Stanley Cavell Pauses on the Aventine
At the side of the slope where all those waves
of Romans neglected to put much else,
a lane goes down to the Tiber between
two sweating walls, streetlamps, views of the city’s
one monument not scuffed ochre — columns bride-
white, ponced with wings, the bronze quills
a bylaw from touching behind each back.
If I say this in the tone of a photograph
will it inject you with the feeling
I felt in that place? Now I’m released
from the wish to euthanize this feeling
by means of knowing it’s felt by everyone.
Unworkable as “at no time in the history
of photography could you have learned photography
in part by photographing photographs.” Maybe not
but if you wrote descriptions like photographs
couldn’t you deepen as a painter who
through most of the history of painting
learns to paint by copying paintings?
From here you see not the square itself
but the campanile locating it where
a replica of Marcus Aurelius’s bronze
reminds you of his sentences, so measured
and reliable, with the occasional self-
recrimination in the text you’re helpless
to read as anything but a Polaroid of his skin.
The lane is quiet and some people reside
in two blue tarps staked to the slope that’s piled
against a wall, cultivating legumes
and herbs between the domes of thistle.
An American said he came here once
at sunrise to film a scene and a fiftyish woman
strided out, shrieked the dollar’s rape of Italy
on the British model, hexed art-school types, cried
Lampedusa, saints’ rites, a curse on modest designs
and immodest designs. He introduced himself
as mildly as I’ve known him to say anything
and she said her name was Eleanor.
A Package Tour
It’s not untrue to say that Paní Barvíková was a great-grandmother
or she and three others were great-grandmothers
although they were unknown to one another
and to themselves as great-grandmothers.
Before those four, there were eight. Then sixteen,
and at thirty-two we could charter a bus (with room
for their trunks) and tour the Loire, chateaux already then antique.
It’s a costume drama of uncertain date; be not too dogmatic
in your visualization but do picture us
These being the days a woman’s body’s
respected absolutely in its tyrannical seasons
the better to be exploited absolutely.
I called them by their unpronounceable names:
Paní Vejvodová, Paní Frgalová.
Old tapestries of politeness swung substantially between us.
Even the legal rapes that bit them into keeping
secrets from themselves had hit them early enough at least
to yield fat little dividends.
From time to time
one of them would touch my hair or take my arm,
laying a gentle claim.
I saw one whispering into hands cupped
to a window; her words appear
as subtitles in the making-of documentary.
Even the wealthiest, most finely dressed, most widely read
in Romance languages shrank beside the poise of the French,
and so plus ça change.
They were my mothers, all,
but I was their guide,
I hoisted a furled umbrella.
I had my career, it’s important to me
to do some work of significance
or do my work conscientiously.
At night the Château de Chenonceau is lit with torches like a cake.
Aristocrats in period dress play their forefathers
in a hedge maze floodlit from below.
Puddles of rouge under the eyes
of also most of the men, perukes and heels impelling them to caper.
Some comic scenes when I mistake a few for great-grandmothers.
You know we’ve grown close because now
there’s something close to rivalry between us. Quietly in clusters
they agree their lives meant something regardless,
regardless of my arrival.
Why did you show us all these things?
What do you bring besides information?
Meanwhile I’d begun to sense, although this sense
was gradual and liable to withdrawing,
that I didn’t depend on them to feel entire.
I hated to leave them
I couldn’t refrain from saying
in their bad marriages.
And then I was here,
remembering the ovals of their faces
like blank money,
as if this could win me some advantage,
as if it might incline you to be generous.