Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sounds of Time, Assignment #16

[note: original had two narratives matched side-by-side]

Cloister of Basilica SS Quattro Coronati

The sound of the streets fades into the air. A nun leads us into a small square courtyard; we enter the doors with curiosity in silence. A paved hallway encircles the courtyard, we all circle along its shaded path, gazing into the sunny serenity that lies within.
My view is barred behind petit columns joined by soft arches, and I feel both inside the scene shuttered outside, admiring through an open window. We circumambulate the full perimeter before we dare tread into the sun and the open air.

Small, narrow breaks in the banister allow entrance from all four sides. We begin to peak our feet past the columns; the crunch of gravel beneath my feet is enough to break the silence. We all tread lightly so as the keep the peace, slowing our pace and keeping on our toes. Finally, we rest to write. We adorn the courtyard along the banister, sitting every four arches away from one another. Soon we are comfortable, poised like relaxed statues, blending into the scenery – I can picture us in white marble.

Patches of sea-green grass cover each corner, so as to open a relief of gravel shaped in a diamond in the center. The grass spills over the edges of each patch, a natural length we are unaccustomed to see in the finely-trimmed flat lawns of Seattle. In one corner, a peak of red colors the mood. A few open-leafed bushes add height to the green landscape. Despite the quietude, sitting here, I can tell that life lives beneath. Small ants carry brambles across the gravel. This place is youth without crazy – so much potential is tucked away beneath its soil.

When our pictures are satisfied, there is only the constant trickling of the central round stone fountain that dribbles into a shallow, cross-shaped basin. Each trickle is so light that it looks like a string of pearls running down. The sound of water beads breaking the surface of the pooling water brings life to the silence, music to the insects that work beneath our feet, and inspiration to our pens. We sit, soaking in the moment.

The sound of cars, chatter, and vendors are absorbed by the heavy stone walls. I can smell the tranquility. Even the sun seems to have softened her touch on my skin. I lean back and let my gaze wander upward. The arches point to a second level of cubic columns – larger and further spaced than those lining the bottom. Red clay pots overflow with bushy leaves speckled with pink and red petals. If there is life inside, I do not hear it, but I imagine the nuns mouthing their daily prayers. These support an inward-inclining roof that narrows our view of the outside to a square postcard of a rich azure sky and a white, glowing sun. A single pigeon coos as it flutters back and forth across my view.

We are on a hill, but we are engulfed in a heavenly basin. We are underwater; the outside world seems distorted and distant. The cloister has sucked us in from its open roof into this courtyard. The courtyard is small, but seems to be endless in its expanse, as if, if I were to move into the scene, I would find myself in the middle of Eden, without visible boundaries.

I shift out of my sunbathed seat to a ledge in the shade. The coolness seeps into me and a different tranquility, more sharp but clear, trickles past my previous blanket of warmth. Others relocate as well; I watch Jay tread carefully: bending around each broken piece of rock, hopping over a blade of grass.

This calm is so foreign to us that we inspect every inch of foliage and stone as if we have never seen its beauty. The simplicity of life has become only a memory, and as we stare in its face we are cautious. This seclusion is so distant from our daily routines that we try hard to treasure and preserve it, careful not to taint it with our hands, and consequently remaining distanced, without experiencing it (much like my own feelings toward religion). But life in a different setting we would have trampled over without a second thought. I remember the scattered fountains – the tourist sites pristine, the forgotten ones floating in soda cans and old newspapers.

A group of tourists chatting pulls me out of this trance of silence, and a distant roar of plane engines soars above. The ambiance recedes before me, back into the hazel gaze of the fountain’s water. It will wait for me until I am undistracted to guide me back, but for now, she rests. We have been slowed by her detour into simplicity, but we will soon head back into the busy streets of Rome. I can already hear the gradual stirring of my classmates as they too awake from their trance. The treads of gravel steps grow more frequent. The slide of clothes and paper grow louder. The lure of the city is calling us. We pack away this treasure into photos and writing who knows when we will visit this memory again. But we certainly will not live it. A gentle breeze kisses us goodbye – we will soon meet the true winds outside. Shawn’s voice leads us: “Let’s go.”

