By Julia Budenz
Beyond the mountains does Homeric dawn
Walk slowly towards us in her satin gown
Of rose, robed in her saffron mantle, stretching
Her slender arms, her long and slender fingers
Outward and upward towards the eastern slopes,
As yet unseen? And do the Roman ghosts
Retreat or do their ruins rise around them
Reconstituted for the festive day
As feline night reluctantly withdraws,
Smooth, soft, silk-soft, upon her leopard paws
Of darkness, of despair, of nullity?
The leopard was not granted even hope,
Yet, from that night of screams, of silences,
A song, not facile, not too easy, lifts
Into the windless air. The poet sits
Scrivening at the desk, then with a shriek
Falls to the floor, then cries, You sleep in peace.
I do not sleep. The poet dreams I sleep.
Must such a dark, a gray, a hoary age
Waken to horror, hope, or holiness?
Will dawn come as the crocus comes in spring,
As, when, as when the fist releases fingers
In minutes, hidden August gold unfolds,
Unwraps itself from clasping bud, expands,
Widens before my wondering widening eyes,
Spreads petals while green sepals, one by one,
Drop back, perceptibly is spreading petals,
Is spreading, stirs in present participles,
Visibly, quickly, palpably, perceived,
Being perceived, is in the act of spreading,
Is spreading, moves, comes up, comes on, comes out,
As stars come out, as city lights come on,
As baby crawls across the rug and grasps
My skirt and stands, pulling with pygmy hands
And pushed by puissant forces from within
That little cuddly stubborn mass, as ticks
Signal the instants, as the indicators
Of seconds slip across an arc of clock,
The evening primrose opens into evening?
Did bees plunge in to plumb sweet amber depths?
Will Venus lull to sleep or lure to waking?
Does everything except the passing pass?
My eyes were made for vision, not for tears.
Twilight, swart night’s precursor, is its sequel.
The holiday approaches, azure, gold,
Like morning-glory morning, sunflower summer.
On the day named the fifth before the Ides
Of January, January ninth
As counted forward from the month’s beginning
Rather than reckoned backward from the middle,
The king of hallows in the king’s own place
Offers the offering, the sacrifice,
The host, the victim, the agonia.
How can I speak of Agonalia?
Will the day bear us what we cannot bear?
The sky is cloudless and the twilight clear.
This is not agony but celebration.
The language is the veil, the revelation.
King, do you wake and watch? Wake, watch, O king.
Like pines on Ida choiring to the breeze,
Like ships on Tiber singing to the spray,
Like mermaids calling, calling from the sea,
The girls and women of the sacred fire
Call before sunrise. There are only six.
They live next door. They file along the road.
But can they be the daughters of the king,
And is their residence a part of his?
Which year has opened? Is the king the king,
Or is he merely priest? Like Christmas carols
This chanting in a January dawn
Rings shrill and sweet through air both sweet and chill
Yet mellows into melon melodies,
Yet mellows into melodies of melon
Like luminescences upon Mount Alban,
The shades of dark that are the shades of light
In south and east as igneous day ascends
The unseen slopes and nears the waiting cave,
The hollowing that is the hallowing
Of hills and plains that rest along the river,
Where we must rest no longer. Must that fire
Warm or warn, alarm or comfort us?
Is it, for sleep and silence and the dark,
A vigil’s graduated intonations,
First bursts, faint phases, traces, trails, and trills,
Is it the banal strange albanal things,
Persistent slight prematutinal things,
Is it the dinging things, the dithering things,
Is it the ringing clock, the twittering birds,
The birds of dream, of dawn, the bells of churches,
Is it the famous virgins that I hear,
The famous virgins vested in their veils,
The vestals draped, enfolded like the brides
They are, not for an hour or afternoon
But for the decades of the vow that binds?
Something seeps from sleep and wakes to day.
This structure is, according to the sign,
A public house, but it is not a pub,
Just as a bar in Rome is not a bar
At breakfast when you quaff the frothy cup
Of cappuccino and consume the puff
Of the cornetto. Fittingly equipped
With chaplet and with cornet, little hood
And little horn, the soldier and the scholar,
The priest, the prince, the poet may proceed
Into the day, the fray, the yea, the nay,
Strengthened to tread the broad or straitened way,
Fortified by the force of rest and motion,
The swirl and swell, the currents and the curves,
The surges that are still, the pond and mound,
The pool and knoll, the well and hill, the dark
And light, the light and dense, the ropes and ripples,
The bulge that has a beauty and the froth
That has a meaning, spread and fold of foam
And fold and spread of pastry, with the crisp
That is the soft, the strong that is the mellow,
The plump that is the elegant, the rich
That is simplicity, the hot and black
That is the white and mild. One may conclude,
Scooping from the cup the dregs of steam,
Licking from the napkin crumbs of crust
Subtle with sweetness. One may terminate
The grace of the collation and begin.
If you begin upon the hill of Janus,
King of beginnings, why not choose my route?
Past the loud fountain, past the yellow rock,
The one a Paul’s, the other one a Peter’s,
I swung along, and then I picked my way
Descending the nameless irregular set of steps
Narrowly curving towards the road’s wide curve,
Where the cars curve and whir and whirl upon you.
Down nameless steps, then down the stairway named
The Ramp of Golden Mountain I descended
Under the locust trees once sweet with May,
Now lopped and low. The wider, white-tipped stairs
Wind to the street wherein pagoda trees
Dreamed over worry beads of August glories.
This street is Godfrey Street, which one must cross
To Lightsome Way, or Motorcycle Road,
Which, followed all its length, led raucously
To Thickets of Transtiber Street, which met
Great plane trees on Transtiber Avenue.
Along, across, the avenue I strode,
Then turned into each Little Longer Road
And passed the Lane of Light upon the left
And passed the Street of Light upon the right
And reached Along the Tiber and that pole
Whereat you pause or perish. You must push
The pulser, practice patience. Then the green
Word was beckoning to cross the street,
Was beckoning at last to cross the bridge,
To cross the river swelling green or swirling
In white and brown, a grander hood and horn,
The Tiber, coffee-brown and milky white,
Tiber, Tiber, swerving bright and gold
In the city of a night grown old,
Curving, swirling, swelling by the banks
Where plane trees surge and flake in white and brown.
