my ribcage.
She had short grey-brown fur, a spiky mane and shaggy tail, large eyes, a small round belly, and delicate hooves that clacked lightly on the brick path from the house to the dock. On occasion she’d break into a sure-footed run, moving fast and with surprising grace. Now and then she’d nudge me from behind with her cool black nose, startling me with the silence of her arrival and the forthrightness of her contact. But if I approached her directly, hand outstretched, she’d back off—refusing to be pet, her head twisting emphatically away.
Donkeys are both fascinating and frustrating. Their behaviors resist easy interpretation.
The strength of the donkey mind lies in adopting a course inversely as the argument urge[s], which…requires as great a mental force as the direct sequence. That’s the writer George Eliot, making the case for donkeys as forceful contrarians. G.K. Chesterton proposes a somewhat different take: I am dumb, / I keep my secret still. Here, a donkey’s main talent isn’t stubborn opposition but shrewd, sustained silence. And William Wordsworth, in his narrative poem “Peter Bell,” offers a portrait of a donkey as a paragon of endurance and faithfulness.
To the poor miserable Ass whom Peter Bell has abused for hours on end—a donkey who stayed with the dead body of its previous owner, and who now stays with Bell during the night, yet [i.e., still] standing in the clear moonshine—Bell offers an apology couched as a self-indictment: When shall I be as good as thou?
When I first met the asinella, I found myself wondering which if any of these depictions fit her. Then I recalled James Joyce’s young artist, Stephen Dedalus, and his famous credo: I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely… as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use—silence, exile, and cunning. The asinella was silent, certainly; perhaps cunning, sometimes. Exile, however, was for her a fate unchosen, thrust upon her. A defense nonetheless? Or simply irrelevant?
Photo by Martha Cooley
These questions arose because I was (still am!) trying to sort out my own means of free expression. And what better than a little donkey upon which to project my wonderings?
The asinella’s home was (and is, I imagine—for how might she leave?) a small island in the Venetian lagoon.
The island is privately owned. On it are its casa padronale, a 17th-century stone manor near the dock; several other stone buildings, all in near-ruin; a large vegetable garden; a grove of fruit trees; and a stable, a lean-to, and an equipment shed. In addition to the asinella, various animals (equine, canine, and feline, plus assorted wild fauna) live on the island. Birds abound, loons in particular.
This spot of land bristles with activity in all seasons. Owned by the same family for many decades, it’s now under the full-time stewardship of a family member in her mid-twenties—a lean woman with calloused hands and messy blonde hair, who despite her youth knows a great deal about the natural habitat and is earnestly committed to its care. The casa padronale is another matter. Rambling and disheveled, the house offers its paying guests only the basic conveniences. It is evidently not the owners’ top priority.
Photo by Martha Cooley
One doesn’t come to this place to be taken care of, I realized when my husband and I arrived. One comes to the island to experience the Venetian lagoon as the mysterious and elusive ecosystem that it is.
Emigrating in one’s mid-sixties from one nation (and continent, and language) to another might be viewed as a donkey-like act.
It’s not an experience about which I’m willing to bray, in any case. It’s easy to sound banal or derivative when speaking about emigration. Home, belonging, displacement: such words feel like they need quote-marks, to signal their imprecision and overuse.
Of my own emigration from the United States to Italy, I can say I’ve pulled up stakes. Yet from that affirmation all sorts of implications ripple, tricky to capture in language’s net. John Keats’ notion of negative capability appeals to me—the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Now that I’ve pulled up stakes, it seems obvious I’ve no choice but to increase my own negative capability. Partly this entails a balancing of perceived opportunities and losses.
In order to experience whatever over here will offer, I must forgo whatever I might be experiencing back there, were I to have stayed. But this isn’t the liveliest part of the challenge. The move I’ve made isn’t so much from “homeland” to “adoptive country” as it is from one realm of uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts to another. And that, as Keats realized, is a problem of identity.
Keats believed fixed notions of selfhood were obstacles to perception and sensation. He lobbied for the development of what he called a poetical character or nature, which “has no self—it is everything and nothing… [I]t enjoys light and shade; it lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” Keats was, I think, trying to make space for identity sustained by a spirit of receptiveness, playfulness, and acceptance of ambiguity.
