Berfrois

Romantic Landscape

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by Amy Glynn

It’s July, and sweltering even here at the edge of the Tiber. There is nightshade growing through the cracks in the concrete along the bank. I’m not sure what species it is, but it’s no tomato, and those berries already look like trouble.

A cadre of creative writing students are doing a funny ad hoc dramatic reading of Julius Caesar. Everyone is laughing. I am not laughing. I am staring at the plant, its smooth, slightly serrate leaves, the delicate nodding pale blossoms, down-facing, almost demure, as if to distract from the fact that it has driven itself through solid concrete to present its poisonous fruit to the scummy riverbank. I came here two weeks ago as a guest lecturer on poetry and natural history and stayed to go to the museums and churches, confer with students and soak up history and art. My wedding anniversary fell in the middle of the program and my husband had fixed it so he could join us for a few days. Paradise. Right?

Nevertheless I am concerned. I suspect people are starting to notice that I have lost my mind.

Rome is either the best or the worst place on Earth to have a nineteenth-century-style nervous breakdown. British Romantics seemed keen to go and dissolve in Italy – Shelley drowning in the bay off the Cinque Terre, Keats drowning in his own blood in a house I’ve walked to twice. Byron managed to die in Greece, but not before drinking and fucking his way through this place.

Canto 4 of Childe Harold:

… and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree:
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory; and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced.

Thy very weeds, beautiful. Thy wreck a glory. The garden of the world.

Romanticism, a revolt against the Cartesian, Baconian, scientific rationalization of nature, was a political as well as an aesthetic movement, but art and literature were its most fertile soil. For the Romantics, individual experience and individual imagination were unimpeachable authorities. It stood in many ways as an antithesis to Realism, though it increasingly strikes me that antitheses and dualities and dichotomies are pointless constructs. Everything is everything if you squint at it right.

Descartes clearly did not squint enough.

Some people – this is a fact, not an opinion – feel things more strongly, more deeply, than others. It’s not a value judgment, it’s not better or worse to have an unusual breadth or depth of feeling response – it can be an incredibly useful tool for, say, writing – and it can make you a tremendous pain in the ass in political debates or at extended family gatherings; you must trust me on this if you don’t know Exactly What I’m Talking About. The Romantics embraced – exalted – heightened emotion. Terror and grief, horror and awe, ecstasy and profound alienation – these were the veins they mined. There was nothing too dramatic, too intense, for a 19th century Romantic poet.

But this is the twenty-first century. And I am too dramatic. Too intense. And that was true before I went cold turkey on those pills the psychiatrist gave me.

So: typically, psychotropic meds will either present no side effects, or reveal them fairly instantly. Sometimes they’re serious and sometimes merely annoying; sometimes they are transient and sometimes they’re sticky. People who are depressed enough to require these medications generally feel that a metallic taste in the mouth or a slight deadening of the libido is a perfectly reasonable price to pay for not waking up every morning distinctly disappointed to discover you’re still here.

This psychiatrist was my third, each of them making a chemical pincushion out of me without ever really grokking the fact that I wasn’t depressed, but traumatized. I’d been put on serotonin adjusting drugs. Norepinephrine adjusting drugs. Sedatives. Medications for ADHD, which I agreed to try only because I secretly hoped they’d make me thinner. They did not; they made me feel as if my heart might explode at any moment, which, for the shrink, presented a clear indication that ADHD was not the correct diagnosis for me. I said I’d told her that. And that sometimes walking into a room and forgetting what you’d come in there looking for, or searching frantically for your car keys for 10 minutes before realizing they are in your hand, are also key diagnostic criteria for being a writer, or the parent of two young children, and I tested positive for both of those.

I’d taken myself off a prodigious number of these medications, which ranged in efficacy from “no change” to “still anxious plus now angry, plus gained ten pounds.” One of them had provoked a mild withdrawal episode. It felt like a low-grade flu and lasted about two days. Unpleasant, but certainly worth it. The stuff had never made me feel any different, though something about it had provoked my spouse to say, “I’m not sure if I hate you more when you’re on that stuff or off of it.”

Yes, that would be the same spouse who had just joined me to celebrate our anniversary.

