O My Visitor: A Travelogue
Rome, day two, still jet-lagged— file toward the Colosseum, thronged by crowds. By dusk, perch on a marble slab eating a pre-packaged salad overlooking the Forum of Augustus, built to avenge the death of Caesar. To the right, the excavated temple to Minerva, renamed the Forum of Nerva: an assassination, intrigue, now just the jagged yellow teeth of spent bravado. Trajan’s emasculating column leers to my left, a raised narrative like a texture I want to work under my tongue.
A sweating man hurls into view, asks a question in Italian. Looks at my blank face, says I am lost. Adds: so much better in Milan, no? Signs tell you. I cannot tell him the way.
After three minutes, he dissolves into a labial sunset. Clouds form, preclude thought. Rome’s pendulant horizon, mulled & exterior.
Don’t yet know whether I will leave you. I travel alone. But who can afford to dispense with other humans? Two seagulls land, squawk for food—edge closer. Eyes speculative as old men.
Beneath San Clemente Basilica, regress into a 4th century cathedral. Where once stood the impasto of madonna & child, the wall fell to reveal the flat Byzantine faces of madonna & child.
Subterranean Rome where among five fir trees in a grove—another grove entered by way of seven important eras.
Another grove entered by way of seven important eras. Roam into the Roman Forum, unnoticed. College girls prop their heads on empty pediments for photos in the ruined house of the Vestal Virgins. Their year abroad— lithe with tans & corrected teeth, oversharing their iphone images. One holds her screen up, says: that was the best day of my life. They have i-phoned their yesterday back into existence.
Here the Vestal Virgins bent to keep the flame aglow—on punishment of death. Black stones thicken in heat. My sole catches one & I stumble. Where Caesar walked, signs say. But also: slaves. Ovoid stones shimmer, oscillate.
Once, the college professor, my boyfriend, held me down on the stairs by my throat. His fingers pressed deep into my windpipe. What I knew of blue exploded. Stars opened in the far vestal scenery of dawn, spackled white my dark impasto.
Ugly to lose the mind completely. Coughing as he released, rug burns strafed my knees down each stair. Later, I called my father. Sitting on the back stoop in a sticky dark, couldn’t tell him. He sat silent, stroking his bald head—my neck lacing with bruises, both so close to that dark edge. I am older now than he was then & he, long since died. What could be done?
Along the far wall, statues of the most famous Vestals, adumbrated by weather. The first manikins: their faces wrecked. To consort with a citizen was called incestus, treason against the city, the punishment to be buried alive in an underground chamber. You could not spill the blood of a virgin nor bury Romans within the city, but you could bear the Vestal Virgin still alive on a bier through the streets, furnish a small meal, pull up the ladder & seal her in.
Pull up a ladder & seal her in. Brimmed by history: I look up into the Palazzo’s fresco. Float or fall into the angled & massacred heavens. Overtired from the heat, drank a cappuccino from a machine & wired myself awake all night looking at another ceiling.
There are reasons for leaving. Selfish, hypocritical & an enabler. Who isn’t, though? When I finally fell asleep, you appeared. Asked to build a table together. I felt sex-worn, constellated by pinpoint stars. No. Your grown boy ran the car off the road & flipped another one, grew immense like a Botero to fill our mind-space, wrote a sequence called The Junkie Poems. You laughed in the way you do. Maybe your dream, not mine.
No, I said, please no. A young man stretches across three cushions of the settee looking up at the Allegory of Divine Providence and Barberini Power. I throw out an arm to imitate & he shifts his languid dominance, annoyed.
Overhead the Baroque are clothed, golden bees, symbol for the Barberini clan, motor in formation. I hear my mother crying in the stale back room of her chamber. Calling my name until I became nameless. As children, it was our job to talk her down from death.
In the 70s, didn’t we all recline in technicolor dark, watching B-movies, pretending our mothers were not threatening suicide? At eleven, my sister said, Don’t go in there again. She’s pretending.