In reaction to Keats’ affirmations, I often just sit still for a while, staring into the middle distance. Is this behavior of mine in some way donkey-ish? If so, I’d like to think it’s my self shaking off identity’s bridle, taking that snaffle out of my mouth. Refusing the tug of the reins, “I’m this—no, I’m that—no, I’m this…” Not needing to concoct an emigration narrative for myself. Being okay with saying here I am, and leaving it at that.
The decision to visit the island came after my husband and I had been living full-time in Italy for three months.
Our departure from the States in June of 2021 was fraught. I’d retired that spring, concluding over two decades of teaching. My third novel had just come out, and I’d had to juggle a virtual book tour with the packing-up of our New York apartment. In mid-June my husband and I boarded a plane, and I became an emigrant. (My Italian-born husband became a returnee.)
The summer was incessantly busy. The house we’d owned since 2012 needed repairs and improvements, so we got to work as soon as we hit the ground. A month later, the container of possessions we’d shipped from New York was trucked uphill to the base of our borgo, a tiny, near-deserted medieval village in the foothills of northern Tuscany. After the container’s contents were offloaded onto a tractor, everything was hauled up the cobblestone lane and deposited on the piazza adjacent to our house. For the next four weeks, we did nothing but unpack boxes.
As disorder ceded to order, all this bustle gave me a superficial sense of accomplishment. Daily aware that being able to nest in a lovely Italian village was a privilege, I told myself I was adjusting. I didn’t long for my old routines, and while I missed my American friends and family, the pandemic had accustomed me to not spending much time with them. Yet none of this translated into being settled.
As the weeks passed, I grew aware of a persistent sensation of chafing. My very self seemed to fit me as poorly as an ill-tailored suit. On better days, I managed to deem this self admirably flexible. After all, how many people in their mid-sixties would be game to uproot as I’d just done? On worse days, when I wondered what a satisfactory self might notdo but be, I discovered with dismay that I couldn’t simply answer reconciled and carry on.
Although donkeys are generally assumed to be obstinate, this belief derives from a misreading of their body language.
Donkeys tend to freeze when they feel menaced or scared. They also dig in when confronted with conditions or behaviors they don’t understand. What appears to be obstinacy is an essential response of self-preservation.
For my own part, I am dubious about self-preservation. By that, I don’t mean that I don’t care whether I live or die. I mean that if a self is meant to mutate, trying to preserve it seems a fool’s errand. But what to do about that chafing? Heading somewhere unknown for a few days often helps. Not to preserve my self; rather, to shake it loose from its irritable reaching after fact and reason. To test its receptiveness.
On a mild September morning, my husband and I drove to the Veneto region. Skirting Venice and circling back, we wended our way down a spit of land that eventually brought us to the town of Cavallino, where we parked our car. By this time, it was late afternoon.
We called the owner of the house on the island, who told us where to meet her. In a little while she beckoned us from a small public dock. Her wooden motorboat, long and low-slung, was painted in cheery shades of orange and blue. Tossing our bags aboard, we hopped in; the owner deftly maneuvered the boat away from the dock, and we watched the mainland recede. The engine of the boat emitted a low, steady purr; all else was quiet.
Photo by Martha Cooley
The lagoon’s glassy, blue-gray surface remained extraordinarily flat as we cut through it. Rays of the setting sun, trembling as they lanced the water, were all I had as proof that the water was in fact water and not a mirror—a peculiar mirror, for it seemed to conceal whatever lay below its surface while at the same time refusing to reflect our faces clearly.
In a few minutes we approached the island’s dock, and I had my first look at the asinella. Along with the owner’s two dogs, she was right at the water’s edge. Her spindly legs, oversized ears, and rotund middle gave her a comic appearance, but her gaze was serious. From then on, I couldn’t shake the sense that the little creature was some kind of messenger, a news-bringer of sorts.
Here I am, wrote the writer Karen Blixen, where I am supposed to be.
Blixen was an emigrant who returned to the place she’d started from. She left Denmark, went to Kenya, and went back to Denmark 17 years later—ill, broke, her marriage to Baron Blixen over and her lover dead—to resume her life in Rungstedlund, her hometown. By that time, she’d begun writing in English. Her first book, Seven Gothic Tales, was published in that language under the (male) pseudonym Isak Dinesen. Given that she was named Karen Dinesen at birth, this pseudonym was both a reversion and a fresh start. (She also wrote under the names Tania Blixen and Pierre Andrézel.) The Danish version of her debut work of fiction was the author’s own doing, and less a translation than a retelling, with details that differed from those of the English edition.