The current potion had seemed to be in the Benign and Pointless category. But about six weeks into it, beginning just before I left for Italy, it abruptly began causing violent nausea. It was intolerable and, like most psychotropic meds I had been plied with for my “depression,” did not give anything like what it took away—for example, the ability to get through a sentence without unexpected spontaneous retching. One morning even the thought of trying to swallow the pill made me sick. So I didn’t.

I didn’t know that this particular drug was notorious for putting people into a harsh and sometimes very dangerous detox tailspin, even if they missed a dose in the morning and took it in the evening. I was just glad I didn’t feel like throwing up.

The next morning on a bumpy bus ride to Tivoli I was suddenly seized by a skull-crushing migraine just at the moment one of the students wanted to talk about Keats, whose “Ode on a Grecian Urn” they all had to memorize and be able to recite by the end of the program. He wanted to know where I thought “ethics” fit into that famous final couplet: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty; That is all / Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.”

“There’s not just beauty and truth,” he kept saying. “Isn’t there something else? Isn’t there… morality?”

I was thinking – yes, there’s something else, there are a million something elses. Like, eye of the beholder, that stuff – beauty and truth alike. Like how “all you need to know” is a farce, doesn’t exist; there is always more, elusive, needful stuff without which you are blinkered, fumbling and half-asleep. But Keats didn’t mean aesthetics were more important than ethics; he meant they were embedded in each other in a way. The Romantics found beauty in all kinds of truths, even the harsh and bleak and ugly and inescapable ones. In grief and terror. In ruin and death. In the harrowing and the horrible. In fire and ice and ash. Keats meant something about the arachnid tapestry of the so-called universal and the so-called personal, the supposedly empirical and the supposedly subjective, how we each see, through a unique lens, a sort of kaleidoscope of the psyche. That personal truth, individual truth, was the only truth any of us would ever have, because we cannot see what we cannot see. This is arguably why humans need art: sometimes someone else has a magical gift for communicating his or her own Truth, and it sends a spoke of connection into the world that is there, potentially, forever. Those lines of Keats’s certainly weren’t going anywhere. But I couldn’t say it. I muttered something. I’m not sure what.

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I suppose the early stage of a journey down a pharmacological rabbit hole is as good a time as any to take in the baked, surreal ruin of Hadrian’s Villa. Crumbling, desiccated, plundered, immense and ancient, the place rambled on for what seemed like miles. Lizards posed on sun-parched stones, tails describing elegant reverse curves. Ogee, I’d thought, and then oggi, “today.” It seemed like it meant something. Niches in the dusty remaindered walls housed nests of passerine birds. Sparrows? Cypresses stood in for fluted columns; olive trees rose out of the unkempt grass, so old and gnarled in some cases the trunks had holes through the middle that you could see the sunlight through, like the oculus in the dome of a church that draws the eye upward to Heaven. Something about how the greenery had taken on architectural qualities while the architecture dwindled back to the dirt made sense. Even the dust glittered in the heat; something caught the sun like minuscule black diamonds. Mica? Broken glass powdered by years of foot traffic? I really wanted to know where it came from, whether it occurred naturally in that dirt or whether it was, maybe, the pulverized remains of a stone slab pillaged from a faraway place by a greedy robber-baron emperor that had once inlaid some narrative mosaic floor? Like that one in the Villa Borghese, where black stone crowned the heads of fallen gladiators with the letter Θ – Thanatos: dead. Well, Thanatos had claimed everything here but a few birds and reptiles and some dark carp moving in water so still and opaque-green it could be malachite. The sculptures in the grotto were all missing body parts, staring at nothing. A semi-excavated patchwork of baths and halls. Patchy, I remember thinking. Pace. It seemed like it meant something.

I was dizzy. Maybe from the migraine. Maybe from the heat. My husband was leaving the next day, and I was rapidly oscillating between desperately wanting him to stay and desperately wanting to watch the taillights of the taxi taking him to Fiumicino. We got back to Rome with nothing much to say to each other, which was crazy enough. To see what we’d just seen and not have anything to talk about? I think: Et in Arcadia Ego, though I’m pretty sure Poussin predated the Romantics by a couple zillion years. Ego. I am. In Tempe, or the dales of Arkady. Ego? The undisciplined inner child that wreaks havoc and keeps us from seeing our true faces in mirrors. I had too much of it, whatever it was; I’d been told that plenty of times. Rome is very specifically not Arcadia, it is Arch-chaos; and the “ego” in that phrase is Thanatos.