Leaving the fourfold Janus at the end,
Or is it the beginning, of the bridge,
I pressed another button and advanced
By triple-templed Janus, Juno, Spes,
A knowledge like a faith, a love, a hope
Spurring me on against, across, the current
That curved along the stream of street and flowed
Along the whirring river of the road.
Thus, passing through the arch of pepper gray
Of the triumphal portico, I took,
Between Carmenta’s song and Fortune’s call,
Yoking Street and Consolation Way
To the gray gate that waited there apart,
Unmarked, obscure, but open. I went in.
The path was rough with roots and pointed stones
Scattered in mud. I staggered and I stumbled
Along the narrow downward sloping way
Bordered by deeply, sweetly leafy laurel
Above the amplitude of the acanthus.
I passed along the grandeur of the path.
Long-leaved acanthus and the long-lived laurel
Lined the rustic mud and dust that led
To Tuscan Street, Etruscan Street, its slabs
Smooth, large, flat flagstones, Roman paving stones
Of basalt, gray on further dust and mud
There where Vertumnus turned the Tiber’s flood
And turned from form to form, from self to self,
A Tuscan god on Tuscan Street, of whom
A statue stood in maplewood, of whom
A statue shone in bronze, both here, for whom
A temple cannot add to bliss, for whom
It is enough to see the Roman Forum.
To see the Roman Forum is enough.
It was enough for me. I pressed ahead
Past Acca’s tomb, edged by the ancient swamp
And honored as a people’s monument
To matron, patron, benefactor, friend
Of Rome, Larentia, mother of the Lares,
Larunda, celebrated recently
In that near year forever old, awaiting
Distant December’s new and distant end.
Brilliant divinities of dim December
I glimpsed on glancing down the old New Road
At Angerona and Volupia,
Protectors of the city’s potent name.
But it was January. I had turned
Left onto Tuscan Street, where I could set
Foot on a sequence of existent things,
My very pace on pavement, actual
Step on a stretch of actuality,
Stratum of ancient street, solidity
I saw, I trod, I was supported by.
Could I yet sense the sails, the slosh, the marsh,
The oars, the currents, and the watercourse?
It was so cold the woman could not wade.
The ferryman was shouting: All aboard.
The vehicle that pushed off from the shore
Went where I was not going. I remained.
If the Velabrum was a working stream
Or held a navigable element,
Sometimes less effective, sometimes more,
Sometimes more intrinsic, sometimes lent
More by the river flowing to the sea
And, like some fate sewing a cumbersome
Deviant from an ordinary seam,
Overflowing to fill up this slow mere,
As part at least of its aquosity,
I could embark some other day or year.
The vector of my pilgrimage had come
Into one space from any, every, time.
Day might now break on water or on rock,
On ripples or on furrows, lake or loam,
On landscape drained or river with no dike,
On formless marsh or on a marble form.
Straight and high upon the eastern sky
The triple pillars in white elegance,
The Castors’ columns, elegant in white,
Glistened above Juturna’s Lake, the pool,
Unseen behind the podium but known
(The visible and the invisible
Mixing in any vision of a whole,
As in Juturna’s basin, full or dry),
Finished in marble, fed from living founts,
At which the twins’ twin horses drank. I soon,
Having turned left on Tuscan Street, turned right,
Entered upon the passageways of white,
And, climbing up the two high steps of white
(If I remember every step aright),
Traversed the walkway white beneath the white
Augustan Actian Arch, whence, on the right,
Filling the lacuna in my sight,
I glimpsed Juturna’s pond, then passed the white
Shrine of fire. This was the circular,
The round, the tholic, and the focular
Temple of Vesta, lately built anew
By Empress Julia the Philosopher.
Even a sacred flame may burn things down.
Even a holy fire may deconstruct.
Even a woman may then reerect
The furnace where six priestesses attend
A center and a focus and a hearth
From which a virgin mother spreads her warmth
And radiance to city and to earth,
Urbi et orbi, east, west, south, and north.
I had come from the west and from the north.
I had come tramping over Roman roads,
Had stepped from stone to stone on Roman streets.
Which stones were moved in eighteen ninety-eight?
Which pavements were remade in nineteen one?
If I were fire, the world would feel too cold.
If I were wind, no flag could ever fly.
If I were water, oceans would be dry.
If I were god, eternal would mean old.
Were I the pope, lambs bleating in the fold
Would be the piglets squeaking in the sty.
Were I the president, the doves would vie
In violence when hawks were put on hold.
If I were death, no mortal would be dead,
If life, no leaf would green upon the tree.
If I were Cecco, he would go unread.
If I were Julia, as I cannot be,
And all her sentences had gone unsaid,
Flora would say all this instead of me.
Julia existed once, that fly-by-night.
Flora rejoices in ten trillion dawns.
The world remembers me as Flora Baum.
Rome makes me Julia Flora of the Tiber.
But I had crossed the Tiber and the tide.
At the little chapel of the Lares,
Guardians of our city and our homes,
Watchers of our walls and of our walks,
Our ways and crossways, I first hesitated.
I looked down Vesta Lane that slanted left.
I gazed upon the vestals’ residence
With entrance quite inviting on the right.
Which way should I select? Then straight ahead
I glimpsed a hidden path beyond the trees,
Beside, beyond, the little laurel grove
All green up to the corner where the gray
Bare bagolaro, hackberry to those
Who know its cousin in the distant west
Beyond the sea, beyond the ocean, rose
Rotting in rock, a spaccasassi tree,
A wintry tree, a city tree, survivor
Of urban worlds of shock and stone and scree.
Where there are two ways are there always three?
Standing above us with your watching eyes,
Discerned above me by my wavering eyes,
O Lares, sacred twins who stand in stone
In your twin-columned shrine, your dog in stone
Faithful, alert, attentive at your feet,
Lares, who wake and watch, who watch my feet,
Lares, who stand before my crucial ways,
Whose tutelary eyes regard our ways,
Guard me and guide me, Lares Praestites.
Where would the vestals exit? Would they step
Forth virginal and ceremonial
Out of their monastery by the shrine
From which the Lares watched? Then should I go
Closer and fix upon the convent door
My earnest eyes, my worrying, querying eyes,
My questioning eyes? Directions old and new
Perplex perception. Regularity
Suggests itself, and yet the grand facades
Stretching north-west, south-east, inexorably,
Inevitably, in massive repetition,
Meet in the east-west walls a contradiction.
