Excerpt from Part One, “VTAEC”
Aeneas lands at the mouth of the Tiber.
Settlement becomes colony.
Jupiter. Juno. Minerva.
The river changes its course.
You keep Rome fed: all grain comes through you.
Invaders take over, leave; pirates sack, leave;
Saracens. Emperors. Popes.
Cartwheels carve ruts into basalt blocks.
Salts rise from the ground, dissolve cement.
Fortunes made and lost; loved ones found and lost.
Medea—Ovid’s only play—disappears without a trace,
but his poems are handed down in many tongues.
Layers of dirt turn into layers of time.
Saint Augustine writes that his mother and he “panted with the mouth of our heart.”
Buildings fall and no one picks them up.
The book once loved no longer opened.
The streets fill with rubble.
Tomorrow will not be like today.
Order slips into order of a different kind.
Marble gravestones—inscriptions intact—reused as drainage lids.
Absence takes over from presence.
Ianuaria, described as a frivolous girl in graffiti, withers to a name derived from first month
of the Roman calendar.
The river dries up.
The empire falls.
The cardo becomes overgrown.
Intrusive roots crack tufa blocks.
Growth turns into decay turns into growth—
back and forth blurs into a single line
until decay wins out.
No one remembers what sacrifice to make to the gods to change unfavorable winds.
No one’s left to sweep the sand.
The upper floor of the insula becomes the ground.
You stick to time-honored ways but have a mind of your own.
The imprint of roads that existed before the Roman grid
becomes hard to find.
Animals burrow. Birds nest.
The connection between carved symbols—branch, stick, and bracelet—no longer clear.
Hands and minds never stop trying to keep things from going away.
Tourists pick up loose tesserae as souvenirs.
You’re seen from a window.
Myths replace history.
Excerpt from Part Two, “Metamorphoses Book XVI”
Uncertain directions for last bit—
Lido Centro to Isola Sacra.
Stranger who speaks English says, “Take that bus.”
The driver, who doesn’t, nods when John names the stop,
then doesn’t say a word when it comes up.
Luckily John remembers ring bell before water tower.
Dropped off in middle of divided road.
Cross and head straight. Isn’t that what we read somewhere?
On hand-painted sign at intersection:
left arrow, under necropoli, points down dirt road.
Is this the right place? Is anyone here?
We ring the bell on gate that gives no clues to what’s beyond.
From the far end of yet another extant piece
of ancient Via Flavia-Severiana,
Pasquale raises, and slightly waves, his cane.
Three dogs (black, white, tan) flank him.
Our presence does not change his measured pace.
Usually impatient to get where I’m going, I’m not.
He signals for us to sign the guestbook
then disappears. No arrow points a way.
Two dogs act as if we living are of no import;
but the black dog guides us
around and through row upon row, block upon block, lanes, courtyards.
He wanders, marks opus reticulatum walls with pee,
as we descend to smelling-of-deep-earth dark—
in someone else’s past a community of Remains, whose names
were once called out by loved ones, loved ones with memories,
now chambers of emptied niches, mold-eaten frescoes,
unintelligible marble fragments, of what wasn’t worth the trouble to loot,
of what survives when much has been removed.
Burden of gone, tomb after tomb.
Powerless to bring back a single thing I, heavy-hearted, rest
beside an “offering hole.”
that scarcely noticed pause within a breath,
the landscape’s dense with Shades–
transformed and nameless, yet intact,
too light to see, yet there—
at once I, unexpectedly, feel light.
In the end, Pasquale hands us plums,
plucked from trees behind the tombs.
(I save one as memento, but it bursts in my purse,
its juice stains papers filled with notes from the day.)
His offer, to drive us to Lido Centro,
makes our return trip far less complicated.
Afterwards I’m giddy,
laughing without constraint at doors
which, as the train prepares to leave a station,
slam shut/open three times before giving in,
before smoothly, quietly, closing,
then staying closed
so we can continue on.