Cloister of Santa Maria della Pace

It echoes with voices – no word can be distinguished but I can hear the people dancing around me: a 60-year old Italian woman, a young Brit with glasses, a newly-wed looking to explore, a French mother-daughter pair dressed in Parisian couture. Rigid square columns in a square courtyard – four per edge, one per corner – are linked by plain semicircles. I step directly across the central square courtyard to the opposite corner for a seat; the voices pass directly up the stairs, and ricochet from the walls.

A small ledge lifts above the courtyard about half a foot, barely enough to distinguish the height difference. As I sit I notice the simplicity of the space. Four strips of white marble tie the corners into the center of the courtyard – like an ‘X’ – which slightly sinks into the ground, as if for drainage purposed, like the tiled floor of my bathroom. A cement button peaks out from the center, a nipple in a flat courtyard. The cobblestones that pave the ground are angled to the edges, diamonds to the square.

Only three colors exist here – grey, white, beige – which I almost mistake for one mass of off-white. All surfaces are flat. This droning monotony scatters my vision, so that in one gaze forward I can see the entire sphere of the cloister, glancing from column to column to column. The light color forces a focus on everything, so that I cannot concentrate on anything. I am so distracted that I close my eyes, only to imagine more tourists walking by, tagged by their accents. Here, life is visiting a dead cloister, without a soul of its own.

I take a few pictures – looking back they capture greater beauty than I remember (the courtyard is indeed more pleasant in photographic silence). As I force myself to take in the scene, I notice that the walls behind the columns are decorated in crumbled frescoes – only one remains intact, the rest, now grey cement. A depiction of a procession before a pope sits above a small staircase; I am not tempted to explore.

My eye moves upward. The next level has alternating square and round columns – square openings – stoic, boring, amplifying the distractions, a foil to the echoes of modern life around us. On this level is a circle of heads, sipping coffee, reading tour books, and biting into cornettos – finally faces to the voice of ghosts. Above them are shuttered apartments, inside which I imagine an Italian housewife is currently preparing dinner and taking in the morning’s laundry; her cat watches her. Finally my eyes climb to the dull blue sky boxed by the cornice of the shingled roof – a single sweep of paint, now faded from time. A single pigeon flaps across the apartment ledge, a familiar sound from the streets of Rome.

We are street level, and while the people are far away, I feel amongst the crowds. Even the sound of construction penetrates these walls, resonating from behind my right ear. The central space is much larger than the small courtyard of SS Quattro, but I feel the walls closing in – my eyes jump across the empty courtyard immediately to the walls. I falsely believe I can touch the columns.

I sit in the shade, neither warm nor cold. I become antsy, my legs twitching, and I get up to walk around the square. I motor across to the small nubbin in the center – it has four openings that drain to a pool of black, dirty water beneath the paved ground. I can imagine water flushing piled garbage away.

The ordinariness is too familiar to me; I cannot revel in its purpose. Metals doors stand behind me, and behind them, the sound of saws. Bleached yellow semicircles form on the walls from the sun peaking through the arches. (The bottom of Hank’s shows has a map of the world carved in them!) I am too distracted – no focus. I cannot feel religion – only see it through secular eyes.

A sign in front is directing me: Uscita, exit.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Pauline, Assignment #17

I walk into the party in time to see her unveiling. Purple silk falls to the ground as I gaze upon the curves of her body. She is facing away from me, her silky back unclothed as her light robe slides off, draping low just beneath her hips. She is leaning on her side, propped up by her right elbow against the settee pillows, displaying her beauty for the other guests. Even encased in marble she is still able to seduce me. A single candle illuminates her from the other side, and as I fix my eyes on the shadows that playfully wave across her back, the other guests begin to fade into darkness….

Lavender oil weaves through the room. She knows I am in the room, but continues to gaze out the window, pretending to be distracted by the blue song birds serenading her. I decide to play along, stepping closer. Her face is still turned away from me so that I can only get a peak of her soft jaw line and her proud Roman nose, but I discover a hint of a coy smile slide across her face as she hears me approach.

