Queen of the Catacombs / Alexander Booth

It is a crumbling mixture of all its pasts, jumbled together and still living, never dead but never freshly alive… Rome, as it is ravaged, ravages.

Robert Brentano


He put a pin through the nipples on his chest / He thought he was a saint

Lou Reed

San Silvestro

Aheavy, humid day to September’s end an old tobacco and sweat-encrusted queencrookedly steps from the backseat of a car and shuffles across the whitepiazza. Middle-aged to twilight, she says to herself, I know why he’s pulledopen his chest in all those pictures, his heart there. Stops. Lights a longcigarette and the filter brushes, catches upon a faint film of stubble. If onlyshe’d die and let me get on with it. I’d finally have space to breathe. Thesun-struck roses in the municipal amphorae cracked, she wondered if thatvampire was still behind the glass. At the cinema, over on the Corso. Was iteven there anymore? Lord, what a sight. Black stringy hair thinning, couldn’teven take up much of the dye, tattooed up to the chin, cheap heavy rings. Onlyclaim to fame coming in black-and-white in some film, in New York supposedly,smack-lidded eyes, a good-looking cock. Would she make it? In any event, hewouldn’t have any anything to spare, surely.

Noteven noon yet, too hot.

Somewhereback behind her, up the Pincian Hill, back over the dead ground behind theVilla Borghese. A hot-air balloon, stitched with stars.

Butshe was off to the old center city again, in her head, Mount of Geese, Mount ofGoats, I think, she thought. On the opposite side of that infamous rock whatwere they still doing, fucking around in the bushes? And were boys stillgetting killed down there, in those dark streets around the church? Somethingabout a gilded end of the world. Down the street a so-called Mouth of Truth.Hadn’t that been one of her names too?  

*

At home

Thewindowless room: an afterthought. And the light it came, when it came, inshards, slow like the dust (the dead) white over the ceramic green tiles endingjust above the kitchen sink. One street from the station, if you stretched yourhead off the balcony, you could see the lines. Ideal: two types of terminus:station and cemetery (but at night the one it glowed up from out of its heart,over the walls, aglow). Now and again, voices through the drainpipe above thetoilet that finished outside the window. Often, in the mornings, the body’s soundsthrough each wall to waking.

And the trains’ grinding stutters, newstation still unfinished will it stay a ghost.

Wanderingby the walls she wondered where had all the watermelon sellers gone?

Underthe overpass, and even further, embankments full of trash. And the depots. Post-warplay spots gone, swallowed up, what sprawl.

Municipalbuildings similarly abandoned, occupied now by old leftists from San Lorenzo,students in awe of the former and dreaming maybe of a new Red Brigade, migrants,refugees.

Drowningoff Lampedusa or abandoned to die in Italy’s peripheries, in makeshift camps,electrocuted on a railway. Poor bastards, she thought, what bad luck to wash uphere, anywhere would be better than here.

*

Morning, to the north

Atthe northern end, just past the city gates where the city’s once undesirablesthat’s: thieves, prostitutes, actors and, some say, foreigners too, buried alongthe curving moss-covered wall.

WhereGoethe came. As did all down from up above.

Andnow: still within the station’s mouth the hand-written sign “working upwardselevator.” Then straight the chute the tract up past the young botched amputeefootless from some east there like a clock every morning more reliable than anyof the city’s asking for alms and out. Chill and blanched an autumnal light,and a green humid breathing shivers down from the park to meet theabattoir-now-market’s Neo-Realist ochre wash and shafts and moving a group ofgypsies worn like asphalt to the front of the Cokatails bar, a darker skinnedman robed in white, north Africans about the stands and once-calledSubcontinentals calling out Roman, student-stutter and strut the days’ firstcigarettes within the bells from over Cerasi’s Carracci and Caravaggios allmixing with those dazing in to the city on the old can-like commuter train fromperipheral points north, along the Tiber, an odd umbilical cord all the way upto once papal Viterbo, and closer in, Constantine’s vision of the cross.

Earlymorning just, and the whole square aflutter.

*

Friends

Faces:hollowed out and pocked, porous like the grottoes that honeycombed the city.Nothing remotely glamorous. Worn, no demimonde of particular note, not since thatshort-lived anomaly of the 1960s when low-rent hoods were used inalmost-art-films, Catholics, Fascists and politicians all duly offended, notthat there were such conditions, no, but that the world should see them. PoveraItalia! Later a kind of sub-proletariat-porn all still said “how raw!” itwas, that Rome, they said, “how squalid!” But they loved it, along with the newradical chic, the brute carnality and cynicism, that frisson of role-reversal.Only recently born, however, she’d missed it. But like the actors she was, ifnot as photogenically remarkable, blasted, scoured down by the dirt, the sand.But durable, like the empire’s roads, the ruddy aqueducts that capillaried thecity’s slow sprawl out to the central mountains.