Theta, the big crossout.

It is day four of the SNRI cold-turkey madness, as I sit on the bank of the Tiber. A spatula-wielding Brutus and a Cassius decked out in a gladiator apron defeat Caesar, the tyrant great-great grandson of Venus, to wild applause. The nightshade sprouting through the crack in the concrete is starting to look kind of tasty. I have two more days before the course ends and my plane leaves. I’m not entirely sure I’m going to live that long, and I am not entirely sure I have a problem with that. I’m exhausted, profoundly dizzy, and increasingly irritable. Which seems reasonable because the large rock that’s stuck in my gut is pretty uncomfortable, and my limbs are shaking in spite of the heat, as if I’m a Parkinson’s patient or having an attack of malaria.

Something snaps, in my skull. An electrical jolt, like small lightning.

The players scatter. I leave alone, feeling lead-limbed and disoriented and wishing someone would help me and not sure how to ask, because I don’t know what to ask for.

I wonder if Keats felt like this at the end – too young to die, nothing to be done about it, nearly too weak to speak. He would have been helpless, but at least he probably didn’t field quips from Joseph Severn like: “I’m not convinced as to whether you are more obnoxious when spitting up blood or when half-dead from malnourishment and leeches, Sir.”

For a minute I even laugh because it all makes so much fucking sense. The dysphoria, the uncontrollable crying, the relapsing and remitting feeling of not being all the way in my body, the horrible nightmares, that odd opiate-dazed sensation, a kind of nauseated, glassy-eyed delirium. It all fits. God, but I’m a throwback. Pharmacological meltdown? Nonsense! I’m a Romantic!

Romantic, indeed. Throw me back. Not worth gutting.

I am increasingly possessed of a mad desire to flee, and I am not the fleeing kind. I lie on the broken sofa bed, in the dank cave of an apartment I’ve rented, sob for a while – over the fact that my husband managed to help make even Rome into a misery and that still, now that he’s gone, I feel more alone than ever in my life. Over how John Keats was dead at 25 and still managed to produce a body of work whose brilliance I couldn’t hope to rival in my wildest dreams, over everything, really.

Then I realize I’m about to miss an offsite reading, and force myself into clean clothes.

We gather at the usual meeting spot. Colleague notices that I am slumped on the ground in a non-slump-friendly silk sundress.

He says, “You’re not well, are you.”

I look up, search for words, have a Romantic Moment and start crying. It’s completely out of my control, there is nothing for it. Great. There’s me asked back next year. Invite the hysterical one! Rome doesn’t have enough chaos to energize poets!

Colleague gives me a canny, slightly sad smile. “You know, scars actually do become boring eventually, if it helps. I almost never admire mine any more. Let’s get coffee tomorrow.”

I try to convey my extreme gratitude without further bawling. I am not entirely successful.

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Off we march, to the top of the Capitoline Hill, to admire the spectacular view and give a reading of newly-minted poems we’d stash in a crack somewhere significant in order to vouchsafe our return to the Eternal City. I think of Keats’s odes to Apollo, the light-god, the bard-god, the beauty-god, the god of order and harmony. I read an ode, too, but to Mercury, patron of runners and thieves, oratory and wit, couriers and line-crossers, the only god in the Greco-Roman pantheon who could walk into and out of Hell at will. I think I used to have something like will. I’ve lost track of it. I say I would lodge it in his temple, not far from the Palatine, though in truth I would place it in the Pantheon’s oculus or in the leaf-hair of Bernini’s Daphne or the mouth of one of the black carp dully patrolling the pool in Tivoli or a weedy ruin on the edge of the Aventine. I don’t say that what I want “vouchsafed” is a return to the world of the living from this demonic fucking confluence of the Styx and the Acheron and the garbage-choked eddies of the Tiber.

Mercury poisoning was, they say, what actually killed Keats. Not that the tuberculosis wouldn’t have done him eventually, but his death was apparently much hastened by self-medication with mercury, which was a common “remedy” for syphilis at the time. Hallmark symptoms of mercury poisoning: shakiness, loss of memory and appetite, personality changes. Irritability. Apparently it was also rather rough on the lungs.