Names burn through the Palazzo. Golden bees wind up Borromini’s helicoidal staircase into the cells of the honeycomb. Renaissance seekers learned bees obeyed the queen, not a king, so noblemen destroyed the research. The question: How could women have a soul?
Above, Minerva flies forward, armed with her mind to defeat the Giants, flesh ruddy with shadows. My mother’s dead now, but I go again & again to her hive. Below Divine Providence, the simulated frame crumbles.
Below Divine Providence, the simulated frame crumbles. I take photographs of people taking selfies in front of art figures like Raphael, who painted himself in the crowd of philosophers to stare back at the people taking selfies in the arched rooms of the Vatican Museum.
Like Raphael, I see too much of myself. Legend has that he died of a fever at 37 after wild night-crushing sex with La Fornarina, the baker’s daughter, her eyes a delicious black.
Or maybe I don’t see enough. Madonna with her pale habit, the windowless crowns on saints, frescoes you could step into & out of. We stand in front of Christ with his ravaged guts or wearing his infant face, all forehead. His head inclined, attuned to rumors of the absentee father.
There’s our father, & then there’s my own, stroking his bald head—absent my entire childhood, or my daughter’s father when she was just one day old. Make her shut up. Each time he yelled, I went to my knees, begging him to stop. Our father, who art in heaven. Sometimes we fail to see patterns.
The further into Rome, the more I lose myself. Long for those subterranean rooms: the reputed mithraeums. At the Barberini Museum, try to buy a ticket to go underground, but the ticket-taker says go to the National Museum. At the Museum, the mystified ticket-taker says no. no tickets here. I’ll need to call this number. The line tuned to busy. A dead end. The next day, I run near the mithraeum at the Circus Maximus.
Below my feet, beneath Rome Opera’s costume storeroom, once the former Pantanella pastry shop, two centuries before Raphael’s infant Christ played with John the Baptist on the poor dirt of some far away Judea: the myth of the Mithras plays out. He is a creature of light. Our origins, enacted by the initiates. Some wear masks of ravens or lions, poised at thresholds: the transitus. There: the engraving of Mithra’s mantel, held by the Raven’s beak. The scorpion latches its evil to his ankle, waits as Mithra kills the cosmic bull & creates the universe. The movement of his cloak gives rise to the rotation of stars. My daughter’s no longer one day old, but 19. The transitus: she’s left home to enter other rooms far away. I am invaded by absence, am an absence walking below ground into seven interlocking rooms. Initiated into this moon, mercury, venus, sun, mars, jupiter, and saturn.
Initiated into this moon, mercury, venus, sun, mars, jupiter and saturn, I am engulfed in your diorama. The endless room stretches: at the back, you are chained to your computer, as in a cave, maneuvering shadows. Meanwhile the grown boy cannot restrain his pit bull; pills litter the entrance. You stayed home rather than Rome.
On the plane, dozing after a glass of Delta wine, I saw death as a dissolution into orbs of light. Atoms whirl into the DNA of everything. Existence unmasked— the raven, the lion—simulacra. As atom, I knew the art of knowing. Absorbed in pure consciousness, basking with stars.
Then, passports, my suitcase thrown open on whirling carrels of our fluorescent exhaustion. End up near the Spanish Steps, in the room where John Keats died. Outside, tourists try to find shade, fill plastic water bottles from the spring water brimming Borromini’s boat. Here, only one other acolyte and I pass each other as if this were the church.
In the anteroom: his life mask of 1816. Amusement warms the stilled features— his mouth faintly quirks. Footsteps in, the sleigh bed where the white death overtook him, and there, poised in a lucite cube, the death mask: absent his force, the face only temporary housing.
He had left this vale of soul-making, entered back into a universe without dimension. Intelligences, he wrote to his siblings George & Georgina, are atoms of perception— they know and they see and they are pure… The ceiling above: white beams and the two dozen finials the dying Keats stared into. Orbs and orbs: a trompe l’oeil of infinity. …in short they are God—How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them—so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this?
