Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Ancient Business, And...
Four years ago, nearly to the day, I landed at Leonardo da Vinci - Fiumacino airport in Rome.
When my roomates went to sleep that night, taking the two beds in our tiny hotel room, I went out. I stuck to the main streets, followed the Corso till it took me to a bridge.
I found myself, nearly alone, in the arms of Basilica San Pietro, and soon enough lost in a tangle of streets that bore no mark or name. It was to become a hallmark of my trip.
Rome still calls to me. A memory, or a flash of dust against the sun. I was originally to take a year, go to grad school, complete a 3 year program, and now, return to Rome. But that plan didn't happen. My portfolio didn't grow more than a few hundred lines between the day I stepped on a train to Florence and a few months ago. It didn't get me anywhere, either.
And now I find myself here. It isn't what I planned, but it's as good as anything I imagined. I heard, for the last three years, the voice of Jan, our Belgian guide on our trip to Herculaneum, berating a student who failed to answer quickly enough on the difference in mosaic patterns. Imagine Arnold, with a slightly romantic lilt: "You are a luggard and a slacker, and you will never amount to anything." I remember following him for a moment when we disembarked from the bus at the Ponte Sisto, followed him until he disappeared into the twists of Saturday afternoon. And then I stopped and had a caprese salad and a pizza and a Moretti and watched a semi-final match in Euro Cup 2004. Rome was like that, always leading somewhere and leaving me with no idea how I got there, and often no idea how to get back.
Not more than 6 weeks ago, a line came, and, more importantly, was followed by another. It was the first time in more time than I care to remember that it had happened. And because I followed it, another came, not many nights later.
I've been living with a lot of "or", a lot of "but" a lot of "so". When the lines came, I decided it must be time for "And".
I'm not sure why it was the sonnet that came. The ones I've been writing have mostly been a sort of bastard child of Shakespearian and Petrarchan, if one were dissecting the form in meter and rhyme. But the sonnet it is, and in a rare moment, or when I'm too tired to rhyme, just a burst of blank verse.
I like "and". I'm tired of the other conjunctions. Rome had a lot of "and". It was always something more than the first sentence would hold, and never wanted to be left behind to be second. So for a while, at least, I'll write about "and". But first, because it's four years and a long-held dream come and gone, a small retrospective.
A Poem to End, about the Beginning:
On The Wings of her Heels is a synthesis, newly made, of two things - my first assignment written on an exhortation to lose ourselves on the first day in the Eternal City, and an ode written to Keats upon finding the truth of his Negative Capability. I should have taken Negative Capability a little farther on my trip, but I forgot it somewhere between Budapest and Amsterdam.
I drank too much coffee too late at work tonight, and I couldn't sleep. So I sat down to put this short portfolio together, and the two assignments merged as I composed. It was a natural synthesis, and a perfect poetic introduction to my valedictory statement for the trip, a placeholder in transition away from what I dreamed when I first saw the Aquaducts rise beside the freeway, and where I find myself today. And, as with any valediction, an acknowledgment is due to the two men who shaped the trip: mille grazie to Rick Kenney and Kevin Craft, who shepherded a group of curious students through much more than I realize, even to this day.
An Introduction to the Poems from Rome:
Oppenheimer's Prayer was born of a cigarette butt outside a church where we went to see a Caravaggio. I believe the assignment was to find the spirit of a god in an everyday something. When I first moved to Seattle, I read Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker and first was teased with the idea of a starving god. Subsequently, Neil Gaiman, Eliot, and others expanded the concept, and it found a place in my heart. And I thought, looking at that cigarette butt, then up at a dusting of smog, "what about the god who is fed praise more and more daily?" We pay tribute with nearly every action to the one who brought us fire, and that thought led me to this. I imagined the splitting of the Atom as a quest of a religious zealot to free the one ancient god to whom we still pray, daily. And, on freeing him, he showed the power of those prayers, in a flash greater than even Zeus' lightning. This poem went through about 30 incarnations, and special thanks is due to Doug Ramspeck for the now-finished, and far superior, product. Iapetto is a latin diminutive, meaning the son of Iapettus. Giapetto is the way that most of us hear the name, although his true name is Prometheus. Il Miglior Fabbro.
Pagan Temple Under the Savior's Palace is the opposite. It was born in the home of a god long left for dead. Mithras was brought from Persia and Asia Minor to modern day Turkey and Syria, and eventually to Greece and Rome, by Greek soldiers - the patron of a mystery cult and thought an early warrior-savior archetype, known only through clues left in icons. At Basilica San Clemente, a Mithraic Shrine was buried under an early church, likely in the 3rd or 4th century. That church was later built upon again, in the 11th century, and that is the Basilica that stands today. Many pre-Christian traditions around the world speak of places where the divine essence breaks the surface - often but not always in the form of a sacred tree. The triple layer of this site would seem to argue for a font of the divine, hidden somewhere beneath the stones and mosaics here. But in the earliest temple excavated, there is a starving god, who I saw living off the scraps of prayers that others leave behind.
Livia was the wife of Augustus Caesar. She kept chickens, and an Auger told her once that as long as her line of chickens survived, her children would rule Rome. I saw her, a pure dove in a sea of pigeons, in a corner of her husband's palace. I wrote a poem for her, and, again, it has been through many changes. Once again, my thanks to Doug Ramspeck for his guidance in paring it down to something more than a rambling thought with a few good lines.
And finally, Voyeurism. Bernini sculpted marble into flesh, proof that you can at least squeeze blood into a stone. The picture included is barely adequate for a hint of the reality. In my second year of Latin, I studied Ovid, in the original, under one of the world's preeminent experts on The Metamorphoses. My professor made it a dream, but Bernini breathed life into the stories. What you can see here, and hopefully in my verse, is a shadow of the statue of The Rape of Prosperpine. There were other statues, equally enthralling. David, biting his lip and squinting as he prepares to heave his stone. Daphne, hair and fingers shifting into leaves as her toes grip the ground and spread into roots. Apollo's eyes realizing that he will never hold his prize. Marble made flesh, in all cases. But this is the one that caught me. What you can see in this picture is the way his fingers sink into her thigh, and the way her hair swirls and pushes back against him. What you can't see is his finger nails almost breaking her living skin, or the scream pushing through her lips, or the drip of saliva building on Cerberus' tooth, or the madness in Pluto's eye.
I'm not anything like what I wanted to be now, or anywhere near where I thought I'd be. But the coffee is finally wearing off, I have calls and spreadsheets and appointments tomorrow, and there's no point in dreaming of Rome if I don't follow the streets here when they turn a funny direction in front of me.
And I have a new conjunction to begin things. I'll try to move away from viewing the world in aperture, and towards following the streets wherever they turn. So, as I move on, I bury that dream I held so long with a line stolen brazenly from the boy poet. The epitaph shall read: Here lies a dream whose name was writ in water. And I'll try to remember, more often, what they made us memorize and recite: First, lines I recited in a cave on the Adriatic Coast, "Beauty is Truth, Truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." And second, recited in my best faux-German accent over pasta salad, "For here there is no place that does not see you; You must change your life."
And finally, because this is all a little too serious, something silly: a double dactyl written as we closed our trip in a classroom and banquet hall up a set of stairs from the place that saw "the most unkindest cut of all"; written and performed above the landing where Great Caesar fell:
Kenney and Kevin Craft
Schooled us in Poetry,
Opened our eyes.
Taught us the words we need
Living as poets are,
"Would you like fries?"