Monday, October 5, 2009

Ravenna Recollected

Roma was the emperor’s cock –
His favorite bird.
A fighter (my guess).
When the servants came crying, “Roma is fallen!”
The emperor (in Ravenna) trembled.
What relief to learn they meant merely the city,
Captured by Goths.
The rooster crowed and flapped, strutted and preened,
Jutting its beak out-in-out-in on the march,
Proud and erect as any centurion of any (defeated) legion.
A Praetorian cock!
What emperor lives in Rome? I ask you?
Honorius didn’t.
That crowded, fetid, overbuilt city
Where they’d been known to murder their emperors
– persecuted in a Palatine ghetto.
He dwelt enmarshed in ramparted Ravenna
And when a Goth carried off his sister
Graciously allowed the yob to wed her.

I remember with pride the fearless day
My sixteenth year
No word of Italian
No map in my hand
I went to Ravenna, a pilgrim, alone.
I’d heard of mosaics.
I remember the buses lined up in the square
And no way to figure which one took me back.
Alone and giddy
As floating on top of the nervous wave
I found San Vitale, saw the empress and emperor
I found Dante’s tomb the body absent – risen –
(as can only be proper for Italy’s god)
I found Sant’ Apollinare Nuovo
The saints in togas, faces glum as child’s play
The palatium (thus) with its curtains gathered in arched windows
I found nothing else in that city revealed – and reviled –
And the telephones defied me
And at last I took a taxi (with the last of my lire) back.

Ah Italy!
The first step in your streets, unreeled like bolts of salable silk
The piazzas of herbs of duomos of men-at-arms
The language uncertain but half-familiar (shouldn’t this all be sung?)
The sweet ice tea in the sour cafés
The limitless vistas of aching houses gelato-colored
Swaying with history’s breezes,
And each corner turned brought (devout was my faith)
Some new angle of beauty
Some new sip some new bite some intolerant ripeness
Some mingling of senses, the ancient and modern,
Like the finer cheeses, the airier salads,
The artichoke in hot aioli.
Was it young? Or was I? (In my thirty-first year)
My shouldrs, my feet – they never complained –
My belly, my cock – insatiable both –
My eye, my nose, my tongue – who had guessed
That all this lay in wait
Attempting to sate me?

Ravenna was once the capital of the world:
Impregnable in ramparts of sea and swamp.
Rome fell – but well – there were more where that came from.
In Ravenna: mosaics!
You can see the progression from Galla’s Greek keys
To Apollinare’s toga’d saints
To the Arian baptistery, John in the dome,
The watery pattern distorts the bare body,
To Classe’s apse, the sheep and the shepherd,
To the banker’s house, where a new style entrances
To the court ablaze in San Vitale:
Justinian conquers – the toga is banished –
The story of Isaac prefigures the Other,
Then decadence sets in in San Severo –
The Exarchs were poor – the Lombards without –
And then they marched in – and the sea marched off –
Without swamps it was only a poor seaside village.
The city fell. The Franks donated. The tyrants ruled.
A chunk of Crusader mosaic thus:
No skill, no art, no elegance survives.
The city has fallen … off.

When at last I returned (it was just forty years)
Nothing returned to my memory there.
I might be an exarch – an emperor – a Goth –
For all the recall of that teenage discovery.
I walked and I walked and I walked – but my feet hurt –
Took the bus down to Classe – and back – for the train.
And Italy forgot –
The wonder – the place without limits – had limits –
It’s beauties accessible, impudent, knowing.

I no longer get lost in sweet Italy now.
I have reached that age: I no longer get lost.
I walk into a town and it’s all familiar –
Though I’ve never seen it I know every byway.
(Well: try Naples before you put money on that one.)

Even Rome is comprehensible now
When no one has eyes for all of its treasures
I no longer have feet for the treasures I knew
And the churches as distant as comets are set
In a knowable matrix.
They have ceased to have children, and soon
They’ll lack ancestors too.
Each piazza belongs to the others – from boot toe to heel –
Each new dom, each palazzo, fits into the pale
And that giddiness, novelty, no more avails
Through the water I clearly perceive the bottom
On which I could walk if I were but taller.

Where is the land in whose beauty I drowned,
The land where mosaics were music?
The water’s dried up –
The coming tsunami
Will sweep me away.
Could I live now in Rome – imperially –
I would sit on a balcony –
With a hen called Ravenna –
Awaiting the Goths.

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