I stand just breaths behind her. My heart picks up its pace, and my breathing grows stiff and sharp. My fingers are tingling, and I reach out my hand and lightly run my finger down the crevice that runs down the arch of her back. I stop just at her hips. Her skin is silky like her falling robe, and I feel the urge to grab her waist and pull her toward me; but I refrain. I tease back.

Her head tilts back, eyes closing as she takes a deep breath of my robes, recognizing my familiar scent. I watch her brows furrow slightly, but she too restrains her lust. Her eyelids flutter open; she gazes into my eyes, and I stare back into her charcoal pair that flickers in the candlelight. Her smile widens a look of guile. She nods toward the other side of her settee, luring me to walk around her – almost ceremonially; I appease her wishes.

As I amble around her, my finger lingers on her skin, brushing back up her spine, to her neck, and across her cheek. I cradle her chin with my fingers, lifting her face up toward mine, like a valiant prince returning to his princess. Finally I stand before her, her firm breasts perked for my viewing pleasure. The candle makes her bosom glow with enticement, emphasizing their supple rotundity. Her face affects a healthy glow – like wine rushing to her cheeks.

She places her hand on my chest, and playfully pushes me away. I take a step backward, and now run my eyes across her skin. She returns to her poised position, head resting on her fist. Her legs are subtly curled, relaxing her voluptuous hips. She pulls and apple from the golden bowl resting at her feet, barely grasping it with her fingertips as if it could fall at any moment – the forbidden fruit. Her hair is in a neat coiffure, like the portraits of Venus. Before I can approach her again, she whispers, “Immortalize me – sculpt me by your hand.” My burning lust will have to wait….

Paulina catches me from my dream. She surprises me from behind, pressing her warm breasts against my back just for a moment before she is running off to gather the impression of the other guests. I marvel at my marble Paulina, and wait for her to call upon me again.

Sick Bacchus, Assignment #8

Neighbors in the Galleria Borghese, the young boy and the sick Bacchus are sinister twins, connected in a complexity of pleasure and sin. I feel their presence as I walk into the room upon my first visit – a bushel of russet curls and a bare shoulder screams Caravaggio’s seductive work, but I cannot help but see the sickly face appear under each layer of paint.

Upon first glance, the boy carrying a basket of fruit is a healthy young boy with a soft complexion: his rosy cheeks emphasize the supple nature of his skin. His eyebrows are thick and perfected – not a single prick of hair falls out from the shapely arches above his large round eyes. His head tilts to the right, his eyes drop to the bottom corner, as if he has just scanned me up and down. Lips are parted with the same lust as Bernini’s Ecstasy and hint a smile of approval, I imagine. He is an image of virility, a strong neck atop rippling muscles teasingly hidden beneath a white linen shirt. But he is painted, in every sense.

All his physical features and supposedly-seductive expression are staged, purposefully obvious though painted in a subtle style. According to Francine Prose, this young man is a ripe peach, who is either anticipating great sex or just had it (or possibly both). His basket is overflowing with rotting fruit – bursting pomegranates and fungus-infested leaves – a clear foil to the boy’s perfection. As I look upon this work, I cannot help but try to peel away the theatricality: take away the livid colors of the fruit – the peachy reds, the palm greens, the deep purples – strip the coats of blush from the skin, dishevel the brunette locks. I search for the reality behind the blatant depiction of fleeting youth; I pull out the guise of forbidden pleasure and before me is the cold chilling stare of the sick Bacchus.

The god of wine travels between the paintings, playing with my terror in mordant amusement. The same dark curls are duller, garnished in a browning wreath. He has pillaged the basket of fruit, now dangling a bruised string of green grapes, which are similar in color to his ghostly skin tone (bilious, as Prose puts it). His previously peachy cheeks are now sunken, which makes his eyes protrude like that of a dying man. His smile is eerie, and I can only feel his invitation to death and disease – perhaps offering a kiss of death. I am terrified of his image; even though he does not stare directly at me I feel as if one of his pupils moves to meet my timid eyes. Every time I look upon his face I cringe at his suffering, and I immediately run away.

