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Site design: Skeleton

Sample Poems by Susan Snively


Campo de’ Fiori

In the season of eating, not of growing,
shoppers line up for pizza bianca.
Breath steams in the savory air.
Closed tulips in buckets won’t last long.
Is a half-life better than no life,
a consolation flaring from a table
in a room gone dark long before dinner?

I want and do not want. Outside the shop
a child is wailing, wailing. Her mother,
who lives on the streets, clutches her tight
and will not let go. Three young women
wearing the look of official charity
hover and urge, but it does no good.
How could even the neediest woman

surrender her child? The cries are terrifying,
a pain at the heart pure as acid.
The child has left a small yellow puddle
on the rain-drenched cobblestones. Inside,
the baker shows her angry face at the window.
Crying is bad for business. This is the best
pizza bianca in Rome, shout the guidebooks:

a thin crisp semolina crust, some oil,
a little cheese. I pocket my thick coins.
I’m one pale face in a staring crowd.
The mother holding her child is beautiful,
olive skin tight over sculpted cheekbones,
a beauty that defies attempts to place it
even as she defies the grip of rescue,
as if to say, “I am my only home,”
my daughter’s only home,” until a woman,
her arms expert, her face shiny as metal,
persuades the child, “You’ll meet other bambini….”
Filled up, the piazza swarms, as sunlight rises
above the palaces, striking the bronze
bowed head of Bruno, burnt heretic magus.   



 Bus Driver

All day long on the South Rim
she drives the bus,
announces the Grand Canyon lookouts,
opens and shuts the doors,
tries not to hate the views she can’t see
or those who can.
“You can sit on the bus, I guess,” she says,
as we clamber up, tired from hiking,
“But this bus leaves at 6:52.”
Twenty minutes to look at her gray curls
tumbling romantically down her back,
to note the make-up baked tight
over her hard, under-slung jaw,
to listen to her country grammar
like the pick of a sour guitar
under the treble of her troubles:
“People jes’ don’t know what it’s like,
all day, ever’ day, standin’ in line
to pee, to eat. Nobody lets me by.”
I’m tired. I don’t care.
My heartbeat whumps in the thin air
but not for her, though she has the voice
of dozens of my relatives.
We start. A truck driver nearby
who can rip out his life story
quick as a rattler catching a shrew,
tunes up his contrabass, and they’re off
singing some old C & W song without music:
car crashes, bad roads, startled critters
who can wreck a semi just by looking,
the wayward organs of the body,
like that shifty fool, the bladder,
so easily dislodged by bad brakes.
I’d laugh if I weren’t sad,
I’d cry if it weren’t funny,
this angry woman driving the rim
one disappointing day after another.
If I started talking to her—say,
asked if she came from Kentucky—
she might bust my chops
or never shut up, and there we’d be,
swaying back and forth over the line,
the bus filling up with sunset
sliding down into its nightly mystery,
cold at the bottom of the canyon.



 Skeptic Traveler

Where has he been all these years,
the fake centurion at the Forum entrance,
whom we teach how to pronounce “Massachusetts”?
A dude from Catania, by his shiver

in the bony January light.
I let his come-on charm work on me,
for the world is always and ever a market.
Here are the coins, here the pilgrims,

and here, warm under my hat, are my dreams,
the Forum still rich with shadows,
cats, and great Caesar’s ghost,
a winking flame in the breeze.

He was a real guy and he died—
a capo sliced up by his buddies
outside a playhouse—
a fact, undeniable and haunting,

like the chappy heads of Peter and Paul
suspended in a golden cage
high above the heads of the lowly
caught in the Lateran’s cold echoes.

“Just where we are standing”—
a phrase I can’t resist—
stones devoured stones
and threw up gods
 

whose buffed and ruined shoulders
we seek, in the curious comfort
of finding no warmth
but the earth itself, who gave us   

whatever blood we own.
So what if their marble parts
prop up dour medieval doorways
or breathe the acidic air

of sleepless industries?
They’re all still here, the old gods,
rinsed clean again and again
but delicately stained

in ochre that catches the light,
as if it held an ancient sunset
and released it, atom by atom,
through Janus’s glimmering door.


Two Views of the Dead

1. In the Catacombs at Palermo

The fat waxen hand of a lay brother
fills up eagerly with euros,
his eye alert for strays.

At every turn, the smell of mice
and the dressed-up, dried-up dead
leaning or lying prone in lace,

sickens me. Why did they do it,
submit their flesh to the dripping-room
to be stacked like shoes in a thrift shop,

the clerics, the virgins, even the babies,
wearing the latest fashions,
their bloodlines wrung to nothing.

It’s like the world’s worst party,
all vanity and no conversation,
just the sounds of chewing,

bad breath, the nasty surprise
of sudden pity or revulsion
that tells me these husks were once people

who strolled free in the daylight,
who worried about what to wear,
assuming others would notice or care.

 2. In a Northern Cathedral

He’s a party-martyr,
this old bishop in a box,
robed, mitered,
lying on his side, propped
on one insouciant elbow,
like a diner at a Roman banquet,
ready for some figs, a grilled song-thrush
served on a golden plate.
His bones, even his fingers,
are wrapped in gilded wire
studded with beryl and malachite.
The bombazine of his cope
gleams through the dusty glass.

He haunts me
the way Edgar Allan Poe
unhinges a lid in my mind
with his dancing ghouls,
his bodies restless in coffins,
his necrophiliac sweethearts.
Skeptical, protestant,
I want a clean erasure,
cells blown off into the firmament,
all future family reunions,
real or imaginary,
crash-proof to these gaudy ghosts.



 Ex-Calvinist in Rome

I can put an ear to any fountain
where a young god might rinse his feet
and hear you run with blood,
your capillaries flooded
with languorous excess.

But how do I know you
except as a long-forbidden wish,
as if a long train from snow country
emerged onto a sunny plain
where wild fennel swayed in permissive wind?

You are everything I’ve dreamed about,
my logy head tipped over a book
on parched after-school days,
unable to speak the words of boredom,
cowardly in my meager transgressions.

And here you are, the big sin
with all the little sins ranged round,
not like festering Miltonic dogs,
but actors dancing in awkward silks
around a fantastic coffin,

as you perform yourself over and over,
the revenge-play, the clown wedding,
the maudlin uncles, the firebrands,
lonely tyrants carried in secret
down tunnels in the middle of the night,

 your beggars with their gaudy grave-clothes,
your rich women kneeling up marble stairs,
your priests in stretch limos, rushing
to a restaurant’s late anointment:
glamorous wine drunk with hovering suspects.