They used to execute people on this hill, I think, vaguely, not knowing where the thought came from – where in Rome didn’t they execute people? Then – Capitoline, caput. Off with their heads. Theta. A funny thing happened on the way to the fucking Forum. Ut nunc omni decore nudata, prostrate jacet, instar gigantei cadaveris corrupti atque undique exesi. Whatever.

Oh, look. It’s dinnertime.

People break up and go their separate ways. I wait for someone to say, “Come with us,” but no one does. The flashbulb goes off in my head. I feel as though I am becoming smaller, shrinking physically, psychically. I walk down the hill. I’m afraid I will fall. I can’t tell how far my foot is from the ground and hills and stairs have become bad news that way. I am tired of eating alone; there are times and places where it’s fine, even desirable. Rome is never one of them. Come to that, I’m tired of eating. So much effort.

I am lost. I wasn’t paying a jot of attention to the route we took to get here and have no idea where I’m supposed to go. Clouds of swifts circle above me, scooping up crepuscular insects. I wander, Lonely As One Of Those Things, though there will be no daffodils, and anyway, a swift-cloud is quite specifically not lonely. Swifts are gregarious and social, and that is why they fly in flocks dense enough to resemble clouds. Apus apus, Common Swift. It’s a reflex, the Taxonomical Calming Ritual, as if I will know my place by naming the things in it. I have always done this, I think, since I was young. In central Rome there’s not a lot of vegetation, but I scan the streets anyway. Pinus pinea, stone pine. Ficus carica, the familiar hand-shaped leaves of an edible fig, the ones that clad Adam and Eve once they found out what Truth and Beauty buy you in this world, struggling through a gap in the stones. Solanum, that same kind of nightshade that I saw at the river. Platanus, sycamore. Leaves eddied to the edge of a fountain, tiled together on the surface, a foliage-mosaic. Portulaca oleracea, summer purslane. Arum italicum, Malva sylvestris. Nature decrees: art yields. Or doesn’t.

Piazza di Spagna. Keats died there, in that pink house. Byron, who had brutalized Keats in writing before the tuberculosis finished him off, lived a few doors away, just there. A little locus of Romantic Rome: it’s funny in a way, since the Romantics were largely wilderness types and this place, headwater of the Romance languages and stone-bound in every direction, has 25 centuries of human history—Republican Rome, Imperial Rome, Medieval Rome, Renaissance Rome, Baroque Rome, Romantic Rome, whatever now is – crammed cheek by jowl against and atop one another. The whole city, still teemingly, insanely alive – is at the same time a vast dusty reliquary. A walled garden made of travertine and marble and basalt.

But as any gardener knows, enclosing your specimen collection in a walled-off and carefully crafted landscape is, ultimately, the most striking backdrop for the wilderness that underlies everything and the decay that is always, always coming.

One of the students asked me how you could tell which plants and trees were native to a place like Rome. I had no idea. The earliest botanical records we have probably wouldn’t make it clear, it’s certainly not as though you could take Pliny the Elder at his word, and the Roman Empire must have snagged specimen plants and carted them back here from every place they ever landed a ship or built a road. I realized – I realize now – that I have no idea what it is, what it means, to be native to anywhere, to belong to anything, to have a proper place.

In this one, this place, you do not need a Discontinuation Syndrome to make you dizzy.

Byron to John Hobhouse, 1818: “Mi pare che in una paese tutto poetico, che vanta la lingua la più nobile ed insieme la più dolce, tutte tutte le vie diverse si possono tentare…” My Italian’s not good, and half of it’s Spanish, but as I sit on the Spanish Steps I want to figure out what Byron meant by “tentare.” It means endeavor, attempt. But also, tempt. And also, I think, grope? All the ways you can be tempted? All the ways you can be groped? (Byron would’ve found them all if ever anyone could.) All the ways you can endeavor… to live? “Tutte tutte le vie diverse:” So many different lives, kinds of lives. Hordes, throngs, swarms. The most noble, beautiful language. Arguable, though I like English in its odd half Latinate, half Germanic split personality. I expect, though I couldn’t prove it, that it has more words than Italian does, and that they do not all drip from the tongue like honey is part of the beauty. The lyrical and the guttural side by side. The sublime lyric, the gutter – Byron knew about gutters. He referred to rolling around in them as being “dissipated.” But almost two hundred years before this moment, that man stood here in all his club-footed antiheroic splendor. And wrote of this surging tide of diverse temptations in much the way I might describe it right now, a sort of riotous, flooding vivacity, a beautiful bittersweet chaotic writhing of the sensual and the sordid and the porous boundaries between flesh and stone. Bernini knew about that. Keats and Byron certainly knew about that. Metamorphosis. One thing becoming another.

