Three Sarcophagi

Karl Kirchwey


            (Palazzo Altemps, Rome)


In this broken trunk of Proconnesian marble,
            the queen is in love with her stepson,
though neither of them is visible,
            between the statue of Priapus, his prick swollen,
and chaste Diana’s temple;

only the servant women, who are veiled and
            facing open-mouthed with grief
toward a life so mercilessly undermined,
            and a little girl, with her back to the generative
god, who clutches her mother’s hand.

But the narrative is plain, in the stone’s ellipsis:
            love’s pains are like the agony of the bereft,
this love that flourishes at the limit of trespass,
           and death is the only bed where it is resolved.


With a cartoon impudence of naked buttocks,
            Jason ransoms the Golden Fleece.
His shield-arm raised, he looks
            at Medea, who has put the serpent adoze
and thumbs her little bud of narcotics,

whom before long he will decide to betray,
            and she will decide to murder their children.
But beyond the fire and poison of celebrity,
            there is a matching face of ordinary stone
where a husband and wife say goodbye,

clasping their right hands. He must go to soldier;
            she is dabbing at her eyes with the hem of
her robe. He will not come back, either,
            since the guile and guarantee of loss is love.


And here it is the night parade of Dionysus
            on a chariot drawn by elephants.
How easily the god, when he chooses,
            can overtake his own celebrants,
Whose barely-gowned bodies

bulge and topple toward and away from
            the one unnamable thing,
the end of all their days, the momentum
           of lyres and singing
irresistible, by the altar’s flame,

a leopard crushed underfoot, in the furor,
            and a serpent waking to it in a basket,
being what their bodies fear and also long for:
            an epiphany that knows to wait.

KARL KIRCHWEY’s Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems was published by Northwestern University Press. He recently edited an anthology of poems about Rome for the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is working on translations of poems by Giovanni Giudici (1924-2011) and Giorgio Vigolo (1894-1983). He is associate dean of the humanities and professor of English and creative writing at Boston University.

image: Saliko, Palazzo Altemps, Rome, Wikipedia Creative Commons license