Did I expect the virgins to emerge
Out of the first, the old, the literal
Orientation, old, so old, or out
From newer old alignments, lasting, last?
It did not matter. It was manifest
That I must look for something on the right.
King, do you wake and watch? Wake, watch, O king.
I heard the virgins then, and it was dawn.
It was, if not quite day, the verge of day,
Finale of the vigils of the dark.
I caught sight of the vestals to my left.
I saw them on the left, already leaving
The stretch of Vesta Lane for Holy Road.
I glimpsed them in the dimming of the dark.
Veils glimmered in the glinting of the day.
Their veils and mantles shimmered. Should I follow,
Shivering with excitement and the cold,
Hurrying on behind them down the lane
And onward towards the portal of the king?
Should I not follow when the vestals sing?
Should I, in speed, in eagerness, the equal
Of Juno and Minerva, in the scurry
Of that stern urgency, and in haste like
Iris and Ilithyia, on that mission
To birth, not battle, not death’s but life’s labor,
Rush, almost run, a scudding dove, a pigeon
Nimble and quick and swift?
O wake and watch.
Should I report what I have heard and seen?
Did this occur on January ninth?
It was a certain day, but was it that one?
And did they sing, or did they merely speak?
It was those words. I seem to hear them sung.
It was those sentences. I sense a tune.
It was some day, a day which I remember.
It was one dawn, a dawn which I recall.
I tell what I remember, not what is
Or was. I know I tell what I recall.
I only know I say what I remember.
How did I reach the royal residence?
I chose the shortcut, chose the middle way,
The third alternative, the secret passage,
The private way that is the public path.
Beyond the hackberry and bayberries
That rose among the stones upon the left,
And, on the right, the first compartments rising
In files of brickwork over squares of grass,
The marble of each ornamental pond
Was shining like a piece of moon. I crossed
Between the two small pools. As I approached
The portico of travertine and marble,
The partly columned, partly semicolumned
Arcade, the shafts were turning red, bright red,
The channel as it ran in front turned blue,
Stucco covered travertine and air,
The patch of marble pavement of the porch
Started enlarging, spreading till it slid
Beneath my soles. The jolt was minimal.
I stood on marble, peering down the hall.
I tell you what I saw that day, that year,
Not what was seen ten thousand years before,
Not what the next millennia made clear.
What I observed in nineteen ninety-eight,
What I recall of that which I observed,
What of what I remember I relate,
What you receive of that which I record,
If you exist or if you will exist
Or if I speak to gods and ghosts alone
And if, O spirits and divinities,
My vocatives are pure apostrophes
And you now never you but they or none
And I who was content to be the mist
Exuding living lines, if lines can live
And filter issued selves filling their sieve
And I be they and you encounter one
Who in them speaks, who speaks to you, now give
My life to air, I wonder if you hear.
Antiquity came easily. I came
Close to the stone. Antiquity came close.
I breathed, sneezing, millennia of stone.
The end was apsidal, but to the left
As I went in I found a frescoed nook,
I gathered from the fragments that remained.
The fragments were expanding. Wreathes of laurel
Began to grow in paint upon the walls.
And on the emptiness above the walls.
Then I was in the hall, in the great room
That fronted on the western portico.
The apse that rendered elegant the east
One reached upon a dusty, sagging floor
Paved in mosaic, dingy white and black,
Patchy, with pieces gone. The walls shrank back.
The emptiness was empty once again.
Where there was something it was something less.
The stucco, come unstuck from stone and show,
Fell off, evanesced. I looked around
Uncertainly, back towards the travertine
Pavement that stretched west of the portico.
No, that was gone before it could appear.
And then upon this west an extra building
Of which the portico was suddenly
The eastern close rose. It sank. A moment
Put it up. A moment brought it down.
Hence is the portico the eastern end
Of something grand to which my eyes are blind,
Or is it, as it feels, the western edge
Of what I see, of what so long I saw?
The portico that ran due north and south
Feels like a sort of threshold on the west,
And I have felt it with both feet and hands
Like Sisyphus, forgetting what it was
So many years ago, so many years.
Left of the modern pathway as you enter,
The stylobate, the base, a hint of shaft
That once ascended as a semicolumn
And just in front a gutter for the rain
Subsist in low yet solid travertine
Before a row of blocks of travertine
In which that semicolumn is involved,
And on the right the remnant of a column,
This fully rounded, unengaged, will tell
More of the story of the portico.
The stucco that revested drain and post,
Found in the nineteenth century, was lost
Before the nineteenth century slipped away.
That I remember. What I see today,
What can be seen by any one of us,
Exists as stone, substantial, ruinous.
The nook or service room off to the left
Behind the wall of travertine displays
Fragments of fresco on the orange brick coat
Covering concrete above big blocks of tufa.
The piece of painting on the wall of brick
There in the northeast corner is to me
A thing of red and gold upon the slips
Fitting, as bricks should fit, that fit description,
Awkwardly adjectival as chromatic,
Awkwardly metrical as thus phonetic,
By which a red-and-yellow blend is orange.
I say not well what I have not well seen.
I saw thin bricks. I saw thick bits of art
To decorate this small strange ambient.
The wall was orange and the paint red-gold.
The room beyond is much more satisfying.
It still has pavement and that final apse
Towards which one gazes from the portico.
Peekaboo, exclaimed the little girl
In English. Peekaboo was the reply
Of the young mother. Some walls were so high
Mommy could hide behind them, later walls
Or parts of later walls, imperial,
Straight and rectangular and regular
Or thus perceived because preponderant
And dominating, casting in their slant
The old directions underneath the new.
Which is the truly regular, the rule?
Which is direct and which diagonal?
Inflect a line, wrote Newton. If walls go
Every which way, which is the way they go?
Some north-south, east-west walls, republican,
Obsolete, supine, superseded, rise
High enough a tiny child can hide.
This playhouse in the playground of the ruins
Rotting in Rome delights, as once in Queens,
Bit of big city in a fresh republic,
Unroyal borough in a ripe new world,
The playhouse in the playground, light if gray
Beyond the shading elevated train,
Thrilled the little princess there at play.
Peekaboo, she trilled and dodged again
Behind some tufa, brick, or travertine.