Bittersweet: Solanum dulcamara. That’s what it was.

Thou art the garden of the world.

I emerge on the Campo De’ Fiori, as dusk begins to settle on the city. I think: Vitis vinifera. Statim, immediately, medical emergency. I sit at the café closest to the statue of Giordano Bruno, order a carafe of Ribolla Gialla, and take out my notebook. Of course, I can’t string a sentence together, but it feels good to sit down and to have something for my hands to do. Bruno’s eternal bronzed glower looms over the site where he was immolated by the Spanish Inquisition for refusing to recant his belief that the sun revolved around the earth and that there were probably other worlds with life on them and suns of their own.

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It’s not late, especially by Italian standards, and my colleagues and the students are doubtless out together somewhere laughing and drinking. I don’t know where. I am tired of walking in circles. My stomach aches. My feet have begun to blister. I can’t do this any more.

The next morning there’s a field trip to the Protestant cemetery to pay homage at the gravesites of what was left of Shelley and the One Whose Name Is Writ In Water (but whose epitaph is writ in marble). I consult my map, but get lost anyway because the street I’m looking for doesn’t seem to exist. I want to see the cemetery, but I get stuck at an intersection at the edge of the river, staring in uncomprehending awe through construction-site fencing at a corner lot, walled on two sides and being slowly retaken by vines.

The entire lot is stacked with engraved tablets and broken acanthus-clad columns, strange partial objects I can’t identify. I’m betting this happens all the time in this city: start to clear land for a building, stumble on an archaeological site and have to rope it off. And there are so damned many of them no one is rushing out to dust and date them and enshrine them in a museum: they’re routine.

This place descends to the very halls of Pluto.

I wonder if it’s nice, in the halls of Pluto. Low on sunlight, presumably, but I imagine it’s capacious. Plenty of storage. Are its columns adorned with white poplar instead of acanthus? Are there forests that grow there in the dark? Was the water of those rivers clean or was it the way I imagine it right now, like the Tiber, roiling with the discarded baggage of millions of lives? Isn’t it a shame that Lethe and lethal do not share a common taxonomy? They should. The Romans had a slightly more comfortable relationship with Pluto, lord of lethality, than the Greeks did with Hades. Romans imagined Thanatos doing the dirty work and while his gig as Lord of the Underworld did make him King of the Dead, Pluto was also the god of riches, ruler of ores and gems and marble and porphyry and travertine.

And Hell, talk about human capital.

Did Pluto receive the dead with detached indifference?

Wouldn’t detached indifference be the ultimate treasure?

But my soul wanders; I demand it back / To meditate amongst decay, and stand / A ruin amidst ruins; there to track / Fall’n states and buried greatness…

Having given up on the Protestant cemetery I try to retrace my steps home, but I get lost because the street I’m supposed to take is less interesting than that weird ruin over there, and that strange alley, and that statue, and I’m too overwhelmed to be bothered.

Romantic-era England loved Italian ruins – there was an impassioned nineteenth-century vogue for knockoff Corinthian columns and phony grottoes and deliberately broken statuary in English gardens. Contemporary landscape architecture classes use those landscapes as cautionary tales. Inauthenticity. Kiss of Thanatos. Those poets wouldn’t have disagreed. For them, authenticity trumped beauty – no, it was beauty. No matter how monstrous.

I end up back at the river. I’m sweating profusely and no longer sure if it’s the sultry weather or whatever has run amok in my nervous system. I’m aware of being irritated by it and then irritated at my own irritation. I go for one last look at the portico walls of Santa Maria in Trastevere, clad in odd tesserae from who knows where or what (someone must), inscriptions from tombs, fragments of friezes, images crude and lavishly detailed, ancient and Medieval looking, scratched and sculpted. Words. Animals. Botanical motifs, acanthus and palm and maybe a poppy seedhead and also something I am pretty sure is a morning glory – a resurrection symbol? Pagan? Don’t know. The thing could be medieval or pre-Christian, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you but I do know it is Ipomoea purpurea, a strangling weed where I live, commonly referred to as “flying saucers.”

