Pretty baby, you look so heavenly…
1. Odori, Ospitalità
What happened to Blanca? What happened to Rome?
Is it happening to me?
2004, Blanca the gypsy
rubbing against men, rubbing against women
at the no-name Caffé with red plastic chairs.
Her name can’t be Blanca, everybody calls her Blanca.
She cadges money and cigarettes, kisses my hair,
steals my colored pencils. Little bird nose,
petite smile, pain in the ass. I’m thinking about
2007, Blanca sleazy, writhing,
adorable, ignores me, chats with men
who pat her face and belly. At the produce stand,
the Nigerian fruit-seller yearns at a Ferrari
idling curbside. Blanca shivers and snickers
when he puppy-scratches behind her ears,
play-slaps her cheek. The Ferrari backs
down the Piazzale, farting into Rome traffic.
The color is “argento titano” (titanium silver);
costs—I looked it up—€185,000 base. I love
that its noise says who has the money deserves me.
Blanca palms an enormous comice.
The fruit-seller bellows, she bites to ruin it,
he stamps at her, she weighs it in her hand,
walks smirking away. He mutters
back to his cash-box, sucking his lip
up under his nose, chops odori for minestra.
the wife of a naval officer was robbed,
raped and murdered in this neighborhood.
A gypsy is arrested. Animali! says the mayor.
Nessuna ospitalità a questi animali! say crude posters
in ugly red writing, flaunting the Fascist tricolor flame.
Gypsies are beaten in the street. The government
of ex-Communist Romano Prodi loads gypsies in buses,
returns them to Romania. Overnight, all Rome’s
beggars are gone. We’ll never see Blanca again.
This is not a tragedy, it only feels somehow pointlessly sad.
Empty gypsy camps are bulldozed by the authorities.
A stench of casual outdoor shitting remains.
The dollar hits 1.40 against the Euro. I turn 40.
Maisie’s eleven months old.
2. Padlocks, Suicidal
Padlocks multiply on the footbridge Ponte Milvio.
They look like a swarm of bees that shine,
clipped to chains, clipped to one another.
A novel began it: Lovers wrote their initials
on a lock, attached it to a lamppost,
threw the key in the Tiber. Lovesick or loving,
copycats followed. We must keep this new tradition alive,
said the mayor when lock-weight pulled
a lamppost down. A Mafia construction company
donated stronger poles and cement.
Padlocks of love puddle on the ground.
Bangladeshis—Rome tolerates its illegals—
arrange locks for sale on crates. A girl buys
the smallest, 1€, thumbnail size, surrounded
by her girl-gang, no lover necessary,
giggling like the barely-burbling river,
then solemn, smoothing back curly-edged hair.
Rita! scream her friends when her key twinkles, falling.
A Goth couple grinds and kisses, flesh-fat showing
through intentional rips in grommet-spangled jeans,
grackle-colored hair mingling. Two men in suits
tongue each other’s teeth. The Nigerian’s radio sings
beautiful girls, they’ll have you suicidal.
3. Sunday Morning, Night
Smashed beer bottles, crunched Marlboro packs
with FUMO UCCIDE in enormous letters
across the front. Rita-Gianni sempre
in permanent marker, glitter pink nailpolish hearts
underneath. Love-lock graffiti
has wiped out all others. No more USA merda,
circled A, hammer and sickle, Fascist rifle sight,
not even (Napoli merda) soccerfan jeers.
Workers in maroon and orange jumpsuits
painstakingly scrub the bridge clean. Rita-Gianni
is back before they’re halfway across.
Slow Italian day waning, apartment blocks cut up
silver dusk, sparrows fly rearing and bucking
past construction cranes, shimmering tinkertoys
laboring into evening. The yellow crane
unspools wire cord, bows to lower
a parcel of I-beams. The sparrows fly
over the junkyard, the New York Steakhouse,
they funnel and swoop past the sports bar,
Smart Car dealer, truck bed full of flowers
and porcini, past the girl on the parked motorcycle
sitting sidesaddle the better to show
the clean yellow triangle of underpants.
Swirl down among Tiber plane trees’
blurry camouflage. Maisie zoning
in her cut-rate stroller that sticks on bridge stones
laid down fan-form. “Birdie!” She jerks alert,
points. Knees locked, body arched. Birds shriek
panicked apart, contract en masse
into an umbrella pine’s black-green deepnesses,
crazed every time the sun goes down,
thinking it won’t rise again.