Orientation eastward is the best,
Natural, literal, ritual, holiest,
Managed by gods from high bright bailiwicks,
Religion’s, heaven’s, not man’s politics.
East-west, north-south the regal walls once ran.
East-west, north-south the walls now rise again.
Eastward I gaze. The curving bound of brick
Intimates something grand or playful here,
A plan, an alteration, purposeful
Or purely art’s. On the straight northern line
Huge tufa blocks suppose the origins,
Before, beneath, whatever bricks may face
The walls and face the viewers of the walls
In space where one must strain to recreate
The stucco and the painted decoration.
Sometimes imagination, memory,
Comparison all fail. I gaze on bricks
Narrow and yellow or magenta-red.
I gaze upon the huge hewn rocks of tufa.
I gaze across the vague unfurnished room.
I gaze around the sloping sagging ground
Graced with some traces that negate the gray,
Patterned in black and white, not light and shadow
Only, as night retreats and day advances,
But paved, paved with mosaic, white and black,
Paved with mosaic octagons and squares
Along the oblong portion of the floor,
The octagons of white outlined in black,
The squares of white, black-centered, outlined black,
The squares black bordered white, white bordered black,
The black within the white within the black,
Black squares with wide white frames and narrow black ones,
Or do I find black diamonds in white ones,
Or measure quadrilaterals connected
By straight black lines, or do I recognize
Beehive mosaic, white with black designs?
But in the semicircle I behold
The flowing scrolls of foliage. I quote
The frail and fragile pages of my mind,
The fitful fading pages of my pen,
The pages of the archaeologists,
Who see the more and often say the less.
I feel my wordlessness and worthlessness.
I feel my sightlessness and lightlessness.
I feel my rootlessness and rooflessness.
The roof is azure and the roots protrude
And vanish near the ornamental floors.
Designs in dust and underneath the dust
Unite and separate. I am inside
And never am inside. New Zealanders,
Canadians, Italians, Japanese
Brush by me as I stand and strive to seize
Something by dint of eye, by dint of fingers.
Can one write standing? Can one stand to see?
My previous seats are now fenced off from me.
I shift my stance. I must not get cold feet.
Is it cold hands? My mittens hold the heat
But cannot dissipate the chill that lingers
Under the distant sky, that wintry lid.
This bit of true, real roof is just a shed.
What am I in if not in a museum
Out of doors? Dirt must design the floors.
Since the exhibits were the living city,
Since the displays were days and nights and dawns,
The passages skirt movement, joy, and trouble.
I pass among the ruins, through the rubble,
Assessing levels, questioning directions,
Feeling upheavals, guessing at connections.
I guess I called it nineteen ninety-eight.
Attention! It is Julius Caesar’s step.
The greatest general, the greatest priest,
Maximus, imperator, pontifex,
Consul, proconsul, dictator, quasi rex,
Enters the tiny doorway from the east.
I know his footfall and I know his gait
On the mosaic. No, I do not sleep.
I wake. I watch. I walk. I wait. I wait.
Do I perceive the print of Caesar’s feet
On the new-laid mosaic of the floor?
Then he has come and gone. I wake. The dust
Settled so long upon that sagging floor
Rests on the vestiges of priestly feet.
The vestals, for the pontifex next door,
Are sacred neighbors and a sacred trust.
The pavement was relaid in modern times.
It was not Caesar then but Caesar’s ghost
Striding one dawn across the figured floor
Like an Achilles crossing asphodel
That was that which I saw. I saw him well
Treading with ancient feet on modern dust.
Did he come after or I come before?
Some things are recollected, some are lost.
Some things are lost. I climb the little stair
To the next room. There is no pavement there
Inside the entrance at the western end,
But dirt, a ditch, a pit. Marvel! Beyond
The cavity, stretching from the far
Wall at the east in which I note ajar
The panels of the small imagined door,
Lies the designed, paved, veritable floor.
Some things the hand, as some the mind, may mend.
Some things the diggers miss and some things find.
The pavement, though perceptibly designed
In white by tiny dice of white, a spread
Bordered in white, centered thus, dotted-lined,
Is still discernible as white on red.
The white is tiny tesserae. The red
Is stucco cover with cement as bed.
My eyes, surprised, not sleeping, open wide,
Staring, and narrow, peering. Verified!
Opus signinum, signine work, they said,
Is that on which your visive feet now tread.
Crosses interlocked enclosing squares
Among their bendings form the meander border
Bordering slanting files that intersect
As rhombuses, as lozenges. The cubes
That constitute the lineation shine
As each direct or inflected dotted line
Marches upon the ruddy firmament
Starred by the neat reticulations ruled
By earth’s geometry, a skylike order
Suited to human networks, human cares.
Not stardust but a very earthy dirt
Diminishes the glory of the floor
And fills the space in which the pavement fails,
Gazing above which polyglottous tourists
Pause to decipher, ponder, vocalize
The Latin label shaded by the shed.
The sign above reads Domus Publica.
Domestic I am not. Nevertheless,
If I had been a vestal or a witch
Or genuine befana with her broom
(Since, though I carried the befana’s broom,
I was not yet perhaps the true befana,
Not yet real witch, not yet, if ever, vestal),
I would have swept those tessellated floors,
Tending to art, the holy, history,
Doing my duty as a public servant.
This structure is, according to the sign,
A public house, but it is not a pub.
This structure is, must be, by name and fame,
The public house. The label is misplaced
Perhaps. Perhaps that tufa just beyond
Is—is it not?—the
famous common wall
That joins or separates the vestals’ home
To/from a/the true domus publica
Before effects of princely policy
Create a public house high up the hill
And grant expansion to the convent here.
The sign is posted over to the north,
Above the room half ditch, half diamond,
Half discontinuance, half decoration,
Half pattern, half disruption and despair,
Half past, half present, half not here, half there.
Massive rectangular golden blocks of stone
Dug from Dark Cavern, cut from Grot Obscure,
Compose the rows that rise to build the wall
Edging this northern room upon the east
And hence extending south to bound another.
This southern room is paved in white mosaic
Around the little pool faced with white marble,
The small impluvium set in the center
And bordered by one thin mosaic line
Of black that runs outside it as a second
Runs along the inside of the walls
Which frame the room that is an oddity
Because the narrow bands in black stressing
The white of pool and room, like pool and room
Show slightly different angles and directions.