One of these days, Alice. Pow! To the moon.

Alien abduction. Cigare volant.

Morning glories are entheogens, the class of phsychoactive plants that induce visions of God. I wonder if Romans or early Christians used them that way. I wonder what I’d see if I were to ingest a bunch of those alkaloids. I already feel like I’m on something, courtesy of being on nothing, and it isn’t nice. But this wall, I find it calming. I think it’s because it is a sort of meta-Rome, mosaic of mosaics, shattered bands, strata.

My God, my chest hurts.

At the farewell dinner marking the successful conclusion of the program, I stand in a corner attempting to calculate the number of hours I will have to stay awake in order to make it to the airport in time for my crack-of-dawn flight home. I am agitated. My palms are sweating. I feel pointless, in the way. And Byron’s stanzas have set up shop in my head.

 And how and why we know not, nor can trace
Home to its cloud this lightning of the mind,
But feel the shock renewed, nor can efface
The blight and blackening which it leaves behind,
Which out of things familiar, undesigned,
When least we deem of such, calls up to view
The spectres whom no exorcism can bind,—
The cold—the changed—perchance the dead—anew,
The mourned, the loved, the lost—too many!—yet how few!

More than 150 years before you could go cold turkey off a drug like this and make yourself quite ill, Byron had also experienced some kind of brain-lightning. I don’t think he’d meant it in the flash-of-insight sense either. He’s not talking about illumination, he’s talking about a smoking crater.

Even though there’s never any signal in the Palazzo I reflexively pull out my phone and try to check my email. Maybe my husband has written to say he is looking forward to me coming back. Of course he hasn’t. But one message has sneaked through, from an old friend I haven’t heard from in a year. He’s sorry he’s been off the grid but there was a very bad accident and he’s been in the hospital with a serious concussion and a spectacular number of broken bones. He’s at home now, and a little impaired from the regimen of Percodan and bourbon he’s on, and a lot of his short-term memory is thrashed but he certainly remembers that he’d said he’d write and never did.

How terrifying. I’m glad you’re recovering, I write back. I’m at a dinner party in Rome and I think I’m having some kind of breakdown. I’m scared. I’m not sure who I am anymore and I don’t have a concussion to blame it on. Or Percodan. Can you email Percodan?

Sounds like we’re in the same place, he writes back. But listen: I know who you are. You are passionate and joyful. Try not to be scared. That is not your true nature.

It hits me like a slap that if my husband has ever said anything like that to me, I cannot remember it. That in fact his last words to me were along the lines of “You think you’re so put together and you don’t even see yourself. You’re a fucking trainwreck.” And that mine to him were “Thanks. Happy anniversary: enjoy your celibacy.”

I turn my face to the wall because I’m tired of crying in front of people.

I’ve missed you, I write. Which is true. But what I’m crying about is that I miss me. I miss who I was before all this. I liked that person better, she was a lot ballsier and a lot less pissed off. And didn’t have a skull full of convection lightning. I miss the person my old friend knew.

I was really hoping you’d say that, friend. And the connection drops.

I sit down to dinner, manage to eat some pasta. Funny skits are performed and some of them even make me laugh. I’m not addled enough to believe it means this is over. My stomach still feels like it’s full of stones, I’m still dizzy and confused enough to be afraid I will be disoriented and miss my flight. And then there’s the question of what to do when I get back, what to do with what I know deep down, the unbeautiful truth that I am a shadow of the person I had meant to be, believed I was, and that my marriage is killing me, maybe killing us both. And how and why we know not, nor can trace home to its cloud this lightning of the mind… I can’t wait to leave, and I can’t stand the thought of going home.

