Every now and then, I’ll post an essay here on Dear Mr. Postman, just to shake things up a bit. Yesterday, when I was feeling sad about the news, I happened to also be digging through my old writings from a trip to Rome, trying to rustle a memory out of its hiding place. I came across this rather loosely moored essay that reminded me it’s best to get comfortable with things being uncomfortable. At least sometimes. For a while. At any rate, it took me out of my current self for a long moment or two, and that was nice, so I’m putting it here in case it’ll do something for you.
And Here Is the Underworld: Where We Are Just Waiting for the Next Train
The fact of the matter is, I half-sleep through the underworld as our train passes through it on our way out of Rome. This is the underworld, my travel companion on my left whispers to the one across from me as our train enters a tunnel. The one across from me responds, No one seems alarmed. Everyone, if truth be told, seems rather excited. It’s cooler in the underworld. The wind is faster. Our bodies breathe more efficiently. Everyone sits up. They rustle their newspapers and turn pages in their books and finally choose which card to play, which red queen to set on a black king. Their eyes open into wider curves and their necks stretch towards the open windows. I shift in my post-dance-club, rocking-train sleep at the advent of movement around me. The whole thing happens again on the way back. This time, I am deep in post-midnight-sick sleep. I had spent the night on knees in front of an Italian toilet, the result perhaps of too much sun and sand and wine and stars, my body refusing, suddenly, the intensities of the July countryside, and still I notice the mass bodily shift that occurs with our passage through the underworld, still I turn my head from one side to the other on the gray-blue headrest, that fabric particular and common to all mass transit, I lift my feet and set them down again into deeper sleep. The underworld, on a train from and to Rome, inspires impatience—not a desire to hurry towards death, but a molecular impatience, nerves hurrying along our arms and backs. It is a source of stimulation and pleasure.
In the Salerno train station, our point of transfer between Rome and Paestum, we meet a boy from Colorado, which is where my mother is from. He has been farming in Beirut with WWOOF, which everyone seems to be doing these days. His name is Grant, and his mother’s family is from Capaccio, he has been to visit them, his Italian cousin has just fallen in love with an American girl he has known for two weeks who is from Seattle, which is where all four of us who are traveling together at this moment live, even if we are not from there originally (although I am). This is a small thing, our meeting him. But he happily contributes a line to our ninth and penultimate exquisite corpse of the weekend, and happily makes an appearance in that same poem as “in the Salerno train station / you will meet a boy, a farmer, who will /.” I’m afraid I don’t remember the rest. But we do meet him, and he does whatever it is that our poem asks him to, and he laughs in happy recognition when, still sitting at plastic train-station-restaurant tables, we read the poem aloud.
Grant is worried his cousin will move to America for the girl, tell the entire family it is to spend more time with Grant, and he will take the blame for losing the favorite son to across-the-ocean. Falling in love with someone you’ve only known two weeks is a big thing. Family anger is a bigger thing. Italian family anger, I imagine, is an epic thing.
This is the day the ticket machine asks us to “touch the solution you prefer.”
I like this. It makes me see my fingers reaching out into the world towards a mirage of best-case scenarios. They’ve arranged and shaped themselves like digital buttons, rectangular but with soft corners, like Apple products. They line up and float at a convenient distance in front of me. When I choose, my finger sinks in, leaves a faint impression, the way pixels on a touch screen sink inward, gather around your touch like they want to be near something living. The mirage shakes, bounces back. I try to put the phrase in this poem, then that one.
The next day, we reunite with Rome and with our larger herd of traveling companions and with our larger purpose of writing poetry while in Rome. We go to the Papal Basilica of St. Peter and we are asked to notice big things and small things. To sort things into two columns. To label and list experience, to demarcate it by size, to neatly encapsulate our descriptions and observations of St. Peter’s into an hourglass shape of infinite to infinitesimal and back out again. This is often how poetry starts. This is not at all what poetry is. St. Peter’s is a big thing. The line to get into St. Peter’s that I wait in is a small thing.
Inside, I scrutinize the anklebones of Jesus on Michelangelo’s Pieta. These, I think, are a small thing. But they are plural; maybe they are small things. Then again, maybe they are not. Anklebones are hard, I imagine, to carve, because they are small. And curved. They are precise. Jesus does not have fleshy ankles; his anklebones are delicate and prominent. I look at my own, then back up again to the back of a large woman’s head. The statue, as I think about it again, reminds me of the statue of Lincoln, the one in Washington, DC. Is there something inherently similar about cold marble laps? Or am I fabricating a similarity as I search for reference points, am I paving roads in order to connect the signposts in my mind? The cleaning carts in St. Peter’s don’t make any noise. Unlike the ones in the Pantheon.
We go early to the Pantheon. We share the dome—that dome—with fewer tourists than usual and with the cleaning carts of modern Rome. When people read out loud to one another that evening, someone asks in a thoughtful voice, examining the scrawled handwriting across a white-papered notebook as if it is not her own, If you cleaned the pantheon, how would you feel about it? Would I feel differently? she says. Four people look up, amazed. Look, they say, crowding around her like crows about something crumbly or a bit of shine, look, I wrote that exact same thing in my white-papered notebook in my scrawling handwriting. Look, look, we are exactly the same, we are familiar in this foreign place.
