Queen of the Catacombs / Alexander Booth

A heavy, humid day to September’s end an old tobacco and sweat-encrusted queen crookedly steps from the backseat of a car and shuffles across the white piazza. Middle-aged to twilight, she says to herself, I know why he’s pulled open his chest in all those pictures, his heart there. Stops. Lights a long cigarette and the filter brushes, catches upon a faint film of stubble. If only she’d die and let me get on with it. I’d finally have space to breathe. The sun-struck roses in the municipal amphorae cracked, she wondered if that vampire was still behind the glass. At the cinema, over on the Corso. Was it even there anymore? Lord, what a sight. Black stringy hair thinning, couldn’t even take up much of the dye, tattooed up to the chin, cheap heavy rings. Only claim 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, he wouldn’t have any anything to spare, surely.

Not even noon yet, too hot.

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

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

*

(Booth, p.2)

At home

The windowless room: an afterthought. And the light it came, when it came, in shards, slow like the dust (the dead) white over the ceramic green tiles ending just above the kitchen sink. One street from the station, if you stretched your head 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 the toilet that finished outside the window. Often, in the mornings, the body’s sounds through each wall to waking.

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

Wandering by the walls she wondered where had all the watermelon sellers gone?

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

Municipal buildings 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.

Drowning off 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 up here, anywhere would be better than here.

*

Morning, to the north

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

Where Goethe came. As did all down from up above.

And now: still within the station’s mouth the hand-written sign “working upwards elevator.” Then straight the chute the tract up past the young botched amputee footless from some east there like a clock every morning more reliable than any of 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 the abattoir-now-market’s Neo-Realist ochre wash and shafts and moving a group of gypsies worn like asphalt to the front of the Cokatails bar, a darker skinned man robed in white, north Africans about the stands and once-called Subcontinentals calling out Roman, student-stutter and strut the days’ first cigarettes within the bells from over Cerasi’s Carracci and Caravaggios all mixing with those dazing in to the city on the old can-like commuter train from peripheral points north, along the Tiber, an odd umbilical cord all the way up to once papal Viterbo, and closer in, Constantine’s vision of the cross.

Early morning just, and the whole square aflutter.

*

(Booth, p.3)

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 that short-lived anomaly of the 1960s when low-rent hoods were used in almost-art-films, Catholics, Fascists and politicians all duly offended, not that there were such conditions, no, but that the world should see them. Povera Italia! Later a kind of sub-proletariat-porn all still said “how raw!” it was, that Rome, they said, “how squalid!” But they loved it, along with the new radical 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, if not as photogenically remarkable, blasted, scoured down by the dirt, the sand. But durable, like the empire’s roads, the ruddy aqueducts that capillaried the city’s slow sprawl out to the central mountains.

She’s coughing now, an urban pneumoconiosis, the occupational hazard of she who daily walks.

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

In the air a hint of salt, of sea.

(She saw: a tan-wrinkled, grey haired man involved with one of the parties, a thin gold chain on a wrist from his wife no doubt. Or a gang of rich boys, like those three sons-of-whores back in ’75 down in Circeo, right before Pier Paolo was so brutally murdered on that abandoned pitch out in Ostia, how gladly she would 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 and how all said Rome was the new Paris for silicone-enhanced mostly South Americans, the assorted African.

(She’d heard an English expression once, her old actor friend, the one who lived in a room over in the basement of that old Communist squat off the Prenestina, his weird monk-like cell, he’d told her, he loved it, the phrase, couldn’t help but cackle, 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, in years.

*

(Booth, p.4)

Evening

Rome a labyrinth of guttering lights. Flickering, never quite aflame, but for the remnants coming still and going, floating across the cobbled streets, their whisping back and forth from the Castel Sant’Angelo, those flames that would sputter out and stop sometime around the 19th century.

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

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

*

Horses

And spectral-like the horses’ spectral return in the space between late afternoon and evening. No horsemen. Thundering past the cemetery walls into twilight, a Roman 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 the other, over the ragged Saint Peter stones, past the ragged hill of shards to the abandoned slaughter-house.

How much blood in the eternal city’s earth.

Lamentations up 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 across the empire.

*

Opium Smoker

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

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

Every evening, two mangled dogs in tow, a camera around his neck, once over the wooden bridge the pause to light his pipe. I worked with him once, he might say, if pushed. As a boy.

In the long light funereal over the pale stubble and floodplain the last watch-towers crumbling.

Sheep heading slowly home, swallows, last whispers through the poplars.

I always 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 he liked the name enough and would try to talk him into it, at least into taking a look at the script. But you know, I just never got quite

(Booth, p.5)

around to it, times were difficult and Mamma, she wasn’t well, and there was my sister to think about, and well, somehow it just got away from me. Sometimes I guess I am a bit melancholic about it, melancholic, but not sad, no, not sad. You can’t have everything in this life, no? And eventually I managed to find a small job at the municipality. At least I’ve got a small pension, you know? And that’s no small thing, especially these days. We’ve all got to be careful these days.

*

Land’s end

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

Four-button weather. The man decides to walk back for a paper cone full of fried calamari and wait, a crumpled picture of Sophia Schliemann folded into a square in his back pocket.

Another plane rumbles overhead. Glares against the sun. To where, to where, the lonely refrain.