Only vaguely remembering the topic of the two paintings, I never related them until I saw the sick Bacchus and began to feel his gaze through all the Caravaggios. Upon my first reading of Francine Prose, I did not ever see the dramatic components – where is this protruding tongue she spoke of? – but upon rereading I realized that I found the same forces of seduction and terror that Prose did, just a bit later.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

An Ode to Airport Security, Assignment #24

Please take your laptops out of your bags,
The uniformed man chants down the line,
Lengthening behind me, piles
Widen against the aisle.

A plastic grey bin for our belongings
Totes away my little purple pouch.
Pull out my little Dell Inspiron.

Unloaded, rush to the other side.
Rewind everything. String the pouch
Across the shoulders, grab that green
Carry-on before other bags catch up.

Try and look natural; disheveled nonetheless.

What are the rules in Amsterdam?

Put all liquid items in these bags.
Chants the Dutch agent circling the line.
Even powered makeup? All in bags.
In goes the mascara; the eye shadow;
The blush – ziplocked for the plastic bin.

Do I
need to
take off
my shoes?
Yes, yes, very pretty.
He smiles.

The gate is five strides away, so easy?
Hank crosses the plastic doors, gazing
Back at us from Rome’s embrace. We follow –

Blue rigid shirt,
Wrinkle-free trousers,
Black and creased,
Proud stride.
Scusa, passport.
Italian to my
Virgin ears.
Rifling through,
Papers in the way –
Copy of copy of itinerary –
Finally grip its coarse cover,
Passport opened to show.

Where were you board?
Boarded in Seattle,
Transferred in Amsterdam,
Final destination,

No, no. Board. Where?
Stare back
Told the only possible answer
Is wrong.

Born, born! Where were you born!
I flush red,
Wine rouging my cheeks.
Answer fast!

China is big, where?
Hangzhou, China….it’s –

Where are you going? Same Italian.
To Campo de’ Fiori, Rome Center.
Train is to the left, up the stairs.
Actually, we plan to take the Concora.
Train goes to the center, to the left.
But –
Passport flap flips closed.
Train is to the left.

Last Judgment, Assignment #18

He hides in the shadows of the night, darting across the sidewalk lit only by the dim glow of street lights, like little fireflies bottled in glass lanterns. The night air is brisk, and each breath fills with prickling needles. He clutches the ache in his side as he runs, feeling the blood – still warm – on his white shirt. Sirens echo in the distance. A set of ghostly white steps call out to him – he makes a dash for the top. The door is ajar; he takes the chance to pry open the heavy wooden door enough to slip in and seals himself within.

Darkness closes in on him – a black hole. He bends down to feel the ground: a coarse mixture of grainy sand and smooth clay. Kneeling, he sheaths his knife from the left inner vest of his jacket, and proceeds to dig into the dirt, until he can fit his foot into the hole. He strips off his clothes; his jacket he tosses off, his shirt – now soaked in his sweat and her blood – he pulls over his head and places in the newly-dug hole. He stands bare-chested to the night.

He sinks his hand into his left pants pocket, fingers grasping the cool metal of his lighter. In one flick he ignites his shirt to make a fire. His eyes are mesmerized by the flames that dance before him. Her muffled screams still echo in his ears; he can still feel the collapse of her limbs as she fell still and silent. He looks down at his sullied hands, runnels of dry blood crusted on his palm, his veins bulging under his skin. He sees the events of the night as shadows that play across the floor, miniature flickering figures at his feet.

The figures begin to dance away from him, charming him to follow them as they stretch farther and farther to the edges of the room until – bones! He tumbles backwards. Along the walls, the dirt-yellow skulls stare back at him through vacant sockets; they are jawless, stacked in vertical columns so as to form three solid archways. In each niche a hooded skeleton faces him, dressed in thick brown robes tied at the waist with a single frayed rope. Their hands are folded in front of their torsos, heads lowered, shading their faces. His eyes trace two lines of femurs that run up the sides of the arches to a ceiling decorated with circles of spinal columns, femurs, jaw bones, and more bones that become unrecognizable.

