Visit to an Extinct City
“Visit to an Extinct City holds a fresh, personal lens to a seldom-seen, venerable ghost-town and archaeological site. It casts a rueful glance at the folly and profundity of ‘historical reconstruction’ – it raises an eyebrow towards guidebooks, tourism and what we think we do when we travel abroad – and with both hands, unexpectedly, it bestows us with a kind of metaphysical vademecum.”
Joanne M. Spurza, Associate Professor
Department of Classical and Oriental Studies
Hunter College of the City University of New York
Deerbrook Editions, www.deerbrookeditions.com
Two Poems from Visit to an Extinct City
Aeneas lands at the mouth of the Tiber.
Settlement becomes colony.
Jupiter. Juno. Minerva.
The river changes its course.
You keep Rome fed: all grain comes through you.
Invaders take over, leave; pirates sack, leave;
Saracens. Emperors. Popes.
Cartwheels carve ruts into basalt blocks.
Salts rise from the ground, dissolve cement.
Fortunes made and lost; loved ones found and lost.
Medea—Ovid’s only play—disappears without a trace,
but his poems are handed down in many tongues.
Layers of dirt turn into layers of time.
Saint Augustine writes that his mother and he “panted with the mouth of our heart.”
Buildings fall and no one picks them up.
The book once loved no longer opened.
The streets fill with rubble.
Tomorrow will not be like today.
Order slips into order of a different kind.
Marble gravestones—inscriptions intact—reused as drainage lids.
Absence takes over from presence.
Ianuaria, described as a frivolous girl in graffiti, withers to a name derived from first month
of the Roman calendar.
The river dries up.
The empire falls.
The cardo becomes overgrown.
Intrusive roots crack tufa blocks.
Growth turns into decay turns into growth—
back and forth blurs into a single line
until decay wins out.
No one remembers what sacrifice to make to the gods to change unfavorable winds.
No one’s left to sweep the sand.
The upper floor of the insula becomes the ground.
You stick to time-honored ways but have a mind of your own.
The imprint of roads that existed before the Roman grid
becomes hard to find.
Animals burrow. Birds nest.
The connection between carved symbols—branch, stick, and bracelet—no longer clear.
Hands and minds never stop trying to keep things from going away.
Tourists pick up loose tesserae as souvenirs.
You’re seen from a window.
Myths replace history.
Afternoon sun lets nothing hide.
It shines on things as they are,
as if time didn’t exist around them,
as if one moment were as good as the next.
The past stands still beyond its reach.
It cannot bring the dead back to life.
It cannot undo what has been done or not done.
How old old looks up close.
I didn’t expect so much dust,
so much not-there-ness of years past.
Little of the lives lived in this city lasts in its remains.
Details, colors, and forms have returned
to what they were before they were.
Fragments of do not reveal the meaning of.
The knowable has become, quickly or slowly, unknowable.
Real importance reduced to words about importance.
What has happened cannot predict what will.
Nothing in this place not unaltered.
Each layer built over past and under future.
Shovels and screens can’t excavate the heart.
What’s beneath will not be forced to show.
This is not the world we walked in our expectations.
Absence grows here.
This is all there is.
What I want to see is gone.
What I want to see refuses to take no for an answer,
refuses every emptiness.
Even so, what I want doesn’t matter.
Rome’s harbor town, Ostia Antica, the other well-preserved ancient city in Italy, has long paled beside Pompeii, whose high drama and fiery demise fixed its place in literature and the popular imagination. Not so for the port city on the Tiber. But Teresa Carson’s new Ostian poem comes to us in sixteen cantos, in English and Italian, as welcome as it is rare.
She takes us with her, on a revelatory first visit to the site, preternaturally attuned to all its discomforts and discoveries. Immediately we’re immersed with her amidst a haunted, antique landscape.
Step after step through this long afternoon of a poem, Carson works her alchemy—from broken bricks and crumbling concrete, intently observed—to meditations on the synecdoche of ruins, to contemplations, through her eyes, of loss and decay, on human mortality and the accidents of survival: ‘Layers of dirt turn into layers of time.’
Visit to an Extinct City holds a fresh, personal lens to a seldom-seen, venerable ghost-town and archaeological site. It casts a rueful glance at the folly and profundity of ‘historical reconstruction’—it raises an eyebrow towards guidebooks, tourism and what we think we do when we travel abroad—and with both hands, unexpectedly, it bestows us with a kind of metaphysical vademecum.
—Joanne M. Spurza, Associate Professor, Program of Classics, Hunter College of the City University of New York