Roman Fall: In Memoriam

Edward Hirsch

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
Burning overhead,
                                 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. . . .

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