The disalignments of the slender margins,
Like the disharmony of room and pool,
Disclose the transformation of a space
Awkwardly restored and reconstructed.
Yet on the eastern wall a painting gleams,
Visible or nearly visible,
With trellises and trees and colored flowers
That flower on the plaster on the brick
Upon those steadfast yellow blocks of tufa.
Is this the common or dividing wall?
Is this the wall that joins or separates
The vestals’ residence upon the west
And on the east the dwelling of the priest,
The public house, the palace of the king?
Is this the doorway? Am I in the wall?
Standing in the middle, in between,
At a point not south, not north, not west, not east,
Can I be at zero, can I peer
Around and count the rows of stones and number
The building blocks and measure all dimensions,
The first, then two, then three, then four, then five,
Poised as I am, nowhere or everywhere?
Is it the present? Has it been the past?
What am I seeing? Is it what I saw?
What have I read and what do I remember?
What have I viewed and what do I recall?
Is it my eyes I used or those of others?
Is it their mind at noon, my mind at dawn?
The archaeologists have dug and handled
What I have sometimes scanned and sometimes pawed.
Here is a heavy wall, substantial wall,
Impressive boundary wall in blocks of tufa,
In squared work, quadrate style, opus quadratum.
The north reveals one row in Grot Obscure,
Part of a second row that is the same,
And in the center what was a pilaster
Of travertine of which two blocks remain,
One above the other. On the south
The western side is faced with brick, the east
Displays a trace of plaster. Cappellaccio,
That Roman tufa, gray, of ancient use,
Forms the foundation. Two files can be spied
And lie transversely, sticking out a bit
Below the larger tufa blocks above,
Three rows of grand gold rocks of Grot Obscure,
Layers of great constructed stone, of which
The bottom two are bossed or rusticated.
I contemplate the bulge that is a beauty.
But action is essential to the story.
This is my story, said the father’s book
In English. Was will Moskau? asked the German.
the Dutch intitulation
Proclaimed. And other names from other tongues
Labeled that father’s book, that father’s story.
The daughter’s book is Rome. But must it be
Yet must it not have been
Whether in English, German, Dutch, Italian,
Russian, Chinese, French, Greek, or in that Latin
That died yet lives as Rome that died is living?
The daughter’s plot is woven oh so slowly.
Which is her Rome, her Troy, her Ithaca?
Is she Ulysses or Penelope,
Telemachus or Pallas or Iulus,
Camilla or the filial Aeneas?
Must das Behagen be das Unbehagen?
Some science of the earth distinguishes
Rome’s strata and the strata of the soul.
Some earthly or infernal or celestial
Art will restore the filaments, she feels.
She feels enfolded by the Roman rose
That blooms as though June bordered January
Until the thorn or icicle or spindle
Pierces the spirit. Did she sleep or wake,
Freeze, bleed, burn, weep, dream, agonize, or act?
City of fiction, universe of fact,
Delved into, built upon, bright, clear, opaque,
Rome is what she was born to see or make.
New York, a town that moves not down but up
Was her beginning. In that north, that west,
It was a rocky isle that gave her birth.
But every woman is an island, wrote
The mother in the mother’s story. Soft
And strong that mother was, is, stone and soil,
Concrete, cement, steel, glass, green-bladed grass,
Red-blooded rose, lush, thornless.
Me an island
Bore like the Cynthians beneath a tree.
Yet was that thrust of verticality
A building built on rock and scraping sky,
The which I scaled, from which I glimpsed great day
A-coming from beyond the granite strand
And forth I flew to grasp a fluid view?
Or was I simply born below an oak,
Beech, maple, elm, palm, poplar, plane, plum, pear,
Peach, apple, cherry, walnut, olive, laurel,
Birch, linden, willow, ash, fir, cypress, pine,
Larch, hemlock, cedar, juniper, spruce, yew,
Or simply tree of knowledge or of life?
Or did a simple singing give me birth?
Was it complexly song that mothered me?
Was it an isle of song? And did a night
Conceive me and a dawn bring me to light?
I took my flight to find a fluid sight.
My father is a river. I have lived
In Rome ten thousand years, and I will build
Or I will sow or plant or tend or grow
Rome and a Rome of Rome.
But as for you,
Julia Budenz, you are not Flora Baum.
Your story is a dying. Mine is life.
Your story is like night. Mine is the dawn.
Day is a-coming. Action is essential.
The action of the story must be bold.
The story of the story must be told.
After Julius Caesar, Lepidus
Became chief priest and thus the occupant
Of the official mansion, public house.
That was in forty-four B.C., of course
(Forty-four B.C.E. as commonly
Denominated with more subtlety
Attentive to potential harmony),
After the Ides of March. When Lepidus
Finally died in thirteen or in twelve
Before Christ or Before the Common Era,
Augustus, on succeeding to the office
March sixth, the day before the Nones of March,
In the year twelve, preferred not to accept
A public domicile but rendered public
A part of his own residence, since custom
Or law demanded that the greatest priest
Live in a public edifice, and gave
The habitation of the king of hallows,
Palace of kings when kings were king in Rome,
Pontifical abode most recently,
The people’s property, that special home
Built and extended where the Palatine
Slopes to the Forum by our Holy Road,
This regal, priestly dwelling, to the vestals,
Because, as we are told by Cassius Dio,
It had a wall in common with their own.
Action is essential. I must move
Through the small door, up the big step. Within!
Within at last! This must be it, that castle
Where I will meet the king. Or did I struggle
Up the big step and through the little door?
Here I am. I stand here. I am sure.
Surely this is securely sure, real, true.
Sure! What is true? My shoes are truly set
Upon this herringbone of brick, my feet
Are really in my shoes, and I am on
My feet, where we the people take our stand,
Here where the flooring seems so ordinary
The public come, hum, shuffle, do not know
This pavement laid two thousand years ago
Is what it is in shape and age and name,
Opus spicatum, ancient, still the same.
How many years in half a centimeter?
The brickwork in the middle of the room,
In spicate style, is just a little higher,
Thus later, than the floorage at the edge
In pounded paste of pavement, travertine,
A ground of white stuck, studded, sprinkled, sown—
What shall we say?—with varied scraps
Green, red, black, yellow, as the words unfold,
Aquamarine and purple, rose and gold.