4. Histories: Umbrellas
Rare days of rain, lock-vendors
sell 5€ umbrellas by the bridge, water streaming
down their faces. 312 A.D., Constantine
saw a dream-cross in the sky, defeated Maxentius
at Ponte Milvio, threw him in the Tiber
where he drowned. In 1849 Garibaldi blew up Milvio
to keep the French out of Rome, lost
the revolution anyway. Umbrellas smoke
in the downpour. Kenneth Rexroth, c. 1949
rode in on his bike: “The Tiber appears, and then a sign/
“PONTE MILVIO.” We enter/Rome in the tracks of the first/
Triumph of barbarism and religion.” My umbrella blows to pieces,
most times, halfway across the bridge.
I buy another on the other side.
5. Histories: 2000. July
My first time in Rome, our honeymoon, a cheerful place,
Jubilee year: Slaves and prisoners are released,
debts forgiven, God’s mercies particularly manifest
and Catholics are absolved of their sins
if they walk to all seven basilicas. They troop
in footsore double group-tour lines behind a woman
holding aloft a pink umbrella. She murmurs facts
to her mic; they wear headset receivers.
There’s no more cacophony in art places,
just watery hiss of tourguide whisper.
In the Palazzo Doria Pamphili,
Mary, resting on the flight to Egypt,
bends wearily over her foursquare baby,
his tiny penis pointing from the canvas
innocent and clean as a cap gun.
“Are you hungry, Sister?” says a fat guy to a nun.
“Would you like some McDonalds?” History
hasn’t happened yet. On the crowded flight home
I sit next to a Texan who’s never been out of Texas before,
she went to Lourdes, then Rome. She’s sinless.
We fly over New York, selva oscura:
“What are those two tall buildings down there?”
6. Shame and Go Home, 2004
A year into Iraq Bush arrives in Rome.
The huge cheerful protest march winds
past Campidoglio, Colosseo, il Foro,
Circo Massimo and the Baths of Caracalla,
a better tour of ancient Rome than any bus.
We walk with a Norwegian couple, naming ourselves
Tourists Against the War. The Norwegians are surprised
we speak “pretty grammatical English for Americans”
and know as much as they do about U.S. politics
politely ignoring that we can’t—and they can—
recite the names of every member of Bush’s cabinet.
Bush as monkey, Bush as Hitler, Berlusconi as Mussolini.
American flags with swastikas painted on,
signs of the times.
Buttar giu il governo del neoduce!
Buttiamoli giu! Bush vergonati e vai a casa!
Throw the bums out. Shame and go home.
Pictures from Abu-Ghraib photoshopped to show Bush grinning
over a pile of naked bodies, Condoleeza Rice holding a prisoner on a leash.
Cheney urging a dog to attack a man’s naked crotch.
Attenti agli Zingari: Woman in prolific skirt, hitched hook-and-eye
at her hips, little mirrors sewn in. Doped
mosquito-bit baby, sleepily sucking in her lap,
foot of the down escalators, Flaminio Metro station.
Man in the doorway of a church,
collecting rice thrown after weddings,
sieving it for cigarette butts.
Beggar woman kneeling unmoving in July sun,
ass in the air, face to pavement,
weirdly clean fingernails,
neatly-manicured little crescent moons,
peeks sideways to see who’s coming.
Pre-pubescent boy plays accordion
on the tram, small and sulky in a wifebeater,
“Never on Sunday” virtuoso.
He raises his arms.
Armpits of thick black man-hair.
7. Song, 2007. Camp X-Ray Cages
Men in orange jumpsuits.
Fingers laced through the fencing.
Via Flaminia Vecchia graffiti: Dux mea lux.
Hope it doesn’t mean Duce, my light.
I get scared, writes someone
in the London Review of Books,
when I see Fascists demonstrate,
though I know they’re only a small percentage
of the population.
The sky seems a kind of wallpaper.
The river a moving screen.
The bird-strung bridges are where we feel the air.
Trivia question: Where is Blanca now?
8. Argento Titano. Now Dusk Purple
Can’t cross the bridge. Dusk. Forza Nuova,
the refounded Fascists, demonstrate at the other end.
No agli zingari! they chant, joyous,
in their phalanx or tight scrum. Zingari might
or might not be as bad as yelling
nigger in America. Cops stand at the end of the bridge,
see-through riot shields locked edge to edge.
Protecting us? protecting them? Lovers oblivious
clipping locks to locks, clicking cell phone-photos
with the Mussolini eagles of the next bridge over
as backdrop. Lamps glowing the color of the moon.
“We don’t like these,” says Altadonna,
pointing at the protesters and maybe the police.
