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Limbo


ISSUE:  Summer 1998

One afternoon this summer in Assisi
I stood where experts stood a few weeks later
craning their necks to estimate quake damage
to the Church of St. Francis’ frescoed vault
when it collapsed in an aftershock and crushed them.

As pains shot through my stiff neck, I complained,
Why paint a masterpiece it hurts to look at?
To ease a tingling nerve, I leaned way back
like a Calypso dancer slipping under
the Limbo stick his grinning partners lower.

All at once, I wasn’t in Assisi
near the end of the Second Millennium
checking out eight hundred year old art
by masters of the Early Renaissance
soon to become a pile of bloody plaster.

I fell through a crack in my consciousness
and landed, drunk, at a party in the ‘sixties.
“How looow can you gooo,” sang Harry Bellafonte
on the stereo while my friends clapped their hands
as I tried to bob under the broom handle.

I flexed my knees and spread my feet apart
until I teetered on the edge of balance,
but the broomstick hovered way too low
for me to slide my heaving chest beneath it,
so I fell backwards on the green shag carpet

and lay there panting while the ceiling spun.
“You’re doomed to go to limbo when you die”
called out a girl I loved more than champagne.
Her rich voice mingled with the throbbing bongoes.
She was a singer. When did I last see her?

That was the year that Johnson bombed Hanoi
and my draft board rescinded my deferment.
All I remember’s watching her recede
through a bus window as I pulled away,
thinking death won’t be as bad as this.

It didn’t cross my mind that I’d survive
the war and her rejection, fall in love
with someone taller and more beautiful
who’d blot out recollection of her face
for more than a quarter century,

until this afternoon in Italy
when a pinched nerve in my spine replayed my past
like a needle dropped onto a dusty record
called The Limbo Rock. I straightened up
and walked back out into the rain-slicked streets

which paved a secret flaw beneath Assisi
soon to open up beneath the church
and bring its heaven’s painted saints and angels
down on experts sent to check the damage
because they knew all of its ancient flaws.

Like lovers staring at a brand new portrait
of someone they lost many years before,
they’d notice new, heartbreaking imperfections
not there when they took their last longing look.
The cracks must have moved them to near-despair:

they’d have to work whole lifetimes to restore them.
Then the floor trembled, bringing down the ceiling
on them and all their futile aspirations.
And what do I remember of that lost treasure?
The face of someone who’s forgotten mine.

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