She’scoughing now, an urban pneumoconiosis, the occupational hazard of she who dailywalks.

Andof endings, she thought, hers it wouldn’t be any glamorous end either. Cut downby a so-called centaur, spitting, speeding off, doubtless smirking. Or maybe simplyknifed (nothing personal really) and dumped just past the Baths of Caracalla atthe city’s southern walls with their sporadic effusions of capers, weed tufts,by the canebrake snaking along forgotten streams.

Inthe air a hint of salt, of sea.

(Shesaw: a tan-wrinkled, grey haired man involved with one of the parties, a thingold chain on a wrist from his wife no doubt. Or a gang of rich boys, likethose three sons-of-whores back in ’75 down in Circeo, right before Pier Paolowas so brutally murdered on that abandoned pitch out in Ostia, how gladly shewould have sodomized them, flayed them alive, pissed on them, and let them die).

No,she didn’t want to end that way, and anyway didn’t work, thanks both to age andhow all said Rome was the new Paris for silicone-enhanced mostly SouthAmericans, the assorted African.

(She’dheard an English expression once, her old actor friend, the one who lived in aroom over in the basement of that old Communist squat off the Prenestina, hisweird monk-like cell, he’d told her, he loved it, the phrase, couldn’t help butcackle, repeating it to himself all bronchial chords and cough,“Chicks-with-dick! Chicks-with-dick!”)

No,and again no. She hadn’t thought of that end of town, much less walking it, inyears.

*

Evening

Romea labyrinth of guttering lights. Flickering, never quite aflame, but for theremnants coming still and going, floating across the cobbled streets, their whispingback and forth from the Castel Sant’Angelo, those flames that would sputter outand stop sometime around the 19th century.

(Anawareness of the burnings at best obscure now in autumn’s crisp seams of smoke,glimpsed maybe but to remain unprocessed passing the grim unintentional ironyof the bars that belt this once Field of Flowers, that flame against the coldand damp).

Theguttering, amber light of Rome. Resin-like, seductive, you are somnambulist.

*

Horses

Andspectral-like the horses’ spectral return in the space between late afternoonand evening. No horsemen. Thundering past the cemetery walls into twilight, aRoman hue of ruin, pale madder, ochre, the washed-out winter sky’s dull flame.Empty carriages rattling past with a metallic clang of hooves, one after theother, over the ragged Saint Peter stones, past the ragged hill of shards tothe abandoned slaughter-house.

How much blood in theeternal city’s earth.

Lamentationsup from out of the ground, just below the feet, almost a low electric humming,a persistent exposed wire, a thread sewn through the aqueducts and out acrossthe empire.

*

Opium Smoker

Unableto ever make a film, long ago he’d decided instead to become one.

Everyevening he’d walk down into the valley that strange stretch of campagna thatsomehow had been spared the speculator. Still littered, however, with pieces oftile, here and there the odd appliance, down in one of the earth’s indentationsa swallowed car. Littered from its once-upon-another life as a shanty-town borgatathen open-air dump it unfolded between two of the country’s oldest roads andso, by extension, the world.

Everyevening, two mangled dogs in tow, a camera around his neck, once over thewooden bridge the pause to light his pipe. I worked with him once, he mightsay, if pushed. As a boy.

Inthe long light funereal over the pale stubble and floodplain the last watch-towerscrumbling.

Sheepheading slowly home, swallows, last whispers through the poplars.

Ialways thought I’d manage to make it, he’d say, my film, Cuore di Borgata, I was going to call it, Cuore di Borgata, it’s got a good ring to it, no? Citti said heliked the name enough and would try to talk him into it, at least into taking alook at the script. But you know, I just never got quite aroundto it, times were difficult and Mamma, she wasn’t well, and there was my sisterto think about, and well, somehow it just got away from me. Sometimes I guess Iam a bit melancholic about it, melancholic, but not sad, no, not sad. You can’thave everything in this life, no? And eventually I managed to find a small jobat the municipality. At least I’ve got a small pension, you know? And that’s nosmall thing, especially these days. We’ve all got to be careful these days.

*

Land’s end

Somethingof the world’s whimper at the end of the concrete mole, the land’s end thatjutted out into sea. Clinging, cloying heat. Summer’s refusal to end a thinskim across the skin. Salt, cypress faint back toward town, at the opposite endthe acrid smell of urine. Gulls. A plane, then faint boat-motor seaward. What’son, what’s in, the wake.

Four-buttonweather. The man decides to walk back for a paper cone full of fried calamariand wait, a crumpled picture of Sophia Schliemann folded into a square in hisback pocket.

Anotherplane rumbles overhead. Glares against the sun. To where, to where, the lonelyrefrain.

