Friday, April 8, 2022

Rome Canto

I'll revise my epic screed
On civilization's inhumanity
Overlooking these cypress trees
And powersip espresso standing up --
Even the birds here can explain my plea 
Though it doesn't matter quite as much 
As when the fields are not so perfect
And the towns have let in influence
Without this conscious beacon at their gates.
And there are voices. How could they be ghosts? 
No more than an espresso squeal. The gold 
On the walls the only trace of the giants.
We are ants scraping after the crumbs.
Ancient villages rise in the sun
            And conclude every day
That people are interesting
And so one must pay attention
                      To what they need.

There are fountains of bloodthirsty nymphs,
          Statues where they're raped,
Temples where dragons are worshipped,
And the modern Palazzaco of blocks and bars
And helmets and lions and justice pulled so 
Traumatically from the statue heads outside
For it cannot be found in this basilico.
     So with the legal fiction Vatican city,
Boundary set by Mussolini,
                Not really any boundary at all,
For everyone here must gain permission 
      From the Church to speak,
For God's love lights even the Catholics
And clouds pass over the city of domes and steeples,
                               The wolf town,
With its palimpsest of conquest
       (They call them souvenirs),
As the unearthed ancient ruins spring 
                From irrigation ditches.
Pyramid di Chestio built into the wall 
And Il prisma Pink Floyd laser light show,
Two homages to things celestial.
               Everyone loves a story,
And it's always the same story,
Though the protagonists change,
         The one when in Rome, say,
Where a prostitute morphed to a she-wolf
Before her Venus half-shell rebirth as a virgin,
And Caesar went from God to someone betrayed 
                  By his 12 bird disciples,
And the blue tear vials in Afghan lapis lazuli glass 
Went from Roman funerals to chapel vestibules 
Like that, as the age snapped like tree-branch fingers,
And Rafael who stole Roman painting secrets
By sneaking into Nero's summer temple 
        Turned Plato into Da Vinci 
For a mural in the cardinal's personal chambers,
And Peter turned himself into the pope
After walking a bit on the water 
Then hanging upside-down on a foreigner's cross.
And to build a pontoon, the pontiff replaced
Marcus Aurelius with Apostle Paul 
On top of one of the 13 Egyptian obelisks the Romans
Knew had mystic power but not a clue, they say, what they mean, 
As Mussolini built himself an Imperium
Tunnel to the Flavian Auditorium 
Built, he said, from stolen Jewish money after Nero's suicide,
Just as the Pope fed Christians to Lions 
At the self-same Colliseum to build better 
Good Friday stories to tell there each year,
                  Just as GIs in 1945
Introduced graffiti and built a donut canteen outside.
The umbrella pines with their play of light and shadow
Allowed these scenes to play on a collective wall.
     Yes there were some sloppy edges
In that impeccable story engineering, of eternal renovation:
The Vestal Virgin statues had their heads lopped off;
They sent poor Michelangelo back decades later 
To paint on spec a last judgment 
Befitting a chastened, counter-reformed Church;
Not every chancel door matches the temple columns;
Only 26 emperors were killed by their wives;
The bronzes not melted into weapons 
Were too mixed a salad of intellectuals and generals;
There still remained traces of, if not the Gnostics, the Estruscans;
The days of the week to this day are still pagan
Though year zero is no longer the birth of Rome.

Ah, but in the good times all things appear as one,
Even tyrants are benevolent,
       All taken liberties forgotten ...
Not so in Fortuna's unfortunate eras,
When the heart remembers everything,
The loss of daily baths, the Funeraria that became the Colliseum, 
And grieves even the rock left of a dome
Wisteria has long since grown through
As a kind-of monument to a somehow-not-forgotten suffering:
The loss of hard-earned faith to Avignon 
In the Gothic years, when marauders Saracen, Hun and Visigoth
Peeled the gold and marble surface of the city away,
Stripping every mausoleum on the side of the Appian Way,
The "smooth-as-glass" strada the toll-booth pope 
          Did highway business on;
Or when the criminal Garibaldi
          Laced up the old kingdoms;
Or, again when ruins were friends and flags became enemies
After the 2nd World War, the neo-realist period
Where what was replaced what they wanted it to be
For a minute, before the money guest
Arrived and stayed like some tradewinds breath,
Until they found themselves locked in their homes at last
And had to learn to live with less, and find they liked it,
The guilt-free pleasures of a life as pure as the water
That gave this city purpose.

But it was the cats who discovered
Where Caesar was murdered, in the basement
       Of a minor patrician friend,
And now the Julius Seagulls have landed
And the cats have fled to the top of Tarpeian Rock,
For there are more dogs than children in Rome
And more restaurants than dogs, and yet
The ancient graves are adorned with dolphins,
As if it was for posterity to know
How the miracles of hydraulics were performed
As the hotel toilets clog, and how,
With every taxed road potholed, the slabs were sliced 
To perfect size and lugged by sandaled slaves, slave beasts and logs
Through a dizzying and unknown system of ropes
And hoists in impossible time over
Obscene distances to sacrilegious displays
Of sacred geometry for the borrowed Gods
The Catholic popes were obsessed with in their
Private rooms, more clerics than priests, tycoons
Than hierophants, they say, as if St. Peter
Was the joker card that won their all-in poker game.
These miracles are mysteries of the forgotten time;
We use our excavations through sand to tell
Our own stories, of corporeal impieties
And inconsequential excess -- 
It's what the ruins now tell us, which is not
Of the silence that Hadrian worked so hard
To obtain, the sound of fountains everywhere 
His vast ear ranged, his library
And peristyle island where he took his meals
Alone, with obsidian mirrors, seeking
The solitary contentment of being
Able at long last to live like a human being,
Carp deum in the pool, invisible 
Subterranean slaves, as he kept his 
Privacy inside minimalist rooms,
Emperor Maximus, whose villa-state
                     Had a maritime theater,
A seven philosophers cupola and
Some gay sculptures cross-column undressed
By the pedestals now broken like candy cigarettes.
          It is still a palace of silence, 
As the vandal hordes of tongues gambol through,
Saying nothing to disturb what is dead.