My life as one small bliss, one rotating orb: the boyfriend, the first husband: hands, to humiliate, at my throat. And you: Aloft in an air balloon over Napa Valley, a day after our marriage, the high yellow grasses had the appearance of the rooted locks of our being. In the dream a man walks across the aqueous planet into his temporary housing, a fox runs across the pubis of this earth.
Into his temporary housing, a fox runs across the pubis of this earth. Around the Circus Maximus I run above the underground mithraeum, crunch white rocks under my feet like miniature skulls. A team of runners passes, calls out Ciao. We are ebullient in the fresh summer air. Ciao… Ciao!
That call trails, buoyant with vibrations. In every sound: its silences. I run across the death of my mother, my father, their skulls & death itself: the violent burn of their bones. My mother’s bones a gray rubble in a plastic bag that my sister & I held with wonder. My father’s reclined in the coffin of this life’s underground chamber.
When I call home, you are perfunctory, routine. We do not talk of your grown boy, my daughter, or why I have come here. In the afternoon, I take a train to Assisi. Trains clatter the other way, going to Rome. Windows frame the dissolution of faces, crowd the transitus. In Assisi’s upper chapel, a visual fable to detail St. Francis’s life in twenty-eight scenes. Giotto created the effect of peering into a series of small rooms. In one: God’s hand poised mid-panel as if tearing through dimension’s indigo fabric. The night I thought I could step out of my body, easily & with intention, we were tripping. We put our foreheads together. Through us, I saw the etched & lovely unibrow of the Buddha.
A slight give when I entered your forehead. Past that, just infinite cells. The I dissolved into a universe pleated with stars. I could stay & our emptied bodies would be discovered by your child or mine. I pulled away. No longer wanting to merge. To separate: to cleave. The drapery on Giotto’s figures almost metallic, the colors nearly transparent, and yet, unlike Ciambue’s oxidized by time, olive oil has preserved them: a brilliance I could fall into.
For the night, an airless room in the basement under one of Assisi’s many bakeries. Monks wear earbuds, walk casually in Nikes. That night, Giotto’s blue opens the cavity in my dream. Inside, you swallow me. Inside, you are the scorpion at the door. I waken with a sudden sting. I long to feel the sacral earth embodied, apart.
I long to feel the sacral earth embodied, a part. Back in Rome & down Via de Corso, shops emit privilege.
Against the wall next to Prada, a Roma-gypsy supplicates her full body forward for money. Her coin cup shakes, clutched between dirty time-worn hands. Three manikins shadow her in the Prada window. Holding leather bags, the glyphs incline, sexy-recumbent.
I want to beg like she does, o my visitor, to be ground under foot. Could lose myself, forget to call you, forget to eat, to sleep. Is this not just a lavish sensorium to open my bones into orbs? When the Roma rises next to me, one eye missing, do I dream?
At Villa Borghese, Bernini’s white marbles: seized silent in their mythic involutions. Pluto clutches Persephone, his fingers press into her thigh’s stilled milk. Cerberus: his three-headed salivation. At Apollo and Daphne, I see our dissolution. You pace to grab hold, a hand wraps my hip, grasps bark’s sudden enclosure. Orbed, the helicoidal aromas of these trees.
Leaves oranged, singed, and burned. Do I run from love or into? Or is it the transitus: my leaves pump their seduction, cast off what was never mine: a junkie forgetful indolence, a desire to seal me in. Foot finds root, fuses to earth’s atoms. Glance across this earth but once. Something pursues & my arms break into a thousand branches.
Amy Pence has released two books of poetry, a hybrid book, and two chapbooks. The most recent, Your Posthumous Dress: Remnants from the Alexander McQueen Collection, was released in 2019 by dancing girl press. Stories from her unpublished novel have appeared in WSQ, Western Humanities Review and on Juked.