Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Because I'm musing over Shelley and Keats, because I miss my dead friend, because Maine is nothing like Rome, because sometimes I need to think about the poems I used to write--

Protestant Cemetery

Dawn Potter

   Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Keats is dead, time’s swift apprentice
tramping the grimy London lanes,
pockets crammed with pencil stubs, two mice,
a half-penned letter of delight—“ah!
had I never known your kindness . . . ”

and Shelley is dead, one white hand
clutching a tinker-toy mast,
silk scarf flying, a torrent of curls
shock-whipped by wind, and the sea
tearing sheets from her bed;

and baby Severn is dead, reckless
philosopher of floors and stairwells,
founder of speech, tyrant-prince,
squawking cricket, famished
at twilight and dawn;

and here they lurk, next door to a squatty
pyramid, ten or twelve feral cats, a flea market
packed with bargain-mad nuns; and before us,
a whistling man digging a ditch. Two pear-shaped
English ladies consult a guidebook,

peering anxiously at a laurel shrub
for aid; the cheerful digger, unconsulted,
flaps a dirty hand toward the damp corner
where Keats and baby Severn hide,
not far from baby Shelley,

though Shelley himself is stuffed into denser
congress, cheek-to-jowl with Corso,
that misbegotten seeker, and a thousand other
amputated poets, Christian soldiers, wastrel
lovers of light not cited in the ladies’ guidebook

or anywhere else, for that matter,
a collection of forgotten Protestants farmed out
for eternity to this heretic Anglo-Saxon outpost
nestled at the bony knee of an ancient dump,
by far the tidiest park I’ve seen in Rome.

Compare the Aventine on Sunday morning—
parade of chubby brides and crabby mothers,
grooms dangling like haute-couture chimps
from the orange trees, high-heeled grandmas
shaking fists at pig-headed husbands who refuse

to beam, a dozen stray soccer balls, bums snoring
in the lanky grass, and beyond us, all Rome
painted under the haze like a tacky postcard.
They don’t let bums nap in the Protestant Cemetery,
though it would be a pleasant place to rest,

like sleeping in the Secret Garden, high-walled
and remote, a clipped thick lawn, green
as a golf course, smooth footpaths, and neat little
English-speaking arrows directing mourners
to “Gramsci” and “W.C.”

It’s a relief to us Protestants, this orderly
plantation, yet even here Italian chaos
creeps over the fence: Where is the “Keats” sign?
worry the English ladies, fidgeting at the edge
of the ditch. The digger lays down his spade,

waves both hands toward the corner,
smile packed with intention, but does he intend
“Keats”? The ladies retreat into their sunhats,
nod wanly, then too vigorously, then hasten
precipitously into the shade, pretending to search

for Shelley. Only when my friend and I forge
boldly over the ditch and beeline a placid trio
of stones do the ladies brake and regress, politely
hovering with cameras while I examine the earth
for traces of violets (none) and consider

the fate of baby Severn, dead of an accident,
age one year. Another predestined blunder—
tipped out of a casement, choked on marzipan,
crushed by the cart of a fruit vendor . . .
My friend, a Sicilian Catholic from New Jersey,

amiably shouts, “Grazie!” at the digger,
who murmurs, “Prego, prego,” and eyes her tits.
It’s our last day in Rome, and she is humoring me,
killing time with dead poets and babies
when we could be squatting on the hot

Pantheon steps devouring artichokes
and strawberries from a plastic bag.
She flits her false lashes knowingly
at the digger, shifts her brassy red
pocketbook to the other freckled shoulder;

and the fidgeting ladies, alarmed,
are nonetheless impressed by her sang-froid,
another trait of my hungry people—
this laborious, admiring fear of eros:
and it is lovely,

the digger’s desire, my friend’s frank
acknowledgment, though I, like the ladies,
blush and scuttle. Shelley, poor sap,
doing his Jim-Morrison dance all over town,
wasn’t, at heart, much better off;

he had to invent a sort of faith transcending
faithlessness—a house of cards
that would have crushed him in the end,
if the gulf hadn’t eaten him first.  The digger
commences his whistle, my friend and I recede,

the ladies, shy as ducks, open their Portable
Romantics and murmur a brief hymn;
the short lady sighs and closes her damp eyes:
all praise, they sing, to Keats,
bright star, alone and palely loitering.

Dying, you came staggering to Rome to live,
choking on black phlegm and gore,
dim eyes fixed on a gaudy sky.
And left behind your tired epitaph.
Nothing we make will matter.

Here it idles, scratched into the mossy
opalescent damp, embroidered with a passel
of lament you didn’t want to hear.
But too little is never enough for our people,
once we’ve been jolted to love;

and I know baby Severn’s father loved you,
dragging his nursemaid bones
down to the city limits sixty years later,
waiting out Judgment Day with you
and his child in arms, under the noon

jangle of a dozen Holy Roman church bells,
trams hissing to a stop, digger whistling an unknown
tune, my friend crossing herself, tendering
a muttered prayer for her cancer-mangled breast.
I’d light a candle, my brothers, if that were our way.

[from How the Crimes Happened (CavanKerry Press, 2010)].


Carlene said...

Not overstating anything at all when I am compelled to say, only, "Brilliant."

Thanks for posting the poem.

Dawn Potter said...

Gosh, Carlene. That is so sweet of you. I wrote this in 04/05, and it was a breakthrough poem for me as regards my apprenticeship to the sentence and the synthesis of my literary and physical worlds. It makes me sad every time I read it . . . which means, I suppose, that it's still doing some sort of work for me.

Ruth said...

That last line,"I’d light a candle, my brothers, if that were our way." has really given me so many mental pictures and feelings.