*

Offeta special 1 Euro

The Colosseum. 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 while you wait. Ciao Bella! Olive oil. A plastic gladiator set of armor and sword. Rosary. John Paul II placemat. A magnet of the tri-colored boot. A lighter, calendar, bottle of wine, or bust of Mussolini. Snowglobe of the Forum. Chariot and rider. Michelangelo’s Moses. Or David. Caesar. Botticelli’s Venus. Perugina chocolate. Roman leather. Limoncello. Sweatshirt stamped: University of Rome.   

*

Viale Giorgio Washington

And as to the eventual evisceration of the universe, the man was thinking, no, wasn’t thinking, rather, had been thinking, 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 a tattered bit of yellow grass, a figure passed out, crumpled liter of Tavernello beside him. How quickly, he was thinking, no, wasn’t thinking, had been thinking (as he was then simply staring into the trees across the road), how quickly as if homeless and the nights’ 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 not move. 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, back against crumbling brick, the border to the other road that curved along the city walls, and had closed his eyes) before he got up, turned, and walked back up the hill, further into the park.

(Booth, p.6)

Ponte Sisto

The crust and slough of days, time, and its correlative: the river. Down here in anger on the Tiber’s banks blind we’ve built with stone, with brick, blood, needle (farmacia wrappers small Calvary mounds green cross on white) and scrawl: a monument to he who we hold the ultimate anti-Papist: Giordano. Every few hours breaking the scabs to reestablish eternity and the via negativa of our time here down in the mud on the banks. And up above, at this time of year, this late in the year, the starling skies the starling clouds starlings like 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 along the river, old or ancient, or simply timeless? You, blond Tiber.

*

(Booth, p.7)

Crossing the city

(Booth, p.8)

Morning, with Vecchia Romagna

The routine:

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

8:04 a.m. Bar: espresso, glass of Vecchia Romagna

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

On the corner in front of the bar beyond the neon overhead lights at the aluminum table, ashtray to overflowing, almost-empty pack in nervous tatters, empty espresso cup encrusted, two fingers of brandy. Behind the morning’s copy of the Sport Gazette a crevassed, slightly pasty, and sunglassed face. The gold spiked bristles of the She-Wolf sprout up from out of an unbuttoned shirt on a gold chain.

A cough and spit onto the sidewalk. You see this piece of shit? The indignant call 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.    

*

Disjecta membra / Scaglie

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

When the trains pass, the only breeze.

Loneliness.

The Queen of the Catacombs used to spend whole 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 the melancholy seam to the world?

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

Sometimes, often without warning, she’d hear the voices of dead friends, partially forgotten ones, with the days, the months, friends, faces, voices, lost along the streets’ slow wheeze, within the stones’ mute work of erasure. And they’d talk, or rather she would talk, and their 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.

(Booth, p.9)

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

____________________

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

You are my lutto penned into a forearm, brittle bits of faded blood around the edges.

One of the city’s primary colors.

Fragments. Questions. Someone talking about those desperate whores turning tricks in the abandoned tombs over in Verano. Jesus, was that just asking for trouble, almost enough to make the Queen stop in a church to light candles for their salvation, the whole shitty mess of it all. Bad enough all the dead’s dust undernail, inhaled at every step, but that was just incomprehensible. Most likely out of their fucking minds on dope.

The Queen began to walk up towards the long bridge, down the empty artery distant the bright blue and silent neon cross. She just wouldn’t be able to get back to the Tiburtina in her state and so decided she would stay whatever was left of the night (and of time?) down in the 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 the station there? An American maybe who’d worked with some, what did they use to call it, avant troupe or other?

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

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

Jasmine at night.

But the murders. Poor boys, just getting out. Not to mention all the young girls, the women, killed in the most gruesome of ways, medieval really, We still excel at that at least, she thought, and the State. Its long, slow institutions efficient, for once indeed capable of cold and astounding 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.

(Booth, p.10)

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

_____________________

But where would she be when the universe and all carbon-based life within it was utterly obliterated? What would have become of her?

Still, I know them, I know them all, and they know me, said the Queen. There she was, stretched out by the cistern, on the hillside, in between light toward morning, central mountains amist, an 18th century 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 could and 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, she said, but time, what was that to her? To the city? No question as to whether fall 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, eyes proverbially outed, but that all the stories would not go with her, would not disappear into the earth, the layers, that she would have built on volcanic rock, a tomb to last eternity, like Cecilia, she could not go, and could not ever 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 and mother. 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; in the 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 no one ever dies) And here the poppy’s red paper wisp, a heart, a tear, and all the consequences of desire, love of love and loss (Mars and Venus, twofaced Janus) a tromp l’oeil: knees sticking up out of the grass disembodied.

No gold here, no amber on the day one said addio.

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

But that was one of the ante-chambers to the 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 or cypress. Dry summer heat relentless and the cicadas’ eternal windup and whirl engulf you. What alerts the wanderer that conditions are no longer sufficient? Ruins unreadable?

The Queen had said, the only thing now is to 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.

_____________________

(Booth, p.11)

Glorious the days at winter’s end, spring just at the seams, when up from out of the park at twilight they came, like psychopomps, wings aflutter just above one’s head, 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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