My mind eyes white cement and colored stone,
But was it crumbs my eyes eyed when I stood
And looked at triturated travertine,
Crumble from origins or tough time’s tread?
Four centimeters is the average length
Among the multicolored ornaments,
But towards the now no longer extant center
The chips grow smaller and the setting denser.
City constructed utterly of sound
Instead of stone, how will your sense be seen?
And when each meter floats far from the ground
How will it matter, what will the measures mean?
Yet I am here, and here I take my place
Upon this floor in this material space,
Within at last! And still I stand outside.
What rootless, roofless, ruthless honesty
Confesses every obstacle? That fence
Between me and the rest of public house—
Is it barbed wire? It is a barricade
And, although green,
it will prevent . . .
I stood at the green wire fence. I was across.
I loved the place too much to break its laws
Or even to imagine a transgression.
I had a permesso. I was an architect
Employed by the excavators to sketch out plans.
I was myself the archaeologist.
I had become a cat. My coat of black
Gleamed as my white paws paused on each huge block
Of tufa, stack on stack. I was the cat
That moved with purpose and with nonchalance
In smooth observance of the rules of measure
With perfect liberty. I was the bird
That flew with purpose, swerving airily
Down to the courtyard, perching on a pillar
That inched above its base. I was the bird
Down in the courtyard, chirping: Do you wake?
I was awake, and it was not a dream.
I am awake. The whistles do not blow,
Screeching and shrieking, No no no no no.
To enter with the feet or with the eyes
Is the great question. I behold blue skies,
But past the barrier of wire and rail
My feet proceed as some permissive veil
Of cloud that Venus drapes about her dears
Reveals the hero and conceals the fears.
Venus loved Caesar. Venus loved Aeneas.
Veils are as helms for Vesta, yes, for Venus.
Heroic love is not a single genus.
But will the king come forth to honor Janus?
Reply divinely to my dark, dumb yearning,
Blue fire of night, blue morning star, blue morning.
As Elsie Piddock, skipping in her sleep
Along the top of Caburn, where the fairies
Bestowed the magic jump rope (this permitted
Skips beyond high, sly, featherlike, long, strong,
Slow, toe, fast, double-double; little girls
Watched against trouble; stern authorities
Could not close Caburn when the last skip ended
Because her skipping did not end), transcended
Bounding and bound, no less astoundingly
Have I skipped over space and over time.
I have skipped out from time yet into space.
I am Vertumnus, and I turn and turn
With his vertiginous virtuosity.
If I can find a seat my head will clear.
My head will clear. I plop down on some stone.
I turn my head. I turn my searching eye.
A column is my prop. The day is here.
Surely the king of hallows will appear.
The courtyard has two columns, fluted, white,
At the northern end, which is the southern reach
Of the atrium extending to the north
Towards the vestibule which leads to Holy Road.
I take in quickly what I know so well
From years of peering. All too soon the sun,
Leaping the eastern hills, will daze a gaze
Already weakened or, say, made more keen,
By centuries of squinting scrutiny
And by millennia of wide-eyed wonder.
Upon the western column, facing east,
I am no stylite, for the rising shafts
Have long since toppled. Underneath my feet
Between the columns, or what was the columns,
A white carpet of pavement stretches still
Infixed with little stars or little crosses,
Each made of four black cubes arranged around
A central cube of white, and stretching still,
Or formerly, according to the turn,
As head and eyes or head and mind discern,
Somewhat beyond the columns, with a band
Of spaced black cubes aligned about the edge
To form a border, while upon the east
And south and west, where brick walls rise or rose,
Before the lateritious eastern limit,
Beyond the southern and its passageway,
And, as I twist, behind me to the west,
Beyond the remnants of the western bound,
Within the room through which I must have padded
Or over which I must have flown, the floors
Are of that white cement with colored spangles,
More of those floors of hard, of beaten white,
Scattered, or set, with yellow, black, green, red.
Perhaps you do not care about the floors,
About the colors, forms, or formlessness,
About the formerly, about the still,
About the distyle courtyard, hoary height
Within white distyle courtyard, or, without,
Parietal survival and decline.
When one has hardly guessed, one is possessed,
Must be obsessed, by what is barely glimpsed.
When the hard evidence, exiguous
And accidental, is so hard to touch,
One must amass and judge it inch by inch.
Skip to the story. Skip the limp description.
Skip over ditches gaping all about us.
Sit on the brick brink of a rebuilt well,
Up to the south or down there to the north,
And follow the unfolding of the song.
The day is here, and I am here at last.
I sit upon a pillar while my feet
Fasten on black and white solidity.
Not yet, not yet, not yet, no, never, never.
The well of recollection, memory,
Remembrance, on the edge of which I rested
Once is now distant since the dig is deeper.
I sit beside a pit, beside a ditch,
Ditch, pit, abyss of loss, of the forgotten.
I had forgotten that the place I reached
Had once itself been dug to, was a ditch
That filled with history even as it emptied
A memory that was an emptying
Just as it may have been a recommencement.
How far down must the bucket of recall
Sink to replenish substance and return?
How far down can mind dip into the well?
How far down can hand dig into the ditch?
Did I descend with shovel, spade, or knife?
Can I remember that far, this far, down?
Slipping into the pit, will I find life
Or will no voices wake me and I drown?
My seat is travertine, set on a floor
Nicely designed with figures white and black.
Whatever color covered the white block
Is every bit as nonexistent now
As any verticality that counts,
Above the base, low even for a chair,
The circle on the circle on the square,
Three-dimensional but just enough
To render it a piece of furniture
Usable in a three-dimensioned world.
The pavement is a rather narrow strip
Beside the pit. Is this periculous?
Is this more simply gauged a new dimension?
Which level is the level where I live?
The fourth dimension is the history.
The fifth dimension is the poetry.
Does time or timelessness have more to give?
What did I know in nineteen ninety-eight?
What did I know and what should I have known?
Should I have said it was some other year
In which I saw that which I say I saw?
Do I describe the Rome of Flora Baum,
Prized by her eyes, my eyes, for centuries,
Or is it Carettoni’s Rome I know,
Or is it Coarelli’s Rome I feel,
Or is it Carandini’s Rome that starts
To ascend before my startled staring gaze
While I descend into the ditch he digs?
Is it a Dantesque Rome that drags my feet
Down the infernal depths towards hopes of heaven,
Or is it Cavalcanti’s Rome that drives
My doubting hand and my astounded pen?