Back in the dank, mildew-ridden apartment, I keep myself awake packing and re-packing and listening to music. Two o’clock, three. I contemplate layers and packing density, take out a pair of shoes, put in a book, start over. Start over. How did I end up with so much stuff? My soul wanders: I demand it back but it isn’t listening. Images flash in my head, less like electricity, more like an old slideshow. The eddies of plastic trash at the edge of the Tiber. Poems I wrote when I was eight. Lethe, lethality, poppy, nightshade. A verse-shard out of my teens, what was that? Looking like Lethe, see! The lake… What was that? Tetrameter, pounding, like my head. Looking like Lethe, see! The lake / A conscious slumber seems to take / And would not, for the world, awake. It repeats and repeats. Oh – it’s Poe. The one whose Name Is Writ in Baltimore. But that triplet, does it stick in my head because of the irresistible tongue-trip of all of those L-sounds or because he’s cheating to get that sound? Lethe is a river. How could a lake ever look like it? Still the four-beat lines repeat. Does tetrameter remind everyone of horses galloping or is that just me? I think of riding a trail in the foothills near the house where I grew up, a hot day, me at probably sixteen, already tirelessly (tiresomely) identifying the flora – look! Buckeye, bay laurel, valley oak, chamise, wild oat – while a boy in a red t-shirt shook his head and laughed. I think of the spectres that no exorcism can bind. I have these visions of my teens and twenties, the time I spent pining, oh yes, ever the Hopeless Romantic, over someone who would never love me back, who would not, for the world, awake. Would anything be different now if I had known that someone else had been watching me with that same staggered, uncomprehending furtive stare, didn’t you realize? Hideous high school dances, one where I ducked out for air and found myself face to face with a massive low moon and it felt, I don’t know why but it felt like it meant something. An opiate vapor, dewy, dim / exhales from out her golden rim… Would anything be different now if at that moment I had noticed who else was leaning over that balcony, preferring the visage of a glowing satellite to the sweaty morass inside the gymnasium? Would anything be different if an opiate vapor descended over me and made me forget everything I know? Bourbon and Percodan and morning glory and moonlight? And nothing else, hazy transience?

I’ve been with my husband for a decade. I know, I am positive, that we both entered into this with good intentions. Was there a particular place where it went wrong? It seems they were always wrong, but that can’t have been true. Did we just get tired and settle for less than what we really needed? Were we meant for someone else? Does that kind of thing exist or is it all just making a choice and either succeeding or failing to abide by it? Was it someone’s fault? Was it all just fine until one or both of us ruined everything? With a bitter look, with a flattering word? The coward does it with a kiss; the brave man with a sword. No: Wilde was no Romantic, much too cynical. What’s wrong with my memory? It’s warped, surely, damaged. From use, maybe. I remember everything. I wish I didn’t. Maybe it’s as Keats had it in his address to the almost-lovers on that Grecian urn; that the only love you keep is the one you never get to have? More happy love! More happy, happy love, / forever warm and still to be enjoy’d, / Forever panting and forever young.

Empty vessel?

I wedge a pair of sandals into the suitcase. A couple of books I’ve bought in a language I can’t really read. No matter.

Four. Four-fifteen. Time for the cab. I gather my overstuffed luggage and walk outside. The night is balmy; the Chiesa Nuova rises in front of me, dark and splendid; the cobblestone tributary that feeds the broad lanes of Vittorio Emanuelle glistens in the light of streetlamps and a heavy orange moon, maybe two days on the wane, which is the last thing I will remember seeing until the airport. I look up, over the ancient rooftops and the ancient basaltic fish scales of the streets and the ancient air still filled with particles exhaled by Julius Caesar who believed he was the direct descendant of Venus, and by John Keats who thought he was going to cure himself of a disease of Venus by way of essence of Mercury, the thief god, the trickster god, the one who escorts you to the place where Charon will ask if you can spare a little change. It’s hard to change. Even though it’s also inevitable; everything changes. And blood-laced dying exhalations defy century after century and hang on the air like an invisible archaeology.

Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced.

Grace in ruin? Maybe. I’ve heard it happens.


About the Author:

amy-glynn

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer whose work appears widely in journals and anthologies including The Best American Poetry 2010 and 2012. Her poetry collection A Modern Herbal was published by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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  • Hi, your material really resonated with me, the descriptions of Rome and poetic references whilst stretching my literary memory (!) certainly evoked the beauty of the place and the jagged juxtaposition of being alone in such a romantic and historic part of the world. My blog I have just started is in similar territory but set against the backdrop of Egypt. Thanks again.

  • Sahil Banga

    Amazing writing, to start with. I read it in two batches, as it was quite heavy. Though I’m not much acquainted with poetry, but could understand the references and pauses and repetitions here. Kudos for such a brilliant piece.