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In Paradiso, Speriamo Bene


ISSUE:  Autumn 1997
(in memory of Peter Taylor and, once again, of Robert Lowell)

1

Between space, as I often am
in dreams, in some precise, geographical way—
one unreal street or structure, between two real ones—
Charlottesville this time, north from the University,
suddenly you’re with me, pointing out a shop window
with birds, all raptors, stuffed on dusty perches.
Their plumage mottles, dead-white to leaf-brown
to iron filings. . .

Waking, I understand: it was your generation,
the giants in the earth, who knew “the good
is the enemy of the best,” and ranked the poets,
ranked their lines, even; drank till three or four,
and again at noon, and if the waiter heard them
mutter “I really shouldn’t” and turned around,
drawled majestically, “You weren’t supposed to hear that. . .

And all the more, as they grew older,
bewildered by the facade of days and buildings
no argument resolves;
each hangover breaking more blood vessels, memory-links;
the smile afloat on the body two-thirds water;

after three strokes, two decades of insulin
in public bathrooms
(delighted when a black man misunderstood, and grinned)
saying to death, “I’ve too many books to write. . .”

Present moment! Sad hero,
who dies as soon as he’s raised his sword and slain
all of his fathers. . . . How can we live you,
knowing your guilt, and knowing
how infinitely far you’re already left behind?

2.

But you showed me something else—the little vials
like Jewish Jahrzeit candles,
rosy wax sloshed and melted up their sides
over half-obliterated scripture.

You said they were poems; asked if I could say them
from memory. . . .

Instead, a story: perhaps you told it to me
the first time; now, it’s in his biography—

Cal was in Venice, at the Basilica
of the Frari. He wanted to see the Titian.

But his friend, angry with him
for not noticing the Madonna
a shaft of light picked out of three centuries,
because it was by ignoto,

told him, find it yourself.
Even he, he had to guess.

It’s hard to miss; in fact, he’d described it
in a poem, long ago,
the red robes flying, “gorgeous as a jungle bird”;

but he stopped a passing monk.
(One has to know, here: he botched languages
so badly, once in Paris he was given
the special seat for mutilés de guerre.)

Dov’è Tiziano, he asked. (Where is Titian?)

To which the monk, his finger pointing upwards:
In Paradiso, speriamo bene.

(In Paradise, we have to hope.)

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