Or is my Rome the Rome of R. T. Scott?
Rome, can I love thee well and know thee not?
O Janus of this day, who face each way,
Can I go backward, forward—which is which—
Back—or is it forward—into
Already timed, traversed, tapped, tabulated,
Back to the past and to its memory,
Or forward—is it back—into
Of excavation, scription, publication,
Into moist shoveled holes, damp patterned caverns,
Down into earthy shafts, to library stacks,
Looking for news, something turned up, turned out,
In with the unseen stones, the unread books,
Down to the darkness of discovery,
Sighing for light as from a distant sky?
Shall I embark, hoping to touch that star,
Or stay until that starlight touches me?
Is it a gleam of evening or of dawn?
In Topsy-Turvy House, which Daddy built
In that new nation where we went to play,
Make-Believe Land, which he himself had founded,
We stood upon the ceiling or the floor
According as the turn brought up or down
Under our little shoes that rested, skipped,
Skipped, rested as the turn brought down or up
Something to stand on, something to dance upon.
Or in another land our big eyes watched
Two little shoes that scooted off alone
As Mother sent them forth adventuring.
I see them going on before me now
Across the atrium of the Roman house.
I hear the vestals in the vestibule
Or think I hear them, coming through the door
That opens onto Holy Road or else
The door that opens in from Holy Road.
It is a public door in public space
Whether it opens in or opens out,
And through it, at the far end of the hall,
I think, I think I hear them entering.
In deference to their vestality
I rise with reverence. How yearningly
I stand between the columns, listening.
I think I hear them singing to the king.
And do I think that they will sing to me?
There is a song. Is it a song I sing?
Women and girls who know what Rome can be,
I long to tell you what my Rome has been,
Not that I can complete what I begin
But that my mind keeps seething into speech.
This Rome is something that I hear and see
Without and that reflects, resounds, within,
Something I sometimes lose and sometimes win,
Something at hand and far beyond my reach.
And if I do not grasp enough to teach
The meaning of its deeds and of its dreams
I must say how it feels and how it seems.
And if I do not feel enough to preach
Its value, its profundity, its height,
I must communicate its sharp delight.
Puella Romam amat. Love first came
Through what was strange and new yet not absurd
In match of sound with sound and word with word.
Poeta Romam amat. Even more,
Poetam amat Roma. Not mere fame
But over oceans rhythmic winds I heard
Lifted my heart with pinions of the bird
Eager to rise and rise and rise and soar.
Over the metered seas of years of yore
My heart flew pulsing on those double wings.
One is the language, one what the language sings.
Arma virumque cano. From a shore
Farther than Troy’s, than Thule’s, glides the girl
Armed with her love and dives to find her pearl.
The pearly city was not that above
But that below the sky yet not below
The sea but at a center of the flow
Of waters, at a focus of the stars.
The love that hearing kindled was the love
That vision fed and fanned into a glow
Crowning a slave-king centuries ago
Before the hearthstone of the guarding Lars.
The city of the shepherd son of Mars
Whose brother died that he might be the king
Blossoms when Venus smiles there in the spring.
The city which gave title to the czars
Sees Caesar shrine the Venus of his sires
And ornament the court of Vesta’s fires.
That Rome is love December will reveal
When Angerona’s bandaged mouth is freed.
Rome’s joy will be December’s joyous meed
Because Volupia receives her due
When laughter thrills a happy commonweal,
For Janus sprinkles January’s seed
And Saturn reaps before December’s need.
The grass is glistening with virgin dew.
The sky is gleaming with that maiden blue
Above the haggish remnants of the past
Silently crying out how some things last
Linking the oldest old and newest new.
Rome is my joy with or without a reason.
Rome is my love no matter what the season.
Dear song, I know that you may circulate
Among the Romans and the foreigners,
Among the tourists, pilgrims, visitors
Intent on business, hoping for a dole,
Spending or saving, filled with love or hate,
Flexible as the slimmest cat that purrs,
Fixed in the pride of his, perplexed by hers.
She is the girl who glimpsed the high, bright goal
And slipped into the deepest, dimmest hole.
Be that girl’s best and, like her, struggle forth
To flaming south and east from west and north
Seeking the dawn before dusk takes its toll.
Walk, watch, wait. It cannot now be long.
Harmonize with the women’s waking song.
Is it the dead they wake? Then should I fear?
Have they lived? Will they live? What is the year?
If it was nineteen ninety, ninety-three,
Or ninety-nine, what would the difference be?
Or was it nineteen ninety-eight B.C.
Or nineteen ninety-something B.C.E.
When Sibyl showed the ghosts of Rome to me,
Showed me the souls of Rome’s eternity,
Showed me which spirits I would live to see,
Beings whom I would meet in history?
Daddy first showed us these on Sun-Up Hill,
Then sank with them in mist and mystery.
Death is the deadline. They have not yet lived.
Death is the deadline. Sibyl, live and listen.
Death is the deadline. Do not die, kind Sibyl.
I prayed too much. I labored much too little.
O gods, O ghosts, show pious Flora pity.
Is this now day that breaks above my city?
The ground beneath my feet is very gritty.
And still I love. And still I yearn to know.
And still the virgins come. May they not go
Before I hear each name and see each face
And query each about this time and place
And stretch to fathom this beloved space.
The leader of the vestals in procession
Addressed to me a very simple question:
What is love? Then must I give a lesson?
She stood there as the pendent cherry tree
Stands April-veiled in white above the blue
Of the cerulean squills beneath the blue
Of azure skies beyond the western sea.
It was too early. I had much to learn.
But courtesy demanded a return.
A virgin asks me and I want to tell
About a feeling which is fierce and soft
And is so lofty that its name is love.
How many tasks can I accomplish well?
First there is stealing, second steady craft,
And third the proof to what I strive to prove
Within the truth, if not quite of traduction,
Still of tradition, if not with the sound
Of feet that pound along the cavalcade,
Still somehow pedaling through the great parade.
Must I compute how love is a seduction
And a sedition, not on solid ground
But whirled around in gusty dust, not shade
Or sheen but indistinctness, frail and frayed?
Wait patiently, my song, wait for December.
Do not go forth but watch and grow. This edge
Will be the pledge of all you will remember:
Amor and Angerona, Rome and Venus,
Volupia and Vesta, trailing Janus.
