From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Winter, 1990, Vol. XII, No. 1
I remember the bells of Santa Maria Maggiore
ringing on a crisp November morning
Under an undiminished blue sky
that seemed to go on forever
Over the purple hills rising in the distance.
And I remember the rich unquarried blues
of the Janiculum at twilight,
The sky veined and chipped like marble,
The wind dipping
and soaring on transparent wings.
That autumn we were always stepping off
into the glassy Roman light
And then moving back into the polluted shadows,
Climbing the penitential stairs
and crossing under the rounded arches,
Sifting through the cold smog
and unholy traffic,
Pointing at the stone carvings
Of children dressed up as angels
under the vaulted domes and ceilings.
That was your last season as yourself,
the fall before your fall—
After that you were too sick and tired
to rouse yourself from bed, to travel—
And now, so many years after your death,
The past has the retrospective sheen
of ultramarines and aquatic blues,
The burnished clarity of wet leaves
falling to the earth.
So many mornings the light pressed down
On the swollen eyelids of daybreak
(It was always raining
or starting to rain)
And the sun was a pilgrim traveler
straggling over the seven hills.
Cold winds twisted up from the Tiber
And fog unraveled in the clouds
like a scarf of smoke.
At the Protestant Cemetery
the rain-driven winds
Blew across the names
that were written in water,
And at the center of the world
The Forum glittered like a lake of time
that had swallowed the ancients.
There were days when the sadness was everywhere
Like the gray light
that drizzled and pearled
On the cypresses and umbrella pines,
the eccentric churches and office buildings,
The palaces lined up like wedding cakes
melting in the grand piazzas.
But there were also the nights
When the fiery oranges of elation
deepened over the rooftops at sunset
And the city was a net of stars
blinking, spreading out before us.
At those times it was impossible to believe
That a pale horse was already grazing
in the fields, waiting for you. . . .
There was a cold ghostly morning
When Santa Maria della Pace
seemed to whiten in the shadows
And an afternoon when we looked up,
as if casually,
At the stone eagles of the Last Judgment
perched on Santa Crisogono in Trastevere.
I’ll never forget how the sky shimmered
like a bowl of light
That poured over our heads as we climbed
One hundred and twenty-four stairs—
The steep unforgiving gray stones
of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli—
Built in savage gratitude
for deliverance from the Black Death.
For me it all came down
to a solitary November day
When the sun was a bluish white flame
a constancy in the sky.
All afternoon it shivered in front of us
like a bright summons
While the windows streaked
and flashed with light
And the wind tugged and pulled at our sleeves,
Pushing out at our shoulders
as if it were going to lift us
(But only one of us was already
Preparing for the journey)
into the radiance and beyond. . . .