*

Offeta special 1 Euro

TheColosseum. The She-Wolf. St. Peter’s. The Tower of Pisa. A pair of red, green,and white striped boxers with a picture of a stone-like penis over the fly.“I’m a magician in the kitchen / And a dragon in bed” stitched for you whileyou wait. Ciao Bella! Olive oil. Aplastic gladiator set of armor and sword. Rosary. John Paul II placemat. Amagnet of the tri-colored boot. A lighter, calendar, bottle of wine, or bust ofMussolini. Snowglobe of the Forum. Chariot and rider. Michelangelo’s Moses. OrDavid. Caesar. Botticelli’s Venus. Perugina chocolate. Roman leather.Limoncello. Sweatshirt stamped: University of Rome.   

*

Viale Giorgio Washington

And as to the eventual evisceration ofthe universe, the man was thinking, no, wasn’t thinking, rather, had beenthinking, sitting on a broken bench beneath the blackened laurel, and what now.Buses up and down the hill. Exhaust. Spots of sun. For the moment money enough,and a bed. But what then? Next to him on the bristled earth, here and there atattered bit of yellow grass, a figure passed out, crumpled liter of Tavernello beside him. How quickly, hewas thinking, no, wasn’t thinking, had been thinking (as he was then simplystaring into the trees across the road), how quickly as if homeless and thenights’ uncountable costs. What was it most people did, and what now. A long,slow slur of bitterness, drift, and ruin up from below, but still he did notmove. And how had it come to this, the man was thinking, no, was not thinking,had been thinking (as by then he had sat down next to the other man, backagainst crumbling brick, the border to the other road that curved along thecity walls, and had closed his eyes) before he got up, turned, and walked backup the hill, further into the park.

*

Ponte Sisto

Thecrust and slough of days, time, and its correlative: the river. Down here inanger on the Tiber’s banks blind we’ve built with stone, with brick, blood,needle (farmacia wrappers small Calvary mounds green cross on white) andscrawl: a monument to he who we hold the ultimate anti-Papist: Giordano. Everyfew hours breaking the scabs to reestablish eternity and the via negativaof our time here down in the mud on the banks. And up above, at this time ofyear, this late in the year, the starling skies the starling clouds starlingslike black snowflakes all the sky a storm. You could live forever here maybe,quiet within the quiet light, full, the river, the stones, time undone alongthe river, old or ancient, or simply timeless? You, blond Tiber.

*

Crossing the city

*

Morning, with Vecchia Romagna

Theroutine:

8:00a.m. Tobacconist: two packs of MS cigarettes, lottery ticket, Gazzetta dello Sport

8:04a.m. Bar: espresso, glass of VecchiaRomagna

8:13a.m. Table: hunkering down for morning’s first quarter

Onthe corner in front of the bar beyond the neon overhead lights at the aluminumtable, ashtray to overflowing, almost-empty pack in nervous tatters, emptyespresso cup encrusted, two fingers of brandy. Behind the morning’s copy of theSport Gazette a crevassed, slightly pasty, and sunglassed face. The gold spikedbristles of the She-Wolf sprout up from out of an unbuttoned shirt on a goldchain.

Acough and spit onto the sidewalk. You see this piece of shit? The indignantcall into the quiet. Can’t handle a ball to save his life. A swallow. Cough.Sip. A cigarette.

Hey,Gianni, Gia’? You see this? The call over his shoulder backwards into the bar.    

*

Disjectamembra / Scaglie

These are the streets where people have simplybeen beaten too badly to cry anymore.

When the trains pass, the only breeze.

Loneliness.

The Queen of the Catacombs used to spendwhole nights in the station, watching, wondering who was in love, who wasn’t,who wanted to be, who couldn’t give a shit.

When was it she’d first discovered themelancholy seam to the world?

But they don’t think about it, maybethey’re lucky that way, they just suffer, sputter some, then stop.

Sometimes, often without warning, she’dhear the voices of dead friends, partially forgotten ones, with the days, themonths, friends, faces, voices, lost along the streets’ slow wheeze, within thestones’ mute work of erasure. And they’d talk, or rather she would talk, andtheir answers would just come. How much is one allowed to hear, she wondered,those callings back from the other side?

Sunk into her own sunsetting.

Dejected like sunflowers at summer’s end.

You must have something break, she wassaying, have been broken, irretrievably, only then, she was saying, only what?

____________________

When the Queen came to she was out frontby the steps, a wreckage of glass. An inebriated grunt to her left incoherent.Dark already. Almost November already. The Tuscolana. How had she ended upthere?

Youare my lutto penned intoa forearm, brittle bits of faded blood around the edges.

One of the city’s primary colors.

Fragments. Questions. Someone talkingabout those desperate whores turning tricks in the abandoned tombs over inVerano. Jesus, was that just asking for trouble, almost enough to make theQueen stop in a church to light candles for their salvation, the whole shittymess of it all. Bad enough all the dead’s dust undernail, inhaled at everystep, but that was just incomprehensible. Most likely out of their fuckingminds on dope.

