Overlooking the Cortile

- 1949-
for T

Late winter yet we stood at the open window
Its green wood shutters pushed back like wings
Against the walls of the ancient building
We stood at the aperture of the narrow room
Looking down onto the fountain in the cortile
Her old room now mine & she said nothing
Of the year she’d slept here
Knowing the Russian painter she loved
Was out somewhere on the streets of Rome
Walking with his Contessa every evening at dusk
As the grief of a rossignol ran down the stones of
The faded wall just outside her window & along the ivy
Seeping slowly as water from the lips of Orpheus
& those liquid sobs of a Roman nightingale

Francesco and Clare

It was there, in that little town
On top of the mountain, they walked,
Francesco and Chiara,
That's who they were, that's what
They told themselves—a joke, their joke
About two saints, failed lovers held apart
From the world of flesh, Francis and Clare,
Out walking the old city, two saints,
Sainted ones, holy, held close to the life...
Poverty, the pure life, the one
Life for Franziskus and Klara,
Stalwarts given
To the joys of God in heaven
And on earth, Mother, praising Brother Sun
And sister Moon; twin saints, unified
In their beauty as one, Francisco and Clara,
A beauty said of God's will and word, bestowed
And polished by poverty, François
With Claire, the chosen poverty, the true
Poverty that would not be their lives...
And they took their favorite names, Clare and Francesco,
Walking the streets of stone the true saints
Walked, watching as the larks swirled
Above the serene towers, the larks
Francesco once described as the color
Of goodness, that is, of the earth, of the dead...
Larks who'd not seek for themselves any extravagant
Plumage, humble and simple, God's birds
Twirling and twisting up the pillowing air...
And Francesco said to Clare, Oh little plant I love,

My eyes are almost blind with Brother Sun...tell me,

Who hides inside God's time...?
And Clare, rock of all Poor Clares, stood
In the warm piazza overlooking the valley, weary,
Her shoulder bag sagging from the weight
Of her maps and books, and said across the rain-slick
Asphalt of the parking lot, to the poor bird climbing
The wheel of sky it always had loved best,
Dear lark, dear saint, all my kisses on your nest!


  Vivian St. John (1881-1974)

There is a train inside this iris:

You think I'm crazy, & like to say boyish
& outrageous things. No, there is

A train inside this iris.

It's a child's finger bearded in black banners.
A single window like a child's nail,

A darkened porthole lit by the white, angular face

Of an old woman, or perhaps the boy beside her in the stuffy,
Hot compartment. Her hair is silver, & sweeps

Back off her forehead, onto her cold and bruised shoulders.

The prairies fail along Chicago. Past the five
Lakes. Into the black woods of her New York; & as I bend

Close above the iris, I see the train

Drive deep into the damp heart of its stem, & the gravel
Of the garden path

Cracks under my feet as I walk this long corridor

Of elms, arched
Like the ceiling of a French railway pier where a boy

With pale curls holding

A fresh iris is waving goodbye to a grandmother, gazing
A long time

Into the flower, as if he were looking some great

Distance, or down an empty garden path & he believes a man 
Is walking toward him, working

Dull shears in one hand; & now believe me: The train

Is gone. The old woman is dead, & the boy. The iris curls,
On its stalk, in the shade

Of those elms: Where something like the icy & bitter fragrance

In the wake of a woman who's just swept past you on her way

& you remain.

