Metamorphoses, Book XVI
“Juxtaposing the language of inventory, label, catalog, and dry art-historical description (complete with footnotes) with direct address to the departed and powerful expressions of grief in which language breaks down altogether, Carson braids her own experience of loss with an eloquent commentary on the irreconcilable relationship between archaeological artifacts and the living, breathing individuals who once gave them meaning. Ovid may have claimed in his Fasti that ‘the shades ask little’ (parva petunt manes), but Carson movingly grants them far more. For those who care to try, ‘Remembering remains’.”
Verity Platt, Professor of Classics and History of Art, Cornell University
Book One: Visit to an Extinct City
Book Two: Metamorphoses, Book XVI
Deerbrook Editions, www.deerbrookeditions.com
Poem from Metamorphoses, Book XVI
Uncertain directions for last bit—
Lido Centro to Isola Sacra.
Stranger who speaks English says, “Take that bus.”
The driver, who doesn’t, nods when John names the stop,
then doesn’t say a word when it comes up.
Luckily John remembers ring bell before water tower.
Dropped off in middle of divided road.
Cross and head straight. Isn’t that what we read somewhere?
On hand-painted sign at intersection:
left arrow, under necropoli, points down dirt road.
Is this the right place? Is anyone here?
We ring the bell on gate that gives no clues to what’s beyond.
From the far end of yet another extant piece
of ancient Via Flavia-Severiana,
Pasquale raises, and slightly waves, his cane.
Three dogs (black, white, tan) flank him.
Our presence does not change his measured pace.
Usually impatient to get where I’m going, I’m not.
He signals for us to sign the guestbook
then disappears. No arrow points a way.
Two dogs act as if we living are of no import;
but the black dog guides us
around and through row upon row, block upon block, lanes, courtyards.
He wanders, marks opus reticulatum walls with pee,
as we descend to smelling-of-deep-earth dark—
in someone else’s past a community of Remains, whose names
were once called out by loved ones, loved ones with memories,
now chambers of emptied niches, mold-eaten frescoes,
unintelligible marble fragments, of what wasn’t worth the trouble to loot,
of what survives when much has been removed.
Burden of gone, tomb after tomb.
Powerless to bring back a single thing I, heavy-hearted, rest
beside an “offering hole.”
that scarcely noticed pause within a breath,
the landscape’s dense with Shades–
transformed and nameless, yet intact,
too light to see, yet there—
at once I, unexpectedly, feel light.
In the end, Pasquale hands us plums,
plucked from trees behind the tombs.
(I save one as memento, but it bursts in my purse,
its juice stains papers filled with notes from the day.)
His offer, to drive us to Lido Centro,
makes our return trip far less complicated.
Afterwards I’m giddy,
laughing without constraint at doors
which, as the train prepares to leave a station,
slam shut/open three times before giving in,
before smoothly, quietly, closing,
then staying closed
so we can continue on.