The Queen began to walk up towards thelong bridge, down the empty artery distant the bright blue and silent neoncross. She just wouldn’t be able to get back to the Tiburtina in her state andso decided she would stay whatever was left of the night (and of time?) down inthe park. The sheep would already be in for the night, simply a few wanderers maybe,nothing to worry about. Up by the cistern, less humid than down in the valley.

Had she ever known anyone once around thestation there? An American maybe who’d worked with some, what did they use tocall it, avant troupe or other?

Maybe she’d been high herself, unnervedas she was by all the fascist blocks.

The last time she’d been in the parkthough, when had that been, she remembered having a beer somewhere close by,some off-duty carabinieri completelyshitfaced and teetering and not even six, he’d started up with two kids outfront, God only knows why. Then she remembered. She’d been staying with afriend in an old basement flat, other than a short stay over in Trastevere (Dariowas still alive then, and not yet sick, and that loud American poet was stillstumbling about, the devil in a shadow down by the jail, enveloped by the sweetbougainvillea but what hadn’t changed: the bar over at San Calisto still hadholes in its coffee spoons, cavete equum),the only time she’d been away.

Jasmine at night.

But the murders. Poor boys, just gettingout. Not to mention all the young girls, the women, killed in the most gruesomeof ways, medieval really, We still excel at that at least, she thought, and theState. Its long, slow institutions efficient, for once indeed capable of cold andastounding efficiency in its slow-motion bludgeoning to death of the population.But where could it go once they were gone?

And as to the church.

No, she thought, it’s all too much and I’mjust too tired.  

_____________________

But where would she be when the universeand all carbon-based life within it was utterly obliterated? What would havebecome of her?

Still, I know them, I know them all, andthey know me, said the Queen. There she was, stretched out by the cistern, onthe hillside, in between light toward morning, central mountains amist, an 18thcentury oil maybe, grass still burnt summer’s colors but soft, strung with dew,glints of mica and shard, swallows, she knew them all, communing as she couldand had, but what would not last much longer, no, I don’t have too much left,I, Queen of the Catacombs, city’s last seer, I don’t have much time left, shesaid, but time, what was that to her? To the city? No question as to whetherfall but simply when finally cease? It would not fall, not until the final end,so as such, nothing to fear, nor to wait for, she would remain ignored, eyesproverbially outed, but that all the stories would not go with her, would notdisappear into the earth, the layers, that she would have built on volcanicrock, a tomb to last eternity, like Cecilia, she could not go, and could notever die, in morning’s first bright reds or within its last, that too her time,in a bell’s pealing, that of the wind through poplars, within the palms.

_____________________

When the wind sometimes as if over glass,the hollow, cave-like sound.

Middle Sea: ruddy maw of the world andmother. When sometimes the wind across the Middle Sea, the earth, these earths,now blown thistle, now cane, now soul, now clay. Volcano once under thumb; inthe eye – the trees singing; trains’ faint whisper back and forth toward the coast;day’s late sun; and, sometimes, in the wind the grass. (and here noone ever dies) And here the poppy’s red paper wisp, a heart, a tear, andall the consequences of desire, love of love and loss (Mars and Venus, twofacedJanus) a tromp l’oeil: knees sticking up out of the grass disembodied.

No gold here, no amber on the day onesaid addio.

In the poppy’s red paper wisp: a heart, atear. And one: a smell of sun and ashes.

But that was one of the ante-chambers tothe ante-chamber of your spirit, the heart, years drinking in the searing-eyed,searing-tongued, all those spent visionaries.

The smell of sun, of smoke. Pine orcypress. Dry summer heat relentless and the cicadas’ eternal windup and whirlengulf you. What alerts the wanderer that conditions are no longer sufficient?Ruins unreadable?

The Queen had said, the only thing now isto fill yourself with beauty before you stretch yourself out too thin. A canvas,a communion but that the entrances and exits to and from the Underworld are unending.

_____________________

Gloriousthe days at winter’s end, spring just at the seams, when up from out of thepark at twilight they came, like psychopomps, wings aflutter just above one’shead, about one’s ears, so soft, a whisper, then gone.

_____________________

Fine

I never thought the last thing, after all this, all the frustration, all the desperation, the misunderstandings and struggle, after all of this, this, I hadn’t ever really thought about it, too young I thought, I’m too young, the last thing, here, by the river, when up above for once I see: the stars.




Alexander Booth is a poet and literary translator. The recipient of a PEN Translation Fund grant for his translations of the German poet Lutz Seiler (in field latin, Seagull Books, 2016), his work has appeared in numerous international print and online journals. After many years in Rome, he currently lives in Berlin. More information can be found at www.wordkunst.com

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