My friend, until you have been cursed
to wander, kinless, foreign lands where range
barbarians so foul the farmer goes
with a machete strung across his back
simply to milk his kine, you cannot know
time’s secret ministries: how it can crawl
like a disease that steals
so sly upon a man he barely feels
its subtle victories; or like an army
marching at half speed. It’s true: I have bogged-down
in this forgotten outpost. Do not upbraid
narrowness of theme: I never wrote
to better purpose than when I implore
Augustus to be merciful.
I have bogged-down in this forgotten outpost
on the Black Sea: a spit of land, a fistula
in the oxter of an Empire I once served.
In winter, the ocean freezes. Brigands
drive chariots over the ice, terrorize
farmers, raze the homesteads. Livestock
& women are seized, the men are lashed
to stakes, compelled to watch their crops destroyed.
Leander might have found apt use
for such a frozen waste: he would have walked
the Hellespont like a vault of glass, but those old
tales are not told here. Winter is cruel.
I think continually of my last night in Rome.
Wolves move nimbly on the ice to bring down deer.
I think continually of my last night in Rome:
upon the bed my Lady, weeping, prays
to gods that – on my watch – fled into stars
while I pace back & forth. I have a list,
but who attends to lists at such a time?
I pack my trinkets & my winter clothes,
my manuscripts (unlucky charms)…
After the worst is over, there’s worse to come.
Like one condemned to die, I’d felt so sure
something would intervene – but now the stars
begin to hide & in the market squares
familiar drums begin to beat. We disagree
how best to use the time & have a silly row.
The hours troop by like conscripts on a drill.
The gods flee to the stars, where they become
daft stories poets use
to show their mastery of form;
an exercise in rhyme.
Perhaps a corner yet remains in Rome
that holds in reverence the name
of one who versed with bite:
wherever poets meet
let the best chair stand empty:
let them remember
Naso, who would not stoop to wring
old metre from a heathen tongue;
who shamed the gods with his inventions –
& found men less forgiving.
Quarantine or quest,
in exile blessed or cursed,
this ocean will be crossed
after our man has lost
everything to a thirst
beyond fathom: at the last
he will kneel before the polestar,
salute the god of this great vast.
Does he recall the aftertaste
of those tears he kissed
away? Or how she blushed the first
time he saw her undressed?
Who is it waits for Naso, palms pressed
together, as the ocean waits to be crossed?