All of this—complicating as it does the notion of where I am supposed to be (not to mention who or what, as in male or female, author or translator)—serves as a clear instance of negative capability. Although Isak Dinesen was subject to panic attacks and eating disorders, she accepted uncertainties, doubts, and mysteries as familiar terrain; and she knew that if nowhere else, the land of language was where she was meant to live. Write a little every day, without hope, without despair: this was her motto.
In Richard Butler Glaenzer’s “The Little Donkey,” the poem’s speaker wonders if a small beast forced to lug huge panniers of lilies and roses uphill—to a French church high in the mountains—is weary.
The donkey has delicate hooves, tiny and mincing. Initially, the poem’s speaker assumes the little creature must be unhappy, for its task is exhausting. But then, addressing the donkey directly, the speaker reconsiders: Or does the beauty of your burden / Make it light?
As far as the donkey is concerned, the answer is likely no. It’s easy to aestheticize a mute beast’s behavior, imagining that it responds to beauty as we ourselves would like to respond. Yet I do enjoy picturing the donkey in the shade of the church, having drunk a bit of water. All those flowers gracing the altar, thanks to the donkey.
The poem’s concluding question gets under my skin nonetheless. Which of our burdens might be called beautiful? And how to rid ourselves of those that aren’t?
One must abandon oneself, says the writer Isabella Panfido, to the Venetian lagoon’s elusiveness.
In her book Lagunario, Panfido describes that elusiveness as akin to “an odor that flutters and disappears … a music that dissolves without a visible trace” (my translation). Though our senses tell us something’s there, they cannot capture it. That’s because the lagoon is a neither-nor environment. Its borders and bottom shift constantly; it is home to both grass and algae, to flying fish and submerged birds. It smells of both land and sea.
Returning from a stroll around the island one morning, I found the little donkey in the front hallway of the casa padronale. She’d learned how to fiddle open the door-latch.
A bit earlier, she’d accompanied me to the dock. We’d both gazed at the lagoon, its limpid blue-grey surface as still as glass. After a few minutes, the asinella turned abruptly and left me alone, as though she had business to attend to; and when I opened the front door of the house, there she was, awaiting the owner’s arrival.
As it happened, the little donkey spent almost all her time around the house or near the dock. She ventured to the stable that sheltered her mother and the horses only when the owner walked there to feed them. While they ate, the asinella stood to one side, watching in silence. Who knows what she was thinking and feeling during those moments? When she wasn’t at the stable or near the house, I often spotted her near the island’s edge, staring at the water.
Perhaps for the asinella, the lagoon’s in-betweenness—neither salty sea nor salt-less freshwater—offered a kind of solace. The cure for everything, wrote Isak Dinesen, is salt water—sweat, or tears, or the salt sea. Yet maybe the lagoon’s water works even better.
While on the island, I looked up synonyms for the verb retire. In the spirit of negative capability, I sought as wide a range of meanings as possible.
There were plenty of synonyms—everything from the predictable withdraw, retreat, seclude oneself, and go away to the more drastic relinquish and surrender. Oddly, put away (as in, “I think I’ll retire that shirt, it no longer fits”) wasn’t on the list. Yet that phrase seemed entirely apt. Retiring, I’d put away a great deal: a teaching career, daily use of my native language, my identity as an American living in New York City.
Yet retirement hadn’t yielded lightness. My self still felt heavy with habits of perception and feeling. In addition to my excitement, I’d carted to Italy a bunch of tiresomely familiar anxieties. “What will become of me?” was a post-retirement question I’d intended to pose with curiosity, not fretfulness. Evidently my negative-capability skills needed improvement.
The little donkey’s mother had been very young when she arrived on the island. Unbeknownst to her purchasers, she was also pregnant.
Traumatized not only by giving birth but also by being wrenched from her sole sibling on the mainland, the mother-donkey had bonded not with her foal but with the two horses. And the asinella, ignored by her mother, bonded with the young steward of the island, who bottle-fed the foal for several months. It was evident that this pair—young woman, young donkey—had a genuine connection. I often saw them together, the asinella nuzzling the woman’s hands or leaning against her hip, just as a dog might do.
The woman hoped the asinella would gradually find a way to be with its mother. But that meant the mother would have to become receptive and encouraging. Was the mother merely being stubborn? Or had a forced emigration made her adopt a course inversely as the argument urged? Was she learning to accept the mysteries of her existence, which might mean not bonding with her offspring in the usual way?