Los Angeles, 1954

              It was in the old days,
When she used to hang out at a place
                        Called Club Zombie,
A black cabaret that the police liked
         To raid now and then. As she
              Stepped through the door, the light
         Would hit her platinum hair,
And believe me, heads would turn. Maestro
         Loved it; he'd have her by
The arm as he led us through the packed crowd
                        To a private corner
Where her secluded oak table always waited.
         She'd say, Jordan... 
                        And I'd order her usual,
A champagne cocktail with a tall shot of bourbon
              On the side. She'd let her eyes
         Trail the length of the sleek neck
                       Of the old stand-up bass, as
The bass player knocked out the bottom line,
              His forehead glowing, glossy
                             With sweat in the blue lights;
Her own face, smooth and shining, as
              The liquor slowly blanketed the pills
                             She'd slipped beneath her tongue.
Maestro'd kick the shit out of anybody
              Who tried to sneak up for an autograph;
He'd say, Jordan, just let me know if
                         Somebody gets too close....
         Then he'd turn to her and whisper, Here's
 Where you get to be Miss Nobody...
                             And she'd smile as she let him
         Kiss her hand. For a while, there was a singer
              At the club, a guy named Louis--
But Maestro'd change his name to "Michael Champion";
                             Well, when this guy leaned forward,
Cradling the microphone in his huge hands,
              All the legs went weak 
                                  Underneath the ladies.
He'd look over at her, letting his eyelids
              Droop real low, singing, Oh Baby I...
                    Oh Baby I Love...    I Love You...
And she'd be gone, those little mermaid tears
              Running down her cheeks. Maestro
         Was always cool. He'd let them use his room upstairs,
Sometimes, because they couldn't go out--
         Black and white couldn't mix like that then.
                                  I mean, think about it--
This kid star and a cool beauty who made King Cole
              Sound raw? No, they had to keep it
                                  To the club; though sometimes,
Near the end, he'd come out to her place
         At the beach, always taking the iced whisky
I brought to him with a sly, sweet smile.
                   Once, sweeping his arm out in a slow
         Half-circle, the way at the club he'd
              Show the audience how far his endless love
                                  Had grown, he marked
The circumference of the glare whitening the patio
              Where her friends all sat, sunglasses
         Masking their eyes...
                   And he said to me, Jordan, why do
 White people love the sun so?--
                                God's spotlight, my man?
         Leaning back, he looked over to where she
                        Stood at one end of the patio, watching
The breakers flatten along the beach below,
                             Her body reflected and mirrored
Perfectly in the bedroom's sliding black glass
                                  Door. He stared at her
                   Reflection for a while, then looked up at me
And said, Jordan, I think that I must be
          Like a pool of water in a cave that sometimes
                                   She steps into...
Later, as I drove him back into the city,
                   He hummed a Bessie Smith tune he'd sing
         For her, but he didn't say a word until
We stopped at last back at the club. He stepped
                        slowly out of the back
                   Of the Cadillac, and reaching to shake my hand
Through the open driver's window, said,
                             My man, Jordan... Goodbye.

Related Poems


in rome I got down among the weeds and tiny perfumed
flowers like eyeballs dabbed in blood and the big ruins
said do it my way pal while starlings
kept offering show biz solutions and well the vatican
pursued its interests the palm trees like singular affidavits
the wind succinct and the mountains painted blue
just before dawn accelerated at the last point
of departure before the big illuminated structures
dug up from the basement got going and I ate crostatas
for breakfast and on the terrace chatted
with the clay-faced old man next door and said I was
after a woman who’d left me years ago and he said lord aren’t we all.

from Poem in the Shape of a Rose

June 10, 1962

. . . Take a few steps and you’re on the Appia
or Tuscolana, where all is life
for all. But to be this life’s
accomplice, better to know
no style or history. Its meanings
deal in apathy and violence
in sordid peace. Under a sun
whose meaning is also unfolding,
thousands and thousands of people,
buffoons of a modern age of fire,
cross paths, teeming dark
along the blinding sidewalks, against
housing projects stretching to the sky.
I am a force of the Past.
My love lies only in tradition.                                   
I come from the ruins, the churches,
the altarpieces, the villages
abandoned in the Apennines or foothills
of the Alps where my brothers once lived.
I wander like a madman down the Tuscolana,
down the Appia like a dog without a master.
Or I see the twilights, the mornings
over Rome, the Ciociaria, the world,
as the first acts of Posthistory
to which I bear witness, by arbitrary
birthright, from the outer edge
of some buried age. Monstrous is the man
born of a dead woman’s womb.
And I, a fetus now grown, roam about
more modern than any modern man,
in search of brothers no longer alive.

The Vacant Lot at the End of the Street

in memory of Margaret Greger, 1923-2009

I. Death Takes a Holiday

Battleships melted down into clouds:
first the empire died, then the shipbuilding,

but cloud formations of gun-metal gray
ruled over the sea that was England in June.

A scarecrow treaded water instead of barley, 
gulls set sail across a cricket ground. 

In a suit woven of the finest mist,
Death took the last seat on the train,

the one next to me. He loosened his tie.
His cellphone had nothing to say to him

as he gazed out the window, ignoring us all.
Had the country changed since he was last

on holiday here, a hundred years ago? 
Like family, rather than look at each other,

we watched the remains of empire smear the glass. 
Had we met somewhere? “Out West last week,

I passed your parent's house,” he said.
“I waved but your mother didn't notice.

Your father must have turned off his hearing aid,
in that way he has.” In the rack overhead,

a net, a jar, a box, a pin: Death had come
for another of Britain's butterflies. 
He rose, unwrinkled. “I'll see you later,” he said.


II. Demeter in Winter

Earlier and earlier, the dark
comes to the door, but no one knocks. 

No, the wind scratches at the window.
Clouds skate the ice of your old room,

Daughter, a cloud falls to the floor
and can't get up—

or are you my sister? Remember the rope
tied from schoolhouse to home,

so the blizzard could find its way to us?
It climbed into the attic,

spread a white sheet and ay down in the dust.
Who left behind the army greatcoat

into whose cave we crawled that night?
Lie down beside me. Under a blanket of snow,

something freezes: the mind's gray rag,
caught on a rusty nail. Come closer.

Say I am not the woman I used to be,
just bones turned to sand in a sack of skin.