I wonder if it’s a Papal decree that cleaning carts not make noise—if tucked among Windex and rags, paper towels and holy water in spray bottles, each cart has a can of WD-40 to grease its own wheels in case of creaks. Handsome men in suits stand in front of low fences made of red velvet everywhere. They smile politely and answer all queries in quiet, modulated Italian. They too have been greased until they are rid of any creaks. Small thing? Big thing? (Venial sin or mortal?)
Fifteen red-robed children pass speaking Spanish. Their robes extend down to their ankles, hoods hanging down their napes at the ready to cover their heads. A choir. Or a camp group overly concerned with knees and shoulders. Each has a gold cross strung around a child-sized neck. ¿Pero por qué no? a boy asks, his shoulders rising up in rightful indignation, his voice carrying in high-pitched insistence even as it is rushed away into nothingness under the massive ceiling (big thing).
My mother, who went to Catholic school, asks, what is it do you think about knees and shoulders? I say, perhaps just a way of censoring upper thighs, but knees aren’t sexy, knees are not possibly sexy. When we were little, she says, it was knees and elbows. Our skirts had to touch the ground when we knelt, and our shirts had to cover our elbows. Elbows, I say, now who in their right mind is concerned about seeing a woman’s elbows? Oh Maggie, she says, you don’t know about upper arms? Oh, upper arms are really trouble, she says. Haven’t you ever, she says, read a Victorian novel?
I stare at a painting. Who knows which one. It’s lost already. I look in my white-papered notebook of scrawled handwriting: it’s not lost at all, it’s right there, it’s the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor, it was done in 1767. It’s not a painting at all. It’s a mosaic, of pieces so small I’ve mistaken it for a painting twice now (mosaic pieces: very small things). Who is present at Jesus’ ascension (big thing) and does not watch? Who looks at the faces around her, on the ground, rather than the one rising upward?
Is it me, with my dilettante’s mind? I keep writing down the conversations of people I am traveling with rather than notes on the light, or lack of light, or variation of light, in paintings: these taxi drivers are the worst, someone says, not only are they all fascists, but they rip you off. When I was in middle school, I wore all black and told everyone I was goth even though I was emo, someone says. A third: That satyr has attitude. A fourth: I’m going to needs lots of bones and fetuses for this poem. A fifth: I have a dilettante’s mind.
A sixth: This is the story of John the Baptist. Me: Tell me the story. John the Baptist, she says, baptized Jesus. (This crawls inside of me and settles itself in a place where things that make sense go.) He didn’t want to. He said he was unworthy, that Jesus should baptize him. But Jesus insisted, and through baptizing Jesus, John the Baptist became holy. It was a moment of communion for everyone present. I make her statement present tense in my notebook and I look around at everyone present.
She and I come to a sign, saying prayer alone. Or maybe it says prayer only / silence please. The Vatican translators, like the cleaning carts, don’t make any noise. There is no low fence of red velvet here, but a full curtain, thick and muffling. We nod to the quiet, non-creaking guard, we go in, we sit. We stay for a long time (I think). Unlike the underworld, this place creeps in, not rushes. It lulls. It is the only space in St. Peter’s where you are not pushed. I put that into the column of big things, important things, things as large as elephants and obelisks. (Although the elephant obelisk, which is near the Pantheon, is a rather small obelisk. But for a small obelisk, it inspires a rather large fondness.)
Outside, Mary’s breasts are free from her robe just as Minerva and Arachne freed their arms from their robes so they could weave (bares arms, small thing. Freedom to move without constraint, big thing). Lady Justice sits nearby with her scales of justice.
In the colonnade, I see a pretty-lipped faun with red hair and blue eyes.
Our tour guide for the excavations below St. Peter’s has a tattoo of a butterfly on her ankle. Not on the side, as one expects, but in front, right where her ankle slopes down to create her foot. She speaks in a sexy, soft-voiced, mangled English. She says things like, In passing we are an open sky. The most important personality is the lion. He probably seems a pagan god, but is Christ the sun.
The excavations below St. Peter’s seem very mysterious to me.
I wonder about her tattoo, her modestly low heels, whether or not she rides a scooter, why an Italian boy would fall in love with an American girl he has only known for two weeks. I think, I like how Jesus always has his friends near him, flanking either side.
I list more things into big and small columns: last week I got hit by a scooter ridden by a woman named Paola while crossing the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, the bruise is now a perfect green on my elbow—small thing; today is so hot a truck swells and gets stuck between a parked car and a railing—the truck is a big thing, the being stuck a small thing. The driver waits patiently for someone to come with butter or keys. Some people are easy to have patience with. This is a big thing.
I sit down to write about St. Peter’s (big thing). I write about the train, instead, about the anklebones and the cleaning carts (small things) and the Roman rolling black-outs, which might be the underworld passing through Rome, rather than our train passing through the underworld. Last night, the Carrefour supermarket. At lunch, the restaurant. I am having trouble writing about St. Peter’s. I keep thinking about my mother, whose name is also Mary, instead. I am having trouble writing about Rome. I keep thinking:
This is not a place for travel stories.