rsz 1via della conciliazione photo by ron smith wide





            Keats and Severn by the Lateran backdoor,

                          come to Rome in several senses   

poor. The basket with its own little stove

                          and its wretched stew the poet chucks  

onto the stones next to the sinking marble boat.  

               He’s done with rhyme, he feels it

                                   from the first. There’s shit 

everywhere—in vicoli, in fountains—humans shit 

                           wherever they please 

in the Eternally Shitty City. Like ancient 

              politicians showing battle scars, beggars display

deformities, blackened Byronic soles, running sores.


Coughing Keats, at the Casino Borghese, says

Napoleon’s sister is in “beautiful bad taste.” He looks

                     and looks at her heavy feet, the lovely dent 

they make in the sensuous stone. In the flesh 

               the old girl’s full of leers these days 

                                    for the Royal Engineers. His bile,

his crawling skin when he sees her-- 

               his own flesh withering on the bone . . . and

all those ousted princes dissipating along the Corso,

              crumbling like columns all over the Italy that’s not

                    Italy yet, sad-eyed, impotent royals, 

glittering, drunk . . .

                                       Torlonia leans over the poet’s papers,

         makes an offer and another that Severn knows

won’t wash. He gathers his friend’s drafts,

                    bows what is not a bow exactly and goes,

Torlonia gazing after like a man who sees

              something he won’t speak of, won’t want 

to remember. Too poetic, Keats says to Severn. What? 

                           The naked Paulina, the poet whispers, too 

            young, too beautiful. Canova’s left out the rot, the 

sweetness on the verge of nausea. 

                                          Severn bathes his brow,

tries to remember what to jot down, what 

                     to embalm. Rich, but not lush, Keats murmurs, 

              turning his face to the wall. 

                                                         Madame Mere insists

on seeing visions—that boy, Keats was it? 

                     An eagle now, lifting a statue of her son into the sky 

               from whence would come French domination,

                                  gleaming towers, cities reassembling 

stone upon stone, the whole world happy 

                      and subdued. Why would a dead poet

            carry her dreadful son out of exile? The ways

                                    of the world are strange, she says, 

wrinkles radiating like joy 

                              around her desperate eyes.





The surgeon, before he uncovered        

the boy on the table, said Well, what 

have you done to yourself? lifted the towel


the mother had placed so carefully, and actually

shouted Good God! (The kid’s color was fine,   

his shoulders and neck thick with muscle, 


but there was his huge ass gouged and shredded—                  

exploded he told his wife--all three glutes, 

and deep in the debris, exposed, the gleaming

nerve kinked, twisted.) By now, the father 

frowned at his side, the one who’d turned 

nineteen on Guadalcanal, the one who said


it was the worst wound he’d ever witnessed 

on a living human. Even the nurses in the ER 

had seen the boy signing a big-time football  

contract on the local news, a hometown angel.

And, it was gone, the trip north, the college degree.

He didn’t know this would set him free,


a stowaway through the Panama Canal, 

that he’d sip hours of sacramental psychosis 

from a tisane mixed by a child in Nishisonogi,


that he’d climb slowly to the Parthenon clothed in light, 

limp down Fishamble Street, Handel's Messiah

surging through his head. The surgeon, 

one of a set of rather famous twin docs, 

would be dead three years later, victim 

of a random infection. The boy’s family gave up

the Methodist Church, its Hymns for Times

of Trouble and Persecution. And here was 

the wonder of it on that sunlit afternoon:  


There was no pain and only a little blood 

as he stood in the yard across from his own

front door, the carsnose to nose in the street

going white, everything white as lambswool 

for just a moment . . . Even then he didn’t go down, 

stood wondering why they were looking at him

like that, why his excitable mother was so

calm, barely touching his arm, then someone

holding him up as she drove the family Chevy


onto the neighbor’s inviolable grass

and someone opened the car’s back door

and someone else whispered Can you take

one step? And, you know, he could.






          tucked up in the western sky—

                   Eryx tranquilized, 

spayed, forgotten, cold clouds  

                           moving through her 

         empty streets like ghosts—no, 

                                 ghosts of ghosts

Image: Rome, Via della Conciliazione. Photo by Ron Smith