Daughter, if this page isn't blank, turn to the next 
and read me the part where you disappear.


III. Persephone on the Way to Hell

Over there, beside the road— 
is that the letter I should have left you, Mother? 
The shade of a scarecrow waves a blank page
as big as he is. 

Blond waves of winter wheat roll up
to the knees he'll never have, 
tempting his shirt to set sail
for some other myth. 

He's a white plastic bag
tied to a stake and stuck in a field
at the end of summer. What's left of a river
lies in a bed grown too big for it,

surrounded by rocks it carried this far.
Mother seems smaller, too. 
I saw you, my lord of the dark,
take her hand as it were just a child's.

The door of a room had closed in her mind. 
“Where am I?” she wanted to know,
reigning from her old recliner. You knelt
and tenderly took off her shoes.


IV. The River of Forgetting

Why aren’t you packed to leave town?
my mother asked. Why was I holding a rock
worn down until smooth,
gone dull when it dried?

Where was she, who prided herself
on being born with no sense of direction?
Where were the fifty years
of maps my father drew for her?

Did she remember her own name by the end?
Remember for her, you modest houses,
so alike that only those who die there
can tell them apart. 

Cottonwoods crowding the driveway,
did your leaves whisper which turn
the dead should to take to the water?
The ferry that hasn't run for fifty years

leaves for the river of forgetting tonight.


V. The Azalea Justifies Its Existence

Dream of yourself or stay awake,
Martial says, and the azalea agrees:
fifty weeks it dreams,

not the greater green of Florida
the rest of us do, but a pink almost red,
a shade I'd forgotten for thirty years:

a coat marked down and down again,
coat in a color not from the desert
of subtleties my mother favored

but somewhere between magenta and mauve—
but coat in her size, and so she bought it. 
Finding her in a crowd, you found yourself

facing spring come before its time. 
Yesterday she died. 
She couldn't lift a spoon to the watery winter light

of eastern Washington. Azalea,
if only she could see you now,
the pink of your magnificence

like some ruffled thing thrown on
in your rush to extend a sympathy 
so far beyond the pink of flushed and fevered,

it’s—what is the word for such ragged,
joy-riddled gauds of grief?


VI. The Death of Demeter

From a distance, a woman's life is nothing
a glass of ice water losing its edge.

I should know, Daughter. I spent the night
in a graveyard, behind a tombstone,

trying to stay cold. The trees
that wouldn’t stop whispering—

they're nothing but chairs and tables
dying not to become tables and chairs.

A tree cries out to be covered with leaves?
A deep breath of dirt fills the lungs.

Permit me to propose a few things. 
I don't want my soul to find its body.


VII. The School for the Dead

The blackboard's endless night,
a constellation of chalk dust unnamed—

through the classroom window, I saw a map
pulled down like a window shade:

continents pushed apart, an ocean
blotting out names with tears. 

South America and Africa no longer nestled
like spoons in a silver drawer. 

The lost mitten of Greenland froze
to the Arctic Circle, the empty space

called Canada yawned. The new pupil,
my mother, hunched in a desk too small,

waiting for her daughter the professor
to begin the obedience lesson:

how to lie down. How to roll over
in the grave. How to play dead.


VIII. Nocturne for Female Voice

I walk the old street at night, the way I always did,
I heard my dead mother say
Why didn’t you come? I had to talk to a tree. 
I talked to dogs—they bark at anything,

even a ghost. You shiver, Daughter,
but know nothing of the cold.
Tumbleweeds roll into town as if they owned it,
night shrouds me in darkness, wind wraps me in dust—

where's your coat? You've been to Rome
with a man you weren't married to,
and now you know ruins? If the body is a temple,
as the nuns tried to teach you long ago,

it collapses on itself, bringing down the mind.
The vacant lot at the end of your childhood—
which of us rules it now? I lower myself
to the puncture-vine, the weed I warned you

never to step on. I prostrate myself
the way you coax something to grow
in the desert of the past. Its pale star
blooms a week and then bears fruit.

It survives by causing pain.
I walk our street at night, the way I always did.
Why didn't you come? I had to bark at a tree. 
I howled like a dog.


IX. The Library of the Dead

Deep in the shelves of shadows,
I closed the book I hadn't read. 
Who wanted for food

when you could smuggle something
snatched from the jaws of the vending machine
into the library of the dead? 

Down on my shoulder came a hand:
my late mother's, turned to ash.
In the house where she died,

we would sit, not speaking,
even in eternity: she had her book
and pressed one upon me, companionably. 

Everything had shrunk
to fit in a suitcase when I left. 
The past had been ironed flat,

a thousand leaves starched and pinned
to a cottonwood just a shade of its former self, 
the only sound its rustle, industrious,

leaves turning waxen, unread—
though no shelf lay empty
in the library of the dead.