The Motel of the Villa of the Mysteries
we swam in the evening in the spacious pool
At the center of the parkinglot,
After all day exploring the emptiest streets of Pompeii,
This quiet splash, drifting like echo
Under the ancient freshness of the sky,
Would be ours,
Surrounded by cars.
If we slipped quietly in at the shallow end of the present
After walking under oaks in the Triangular Forum,
After ruefully handling giftshop trinkets and buying none,
After leaving the finished city as it emptied on schedule,
The illiterate outdoors
Would seem almost immediately to forget
The slogans painted on the walls in red, dripping Latin
Or Oscan. Political, sexual, commercial,
As if then, unlike now, choices depended on looks,
And the kind of unscheduled fate
That has no use for beauty. CUNNE SUPERBE, VALE.
Or sympathy: cracked tile, ashen cement;
Folds into itself
And is gone. Scrawl-drip. Gone:
Or if we floated gently forward toward ourselves as ripples spread
Across the responsive surface,
We could relax without picturing violence,
Without imagining the terrible deaths so patiently cast in resin,
Or recalling the roaming dogs and stubs of the past...
Remembering as we float, if anything,
Behind the motel, out of our room's
Window, the orange grove
At the edge of a city's grave
And come to this unsibylline cement.
But then if we gripped the edge, rose dripping from thought,
And left wet footprints on the parkinglot,
From this human monument only to take away
A postcard comedy of the temporary
Stuck in photography, time-jarred,
Sliced flat and polished for souvenirs
We might find,
If understanding is the use of beauty,
That we may not after all
Have understood; that mysteries
Embrace us as water would.
Or if we thought instead to put off thought,
Unframe the past, swim into the wakingly
Disorderly spirit of the water
Not our immediate order
Yet an order, enlivening
Among sports of reflection
Around us, in spite of the chlorine (skeptical taste):
The skied changeover
Unclassical, amended, unrevised.
Or we might kiss the water, slip under, go flowingly forward
Into undular images, blurring blues
A tormented shadow sweeps the bottom and is gone
Sun flickers on the surface,
On the bay, on the volcano
But then even underwater hear the train again, calling out,
Go past, toward the station wall
With VIVA LA FICA scratched into fresh paint,
Reminding us of our tickets: our held breath
Escape us as we surface noisily.
It is possible that
It is necessary that
The circular, blue pool
With two opposed triangles inserted
Should be fed with pipes as were the baths
And the rooms heated with hypocausts...
One might surface to find the ancient world alive.
The painting in the villa up the hill
Was as wet one day
As the towel drying in our motel-room window;
But, only the latest tourists of the past,
We reflect on this waternot the covered lingam
Or the angel who flagellates the initiate
And all this past
Is no more than the old Silenus mask
Held up by the boy
To frighten the young man (who expects
His own handsome face reflected back
From the bowl held up by the real old man,
Not this tricksoon enough no trick at all).
If this ancient pool reflects new sky, both are present,
Unchanged and changing:
Surface beaten by rain,
Trapped river, pluvium,
This fluid now
Also at the center of the parkinglot
Our first night herewhere?
(Already a little submerged in memory
Readable only under a winking surface disturbed
By any motion)Present in the past, almost,
So that in confusion,
Waking, wrapped in a sheet, we might almost wonder
Which is the real place?
The train has passed. Someone starts a car.
In the water's dream, mind ripples
Responds with tremors to each touch
Reveals and closes on continuities,
Swallows and wakes:
If mysteries are not only material,
But in encountering the material from within
Confusion of waveforms, architectural inversions
The water reflects on us and finds us wanting
Time-strewn desires gathered on its skin.
O spirit of the water,
Still changing us as we can see you change,
As cars pull out,
As inconsequential clouds pass through your sky,
Give up no final meaning;
Show how changes last
Surrendering the beauty of their use;
Show us an order
Ongoing, unquenched, supple enough
To lighten even the immobile doors
Left casually ajarburied, decayed
In the formal ghosts of which cement was cast;
Flow on confined and bright at the center of things,
Enclosed but not held fast
Change our minds as you change the sky and with the sky,
Show the rippling wetness in our hardest forms
And answer them at last
With quiet movement; changing as we are changed,
Present the present,
Represent the past.
"At The Motel of the Villa
of the Mysteries" first appeared in Nuovi Argomenti, No. 4 Quinta
Serie, Ottobre-Dicembre 1998, translated into Italian by Eduardo Albinati.
The poem was first
published in English in Literary Imagination, Vol. 7 No. 5, Spring