Sparrows roil great circles above us, half the time
going backwards while moving forward,
getting by almost not getting there,
brown backs wink in unison, white bellies flash,
disappearing into their dive. Giuseppe shouts “Suicidio!”
and pretends to climb the bridge wall.
“Giuseppe!” Altadonna scolds. “Everytime
he sees Fascists he pretends he kills himself.
Rape and murder are not gypsy crimes.”
“Droghe,” says Giuseppe. Altadonna: “Yes,
now they are into drugs. It changes everything.
I had a girlfriend, 30 years ago she spent three months
studying music with the gypsies. She had no problems
living with them. Of course that was Hungary.
Of course it was Communists. Communists
knew how to make gypsies happy.
Leave them alone.”
First draft title: “On Listening for the First Time
to a €185,000 Ferrari Stopped by a Fascist Demonstration,”
couldn’t make it work. One line worth saving:
“Backing out sounded like clearing the throat of god.”
Giuseppe and Altadonna write their names on the biggest padlock
they can buy, size of a hand. Argento titano. They lock it,
throw the key in the river, now dusk purple.
9. Batti Batti le Manine
At the Caffé, Umberto the tweedy Sicilian travel agent
who came to Rome many years ago
loves to hold Maisie on his lap. We call him Umberto Umberto.
He teaches us a song: “Clap hands, daddy’s coming,
he’s bringing cookies and Maisie will eat them.”
Settling down in his red plastic chair:
“I don’t like to see any group targeted.”
Stirring and sipping his corretto.
“On the other hand it looks bad to tourists,
these shit piles along the Tiber.”
Tonight I sing
batti batti le manine, to Maisie,
my mosquito-bit, big-eyed baby,
we walk down the bank to the next bridge
che adesso vien papà
then back up the other bank, a half-mile, mile
che porta i biscottini
to get around a demonstration
e Maisie li mangerà
Something in the weather, a lightness. It’s fall but feels like spring.
Rome rushes back, shapes itself around me.
“What do I have to be anxious about?” I say.
Singing, I pick Maisie out of her stroller.
My back aches.
Maisie leans and writhes.
At Ponte Milvio, the demonstration breaks up,
there’s running, a stream of thug-boys
weaving through traffic
down the path to the Tiber bank
where human stink remains.
Face-masks, bandanas pulled down—
One has a metal rod.
Here are the infinitives.
Spingere. To push (your teeth in where you want).
Dire. To say (nothing). Interessarsi di, To (not) care.
Avere. To have (a people who are the only ones who matter).
Restare impunito per
To get away (with it when you need to get away).
10. Rome and its Night
I want Blanca back.
Go away, we’ll tell her, each time she gets near.
She’ll steal from us if she gets a chance.
Why wouldn’t she.
We’ll have a bad feeling about the sway of her hips, her pushing mostly up to men.
We’ll tell her go away.
We can’t tell her to go away.
The gypsies are hounded out of Rome.
Sparrows level out, a net with the sparrows as knots.
Fifteen men run out of orangey streetlamp light at the Piazzale’s edge.
Zingaro! Zingaro! Animale! down the river path.
Who they chase gets away because here they are coming back to the street.
They pull off their hoods and bandanas.
The crazy guy in the gold lamé vest with the shopping cart and the cross around his neck
shouts at the black crazy guy who drinks wine out of a carton lying around on planters all day.
Maisie sleepily points at them. She likes to point.
There go Altadonna and Giuseppe—they got across.
Fascist boys going different directions now in groups of two and three.
One, I just noticed, alone.
Bandana down below his chin.
He has a puckered asshole for a mouth.
Holds his cosh loose by his side.
Batti batti le manine.
He looks around at sparrow noise sucking itself down into a tree.
Restare impunito per.
He weighs the cosh. It’s heavy.
He walks head down.
He thwacks at weeds.
Young, beautiful, frail as Blanca, he has a cross around his neck.
That has nothing to do with what I wanted to say.
On a Metro platform, a crazy woman banging her head against a pillar—
what do you do, just look away?
Bad things happening make you feel alive.
The moon high up is a Roman sight.
Umberto Umberto at the awning edge at the edge of night watches away from the thugs
into traffic, not wanting to have this in his life.
The last of the sparrows sweep into the tree in a panic of similes,
a choral cutoff, visual thump,
like our 21st Century, an afterbirth.
Rome and its night breathing
like a man on an oxygen tank
tubes shoved up his nose
opens and shuts his mouth, fishily,
rhythmically, trying for more air.
Note: This poem’s title comes from graffitti on a tree in Rome: Beware of the Gypsies