It seemed the mother was enacting endurance, which might eventually lead to a bond with the asinella that no human could comprehend. As for the little creature herself, it seemed she was remarkably well versed in negative capability.
Early each morning of our stay on the island, the lagoon looked more like a swathe of lightly undulating blue-grey silk than a body of water.
Cavallino-Treporti, Metropolitan City of Venice, Italy. Photo by Danny van Leeuwen
While we were there, the water around the island was seldom more than a meter deep. To grasp how the lagoon functions, one can measure and monitor, devise and test theories. But the lagoon is in constant transformation, its depths ever-shifting, its surface revelations deceptive. Who can say, asks Isabella Panfido, whether whatever appears in a reflection in the lagoon is actual, not an apparition?
While on the island or a boat, I made a habit of seeking my reflection in the water. I did this for the reassurance of watching my image waver and blur, compose and re-compose. A perpetual undoing and redoing. A lulling into calm.
All sorrows can be borne, claimed Isak Dinesen, if you put them in a story.
I am neither happy nor sad to have left the United States. Notwithstanding my self’s problematic tailoring, I am where I’m meant to be now. And I learned something from my encounter with the asinella, though I cannot put it into words; not in English, not in Italian. I heard it in the clacking of her hooves, so swift and light. Their sound suggested a song, wordless but playful.
In any case, I’ve put the little donkey in a story not of sorrow but of uncertainties, mysteries, doubts. A lagoon-story.
The rising sun woke us early on the island. Each morning the owner ferried us to Cavallino. From there we drove to nearby Punto Sabbioni, parked the car, and boarded a vaporetto to Venice.
Ponte del Formager on rio di Toresele Venice. Photo by Didier Descouens
Each day we walked the city for hours. Each evening we reversed the process to return to the island. This travel had its own rhythm, and we responded to its predictability—the steady engine-sounds, the uplift and swoop of birds, the skitter of wind across water. During each leg of the trip, we passed a series of wooden posts called bricole, which mark the lagoon’s deeper channels. For centuries these bricole have been an essential feature of Venice and its watery surround. Today, over 90,000 bricole, many in need of repair, rise from the water. Neither Venice’s canals nor the lagoon would be navigable without them.
A whole submerged forest sits below us, I reminded myself as we strolled around Venice. The whole situation was of a strangeness hard to conceptualize: way down there, below the surface of the water and well into the muck, hundreds of thousands of tree-trunks were propping up the magnificent stone buildings that line Venice’s canals. And if those massive logs were to dissolve? The whole place would collapse, not just the city’s edifices but the entire built environment of the lagoon. Like a game of pick-up-sticks gone horribly awry.
Photo of Murano by Jorge Franganillo
One afternoon we ventured to the island of Murano, home of Venice’s celebrated glass-making industry. In a shop window I spotted a miniature glass donkey, its comic daintiness edged with something (melancholy, mischief, menace?) that set it apart from the other glass animals clustered near it. At first I imagined it disdained or feared their company. Then I wondered if it simply didn’t know how to account for itself among them. Or didn’t need to.
A few years back, the island lost its freshwater fish farm to seawater flooding, a not-uncommon event. The lagoon’s islands and shorelines are imperiled by an ever-rising sea level. Today the lagoon is saltier and deeper than it was hundreds of years ago.
Of all this the little donkey would appear to know nothing. Yet perhaps she has a sixth sense about the future. She reminded me of al-Buraq, the animal who, according to the Qur’an, carried the Prophet Muhammad through the heavens, from Mecca to Jerusalem and back, during the so-called Night Journey. Smaller than a mule but larger than a donkey, the al-Buraq was of ambiguous provenance, and its hooves’ reach was as far as the eye could see. In Arabic, the word buraq means lightning—a flash, a radiance.
One more poem, Jane Hirshfield’s “Mule Heart.”
Its setting a hot dry place, the trees offering only thin shade.
A donkey awaits, ready to carry two panniers: one for the lemons and passion, / the other for all that you have lost.
Hope, despair: neither is true. Instead: flies, dust, an unnameable odor, / the two waiting baskets.
Truth, wrote Isak Dinesen, is for tailors and shoemakers.
And very much not for donkeys, I’d add.
Though no longer on the island, I recall the scent of the place, neither earthy nor marine. A soft clack of hooves on the dock. Images of my self, flickering on the surface of the water. The lagoon’s silence in the middle of the night. And the little donkey, standing in the clear moonshine, at the front door.