Be patient, song. Be patient. Feet that pound
Around the space of January’s ground
Will sound at last, at last will sweetly sound,
Will prance at last in the land of the most renowned,
Will dance at last in the city of the gowned.
December is yet distant, dim, and deaf.
This is the dawn of January ninth.
The day I know, the time of day, the weather.
I study calendars of stone, the stones,
The stars. The years go flowing like a river.
The men who gave them names are ashes, bones.
Who lives here now? Who sit upon these thrones?
Who are you with your sweet insistent tones?
Who are we? Are we larvae here together?
Have others penetrated these cocoons?
Have other women come with other tunes?
Catching a sonnet sung by Martha Collins
After a line first chanted by Sue Standing,
I open wide my beak and close my talons,
Like Guido, Cino, Dante in responding,
Snatching a word, a feeling, and a time,
Matching the measures, matching rhyme to rhyme.
I sleep and wake among the ghosts. The gulf
Between this ambient and that where Sue
And Martha sing elucidates a self
Making late music, audible to few
Who breathe the breezes which we breathe today,
Or heard by none at all if all anoint
Stern ears against the bony siren’s way
Of uttering a florid counterpoint
To soaring columns of a form surmised
In fragments dug from dust or floorage seen
Figured beneath the vestals’ tread. Surprised,
I glimpse a Sue, a Martha, in between.
I wake among the ghosts, for I must choose
This ruin which my sisters may refuse.
And now, among these ghosts, is this the king,
Turning to start the Agonalia?
Turning to show their hopelessness all wrong,
Can these be Guido, Tom, Amelia?
Because I hope to turn again, again,
Ever again unto the Tuscan town,
The Latin city, where the Roman men
Have turned into the people of the gown,
Because I hope, though not a prostitute,
To be a member of the togate nation,
Because I, Flora, hope that flower, fruit,
Tree, garden, realm, republic mean salvation,
Because I hope to build up walls of beauty,
Because I hope to raise up gates of truth,
Because I hope to turn into my city,
Because I hope to turn into myself,
I hope to open doors of verity
Uncrushed by massive mures of agony.
Murification? Is this true despair?
Verity? Is that what I hope to dare?
Verification? If I do not know
What year this is, what people come and go?
I know this is the public house at least.
I know this is the palace of the priest.
O Janus, be the gateway of this day.
We come here not to labor but to pray.
Verification? Janus sees each way.
Is truth not but, both and, or either or?
Is truth not but, both and, and either or?
Is truth not yet, and yet, and yet again?
Verification? Does not only trail
But also after it or does not only
Trail the but also striding on ahead?
Where there are two trails must there be a third?
Will two tracks meet in some infinity
Or last or pass or cross or switch or fork?
For children in the subways of New York
The third rail ran, stretched, gleamed dangerously.
As I peer east before the peeping sun
Blinds with its smile, what lack or deprivation,
What access and what presence dimly fill
That eastern dig, pit, ditch, abyss beyond?
And still, and still, and still. The public house
Was clearly marked behind me to the west.
The public house was dug and published here
Where, having prayed and labored, I wake, wait.
Still, is the public house that third house, there,
New-dug, discovered, published to the east?
Can I remember something from the past?
Can I continue somehow to the future?
Can I be, in the present, where I am,
From where I blink before, behind, between?
The ditches open or the ditches close.
The ditches open and the ditches close.
If that beyond me is the public house
And there the greatest pontiff is at home,
This where I rest so restlessly remains
The habitation of the king of hallows.
I rest a question if the pontifex
No longer enters, and the sacred rex
Alone must be expected if my ex-
Pectation is well founded.
The meditation. Action is essential.
I leave the columns, walk across the floor,
And join the vestals in the atrium
Paved once perhaps with concrete or cement
Enhanced by scatterings in polychrome
And then with brick of which a bit remains.
Upon which level do the vestals step
And stride and stay? That is, what is the year?
Is it a year of white with colored stone?
Is it a year of red in herringbone?
But no, this is the same geometry
As that which at the pillars set the rule:
Black stars, black crosslets, on white ground, white sky,
Cubes of a negative astronomy
Which is a positive design of joy.
This pavement is so nearly visible
That I am nearly able to descry
What I am nearly able to deny
But to reject which might reflect the fool.
We stand beside the peperino pool.
Fabia, I began. You must be she.
I knew I knew her name. Is this the house
Where I may greet the king who on this day
Will honor Janus? But I was distracted,
Encountering the girls and women there
And counting not the six whom I had seen
Or thought I saw but finding only five.
Oh, one must stay at home to mind the fire,
I almost said aloud, I said aloud.
Fabia nodded patiently and smiled.
If that was Julius Caesar whom I saw
Emerging from this building, I continued,
And if he seemed not as he must have seemed
To Brutus when his spirit walked abroad
And spoke those ghostly messages at Sardis
And at Philippi, mighty yet, yet slain,
Monstrous, some god, some angel, or some devil,
Seen through some weakness of the watcher’s eyes,
But rather living, vigorous, and vibrant,
If I recall what he was like precisely
Although that every like is not alike
I know just as I seem to know he seemed
The man he was before he reached his forties,
When he was thirty-eight or thirty-nine
Or halfway in between, just as he seemed
This day, this very ninth of January,
In sixty-one B.C., that is, the day,
If I may clarify the designations,
Called fifth before the Ides of January
In A.U.C. six hundred ninety-three,
That is, when Marcus Pupius Piso Frugi
Calpurnianus, if he should be termed
Calpurnianus, and another Marcus,
Valerius Messalla Niger, held
The consulship by which that year was named,
Is this that year?
May I identify
Surely or probably or possibly
As greatest pontiff Gaius Julius Caesar,
As king of hallows Lucius Claudius,
Pontifex maximus and rex sacrorum,
Priests on this day, in this month, in this year,
Sixty-one B.C.E., however numbered,
I beg you to forgive me,
Virgins, if I am inconsiderate,
If I am impolite and incoherent.
Fabia seemed to comprehend my questions
And tolerate the ways in which I phrased them
Partly for her and partly for myself.
Copyright © 2003 by Julia Budenz.
From “January,” the first section of “Vision,” the long
conclusion of Book Three, “Rome,” of the
poem in five
books, “The Gardens of Flora Baum.”