Across the river from the Grossmünster
and its pepper-pot towers,
Charlemagne in his niche with a gold crown to wear,
an iron sword across his knees,
we sit in Winemarket Square drinking Aperol-Spritz
by the sign of the Stork,
watching the snow-white swans on the Limmat’s
In Switzerland you decide when the quietus comes,
when you’ve had enough,
when what goes through you like a blade sometimes,
being ordinary love,
can no longer recompense the body’s pain:
you can exit quickly.
In her arms he drank the bitter drink and then
he died, my friend Bobby,
with whom I went to the mountains every year.
The black-masked swans
drift by on water that is deep and clear,
come from those snow mountains
where the high cold is a single indrawn breath
with no more to follow,
all having joined the long parade into death.
Bobby wears the black mask now,
and who would put it on? Who but, secret, hopes
he keeps it on a while?
The drinks blush in our conversation’s gaps,
and the strict king is powerful.
I’m at the window minding my own business,
reading Plato (As you might divide an egg with a hair),
the afternoon heat-struck, when from the glare
and drowsing stone there resolve two bodies.
A man in a red backpack enters the clinch
with a woman wearing a gold slipper on one foot
and a pretty yellow frock. Families are discreet,
as they stroll past, after their Sunday lunch.
She toys with his hyacinthine curls;
his hands are laced up tight behind her back.
And then, as if inviting me to look,
they move into the open with dreamy smiles,
up against a parked Yaris in delphinium blue,
making a color study as her knee
rides up his hip with isometric ingenuity,
yet still with three feet on the ground, it’s true.
As at Palazzo Bò in the allegory of Learning
in which a young man starts his upward labors
and an angel throws a cloak over his shoulders
while his tutor waits, hands folded, at the stairs’ turning,
so these two climb toward their destined end,
ornamenting the way with shows of passion,
after which (he’s still got his backpack on)
there is a long farewell, their faces softened,
and then she climbs into—it was her Yaris!—
rolls down the smudged window, checks her makeup
and drives away, leaving behind, deep
in these arcades, a slight postcoital sadness.
Karl Kirchwey‘s new book Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems will be published by TriQuarterly/Northwestern University Press in the fall of 2017. He is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Boston University.