The thing about Rome that gets to me the most (and I’m sure this is “the thing about Rome” for a lot of folks) is the way the ancient, archaeological city and the living, modern one sit so seamlessly cheek-by-jowl with one another. The first time I saw the city, I burst into tears. This second time was no different. I’ve never seen anything like Rome for the utterly overwhelming feeling of accretion, of layers, of mosaic, that it has. It’s humbling, and it’s awesome, and it’s heartbreaking.
And the thing about having your heart broken is that parts of it can wander off in different directions.
The first real poem I ever wrote – at least, the first one I’d call “mature” whatever that means (David, you’d have heard me read it in the Glascock competition back in ’92!) was about a kaleidoscope. It was an actual kaleidoscope – and an exorbitantly fine one, I must note, polished brass and a double wheel of beautiful stained glass shards – that I’d gotten as a birthday gift for The Boy Who Died. He was a physics-minded creature and seemed to get a kick out of optical tricks, but the gift was also symbolic (in a ham-handed, adolescent way, perhaps), a way of saying that I knew all the broken stuff inside him coalesced into something exceptional and gorgeous if you knew how to look at it. At his family’s house after the memorial service I don’t mind admitting I ransacked his old bedroom looking for that kaleidoscope, but it wasn’t there. I have no idea what he did with it. He had ascetic tendencies, kept few possessions – a sentimental knickknack from me, I realized, was probably not on his list of essentials. But I always did wonder where it ended up, and that was partially what prompted the poem. But writing it made me realize that breakage and accretion and mosaic were going to be lifelong companions of mine in poetry writing.
My favorite church in Rome – not counting the Pantheon, which is inarguably in a class by itself – is the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. It’s very, very old; the original structure dates back to the 300’s, and the current one, built on the old foundations, mostly dates to the 12th century. Santa Maria has a markedly different feel than the Renaissance and Baroque period Catholic churches. It’s Medieval. It has more Byzantine features, and the detail and sheer multitude of intricate, fascinating mosaic elements is staggering. Its interior columns are repurposed from the Baths of Caracalla, and its portico is plastered with fragments of ancient carved marbles. Everything in that church is made up of tiny fragments of other things, meticulously put together to form a seamless whole, one that tells a story, one that directs you to feel a certain way when you step inside. It is, in short, a poem. I don’t know how many times I went back to it, and each time it was the same and yet totally different; I saw things I hadn’t seen before, the place was refracted again and again through my own shifting kaleidoscope of experiences and feelings. I felt lifted up; I felt history as a crushing weight; I felt loss, liberation, a longing for home and a longing to never have to leave. I wasn’t raised in a Catholic family and so had no childhood experience with which to freight my reading of this place. And yet there was an overwhelming sense of a program, a story. I doubt I will ever understand how an accumulation of stone pieces stuck together in the 1100’s can feel as alive as that place.
I don’t know how many miles I walked through Rome in the two weeks I spent there. It was a lot. Probably three or four on a relatively sedentary day. And I never stopped thinking about breakage and rebuilding, and breakage and rebuilding. Everything about that place is mosaic, broken pieces forming a more meaningful whole. Basalt. Travertine. Porphyry. Onyx. Empty lots casually strewn with things that popped up when someone tried to level land for a new building: fractured columns, pieces of an older, buried city, marble sculpture fragments, Corinthian capitals, severed stone heads, plaques with partial inscriptions in Latin. The Boy’s suicide note, such as it was, fragmentary, oblique – had been in Latin. I don’t exactly know why – a dead language, ha ha; or a code meant for someone else. No matter, an unanswerable question. A piece. Like the ancient walls, like the ruins being overtaken slowly by nature, nightshade growing up through cracks in the travertine; glittering dust – hematite, mica – that might have been part of some elegant ancient display of dominion and wealth. (“When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ than ours…”.) Even Rome’s streets are piecemeal, literally cobbled together. By the end, I could look at anything and see a mosaic tile – plane tree leaves floating in a fountain; the high waxing moon, martins skimming the Tiber for insects, bark scales on an umbrella pine on the edge of the Palatine, a piece of a broken beer bottle in an alleyway, pigeons trawling the Campo for bits of meat. All of it distinct, all discrete, and all part of the same picture.
I write poems, largely, by this method, I’ve come to realize. I often find a line I think belongs in ne poem shows itself to be part of something else. I collect materials, break them apart, put them back together. Spin the kaleidoscope: something forms, morphs, you glimpse symmetry, then collapse. Leverage accident. Harness breakage. Build something new on the foundations of something ancient. Sculpt. Shatter. Use the pieces. Re-use is a form of double-entendre. Enjambment. Build by breaking. Take the tiny pieces and use them to show the big picture. Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. Everything connects, nothing disappears. But it breaks. And I guess that’s What I Learned On My Summer Vacation, my brethren. That everything breaks and something big is riding on whether you can be at peace with the pieces.