Two Poems by Martin Edmunds


White Nights, 1938

Russia, your white nights,
a blizzard of linen for lovers, once,
have come to mean witch-hunts,
a litter of letters and lives
thrust under the lights
of a surgical theater, and knives
scraping a phrase from the skin
of a sheep or a goat.
Since you’ve used them for vellum,
the ranks of your poets grow thin.

Bella Roma

Junked hypodermics made it hard to walk
along the Tiber by the deserted, grand
sandstone embankment of the temple block.
In the river, itself the color of umber mud under sand,
two navy frogmen hugged us for a block.
The bubbles from their air tanks pocked
the water. Twin snorkels rose to slice
the sleazy surface. An inflated lifeboat
weighed down by officers in summer whites
was making progressively tighter figure 8’s,
drawing in nets with water bottle floats.
A cardinal streaked by in a chauffeured launch,
pudgy fingers folded flat against his paunch.
His backwash brought the frogmen to a boil.
A fisherman smashed his rod. He wolfed the bait,
cold anchovies in a film of oil
on bread rounds from a blinding china plate.
Glass masks flashed in the sun. Underfoot,
the needles crunched, a dusting of Alpine ice
or wedding rice.
By the Ripetta, my paesano, a New Englander,
lived in a certain stone locanda, for there
a drying pair
of some Celtics fan’s green-topped socks
finished the flag on a red window box.
Augustus still smiles on his slaves and their latest gods.
In that poor soil, a bursting milkweedpod’s
silk purse was turning to a sow’s cracked ear.
I thought of Circe. My Sicilian muse
burned to no purpose in the dog days’ heat
and the dust of the street.
The sulphurous Tiber sputtered like a fuse.
The noon hour made the city’s scizzy air
taste like soldi, like holy water from the scalloped fonts
of Santa Maria del Populo. Navona Square
was huge and carless, but some days a sick fog haunts
its waters, and our hired guide said it stains
everything except the orphaned kids
who get the pennies if they clean the drains.
I came by bus each evening to watch the rain’s
glass ampules shatter on Neptune’s heavy lids.
A black river issues from the catacombs
of the Metro exit
to swamp St. Peter’s Square and kiss his foot—
a filthy custom, some contend, but, ut
poetice loquar,
not every pilgrim can kiss Pope John Paul’s ring.
Each day’s sky is a vast rotunda, its glass dome
consumes the music of our suffering.
In Rome, all roads lead away from Rome.
The altar’s roped off like a boxing ring.

About the Author:

Martin Edmunds (b. 1955) is an American poet.

“White Nights, 1938” appeared in The High Road to Taos, University of Illinois Press, 1994, part of the National Poetry Series. “Bella Roma” appeared in The Paris Review and then in The High Road to Taos, University of Illinois Press, 1994, part of the National Poetry Series.