He begins to feel a chill boring into his skin, a coldness that his small pyre cannot overcome. Shuddering, he huddles himself in his arms, legs pulled into his chest. He hears her scream again, this time piercing his eardrums, resonating through his head. Aching, he is caged in a storm of screams circling him, as if trapped under a bronze church tower bell as someone pounds from above. It is coming from above! As his head cranes back he sees her contorted body, crouching above him on the ceiling. Her robe drapes down, almost touching his hair. He can see invisible strands of her disheveled, stringy hair wiping across her face. His hands clutch his ears, but they cannot shield against her voice, until….silence.

As quickly as the maelstrom of screams swirled in, it dissipates into the cold atmosphere, and he is left shaking in a coat of cold sweat. His breaths are sharp, short, timid. His eyes scan the bones that surround him, and he begins to feel their gazes reach for his body – a thousand long bony fingers stretching from all four sides. His heart races – he is trapped, and the cold is now trafficking under his skin; every hair on his arms prick up.

His eyes bulge; they stare at him behind darkness. The three robed skeletons crane up their heads, and he feels their damnation spear upon him, drilling into his bones – iron hot they burn through him, the stench of fetid flesh cooking a nasty aroma in his nostrils. He sees his knife only a few inches from his feet but he is chained, stunned.

Deliver me! He screams but his voice is caught in his throat, and only a choking gasp crept from his lips. He feels the bony fingers now tearing at him, the fabric of his soul ripping from his body. He searches for forgiveness – forgive me, friars!

A circle of cold, neon light falls upon him – his eyes squint from its blinding gawk. He is splayed on the ground, his legs rigid, his arms pulled out from his torso. He hears male voices gruff above him and the scratch of the dispatcher fade in and out. Red and blue lights dance on his left cheek, and the sound of handcuffs unclipping wakes him from his nightmare. He is brought up to his knees once more, hands drawn behind his back, as he stares once more at the hooded skeletons, whose heads are once again bowed to the floor. He feels the cold metal wrap around his wrists, and welcomes the warm palms of two men who prop him on his feet.

Legends of Rome, Assignment #20

Celebrazione dell’Eucaristia

Tra le molte cose dette e fatte
nel pomeriggio, nel monastero
fatto capire come vuole
la celebrazione dell'eucaristia
un’esperienza particolarmente bella

Celebration of the Eunuchs

The molten coast is dented and fat
With pomegranates, with monasteries.
A fat caper! Come see
The celebration of the eunuchs,
An experience particularly beautiful!

Agli Uomini

suo momento
A memoria d'uomo
facevano spettacolo
appaia agli uomini
รจ svolta in due tempi
non se stessa ma
fosse giusto

Ugly Women

This moment,
A memory of women
With spectacular faces!
Apparently even ugly women
Are svelte due to the temperature
(Not like your step mom).
False gusto.

Papa ha Mostrato

distacco evidente dal
il papa ha mostrato
per pochi minuti
promosso a pieni
la sacra liturgia
raccontavano le loro storie

Fathers who have Monsters

Distant evidence tells of
The fathers who have monsters
On each small poncho,
Who promise all a penny.
The sacred literature
Recounts their stories.

The Stairs of Rome, Assignment #23

The Stairs to Rome


The toddler is kicking my seat; I cannot sleep. Em is nodding in and out between sleep and reading, waking up every hour to slide her pencil across a few pages of Dante in Love before her hand drops off and once again she slumbers. Shel is absorbed in her book, so intensely that my own eyes become weary as if it is I straining to discern each word in the dark. I look for sleep again, but the toddler is still restless. I look at the large screen that maps our progress – the yellow line still tapers off above the Midwest, as it did the previous time I checked. Eight hours to go, before the boarding, before another set of stairs up and down. They have closed all the shutters so that only the neon glow of the screens lifts the blanket of darkness.

I should be sleeping,
Closed shutters affect night.
The toddler still kicks.


Amsterdam airport,
Smoke silently fogs the air,
Neither night nor day.

The tapping of laptop keys drones into the background around me. I would join them, but I used up my batteries on the plane. I search for an outlet – but the boxy protrusions on the metallic poles are a mystery. Perhaps I missed it. I crawl around the seats, squinting at each square protrusion on surface. No outlets. Futilely I sink back in my plastic seat – tap, tap, tap. This is one of those inevitable stops in a journey – are there ever any direct routes to foreign lands? Traveling – we are no longer the kings of time, but enslaved.


Rome Center. Marble steps. Have I really entered through the same door? Just a second ago I stood before a colossal metal door, sprayed with neon hues of pink, orange, blue traced in illegible letters; dark green beneath. Now I have crossed to the other side, and a white staircase looms ahead. We all glance back at our bags.

Pile the luggage in the elevator; I will escort. I squeeze behind the metal doors, a book clamped on a shelf. I lose my balance – lucky there is no room to fall. Across the matte tiled floor, a few more steps, through a studio, five more steps – leave the bags.


Metal benches, as if a sculptor dismantled our green graffiti-decorated door and folded it into steps. The sun is different in Rome; her wrath bleaches our landscape white.

Roasting tourists, cook
Sweat salted palette, pickled
Perhaps gelato?

A walk to become familiar: four paths at each corner of the Campo de’Fiori. We head for the left path, thinking that it will direct us to the Pantheon. Our gelato is dripping. My head screams for shade, but the heat has made my legs languid, suffering in the beating sun longer. My heels wedge in the cracks between the cobblestones every fifth step – these roads are a climb. There is no one here but tourists – we all have the aimless, destination-less countenances that flag us as strangers. We are in the Campo again….where is Rome hiding her past?


Four hours ago we decided to watch a football match. Had we chosen earlier, we would have been seated. But the same climb nevertheless. First a set of stone steps lead into the Stadium, a crowd ahead pushing against the railing that separates the bottom level from the midsection. Contorting to piece through this puzzle, we are invited by a steep mountain of steps. We climb as we did the Colosseum. Shirtless, potbellied Italian men fill the seats, accompanied by their sons. Some college guys stand at the front. They begin to sing the Lazio chant, raising their arms like goalposts during an American football touchdown and clapping every now and then. Even the grandma – I would say she is at least 70 years old, bedecked in baby blue pants, balancing on neon blue wedged sandals, a blue-and-white scarf wrapped about her waist, over a light blue tee that read “100% Lazio” – even she joins the musical wave. Billows of smoke tar our lungs. Looking down I see the cloud looming above, a haze that separates us from the true fans.

Two players go down.
I missed the start, distracted
By smoke and chanting.


We sit on the steps watching the sounds of Florence cart by us: vendors in a secret line.

Child laughter, giggling
Wheels jolting on cobblestone
Church bells ringing time.


Climbing down the bus steps is even harder than the climb up, for debarking the No. 40 is an uphill swim against a rushing current of boarders. The bus is patient, why the haste? I am overcome by middle-aged women.


We wander the small streets of San Gimignano. No one lives here, not even those who work in the central restaurants – purely a town that people pass, a postcard town. We clamber up the tower, a spiral maze of metal grated steps and wooden ladders, to see the town.

Obscurity sinks below,
Light awaits us, clarity.
Observe from above.


We climb Italy’s Great Wall; in the distance a town in a snow globe. All of this for a taste of nine-generation old olive oil; I must buy a bottle home. The land around us sinks – a large volcanic cavern as if God’s fingers pushed the landscape down, like an eagle’s talon. The rising dome in the center sprouts the city of Civita.

Muscles strain, quads burn
Skin sizzles, hamstrings tighten
Steeper and steeper.


There are no more steps in the heart of Rome, just the flat but quaintly uneven cobblestone roads. If there are more, I will not be unaccustomed to climb. Mopeds zip by me as I slide to the side. I head towards L’Insalata Rica for a healthy portion of noodles. Which path should I take? The secret tunnel beneath the chapel, through the miniature gate? Or perhaps a stroll around the little shops with $5 jeans always on display?

Choices, once unknown
To the casual traveler.
Weaving streets my own.