Tag Archives: poetry

Notebook Excerpt: Norma

26 Oct

Late this summer, a woman died. She was a best friend to my grandmother and a warm, warm presence in the lives of my entire family, and a former nun with a whole host of adventures to share as we laughed over pub tables. I know, as, I think, does everyone who felt her unwavering belief in the world ahead, that she is still sharing laughter with friends; she’s just sitting at a bit of a higher table now. Though I still have not written anything that does her justice (I would need a novel!), here is a very, very rough first draft of a poem that I wrote this August during FOCUS. The entirety of these stanzas are copied from scribbles I made during a panel about Yale and New Haven…at that moment, my mind (and pen) were elsewhere.


before, we sat in

three seats with teetering martinis

and laughter from the inside out

(she was a nun to none or one, at least, as me,

with stories of teaching and God and the life she led

since those foreign countries)

she traveled from my 20 years of life to her two weeks of dying in hospital beds

and I had a suddenly-whittled brain of words and hobbled tongue


now, it’s just one more conversation

I will not have,

breaking bread,

one more dinner, pseudo-grandma-adult-shaped

intersection of my nights

just one more




later, maybe

her absence will take the

shape of stiffened


hungry hungry

evenings in my bed,

that thank you letter we never wrote


and in ten years,

I will be passing these names

tied with story

tied with heart string of

faded loyalty,

fear of time,

of love




Notebook Excerpt: I knew it was not a real poem

25 Jun

I knew it was not a real poem

the moment my mother finished the crisp “t” on

“I must not have been smart enough to understand it-t”


Not a poem of a red wheelbarrow,

the way two roads diverging can be,

nor a people poem, not a pocket full of lines that

can be emptied onto the table when company

comes over, not a

real poem.


My father would disagree, would say

“We just don’t know this stuff

like the rest of the world does,” would

sit for hours in a too-small chair in the back of a school

auditorium just to hear me carve unfamiliar words from air,

but here, he is wrong.


A real

poem (I remind myself) lingers

in the eardrums of more than “the rest of the world,”

requiring no taste for expensive wines nor Latin diplomas (no

afternoons in church, or on an open lake) to make a mother fall in love.


Just a reading and a place in your memory and a repetition

the day you realize the world goes on forever and you have

no other words.

Letter to my Archivist

24 Jun

Dear Memory,

I know you are cluttered and stuffed to the brim with all sorts of knick-knacks – puns and conquests and the smell of my Grampa’s French toast – but I would like to file a request.

Please clear out a corner, preferably on a high shelf that won’t need to be disturbed for a while (and where those pesky short-term reminders can’t reach), and open a file entitled:


In this file, with utmost precision, I would like you to record every moment of last night between the hours of midnight and 4am. I want pictures, audio, press clippings if you can find them. This ought to be a veritable archive.

I know you are already overworked processing the Colosseum and that you have a backlog of Bernini statues. But trust me, this is a memory that I will want to come back to for the rest of my life. Push it to the front of the line, would ya?

And just because I’m so grateful for your hard work, I’ll start you off with a collection of the best moments of the evening. You take it from there.

Ashley and I were washing dishes and singing. This was not unusual in itself; however, this time it went on for a long time because we were doing dishes from both the group dinner and the wine tasting. I had already started making a mental map of the rest of my evening like I always do when I am stressed out, weighing the different possible combinations of study and sleep and realizing that sleep would yet again come up short. I had a presentation the next morning on Byron and wanted to knock the socks off of my teacher (I had been talking to her since arriving in Rome about my love of poetry) and so I knew that after dinner, I would hunker down with the eighteen open tabs on my web browser to read more and more about this crazy, violent, passionate, supremely talented man.

Until, that is, Nick, Hannah’s friend who was visiting and who did the program last year, walked into the kitchen. “I’m taking a walk tonight,” he announced. “Anyone else in?”

Hannah nearly choked on her laughter: “Seriously? I am going to SLEEP.” But Ashley and I made eye contact once, twice, shook our heads, rolled our eyes at each other knowing the futility of our situation, and answered together, “We’re coming.” Completely cuckoo or not (not to mention academically irresponsible), we would never say no to a night walk in Rome.

We left the apartment at 1am. It was Nick’s last night in Rome, but Ashley and I had class the next morning at eight thirty, and I still had my presentation to plan. Feeling a sudden pang of worry on my way out the door, I grabbed my Byron printout from the table and told them, “I’m still coming. But I’m going to read Byron from wherever we stop.” They shrugged their shoulders and we walked out into the piazza, still packed with 20-somethings laughing and leaning inwards in flirtation. The cobblestones echoed with Italian.

Before leaving Trastevere, Nick grabbed a cappuccino from S. Calisto despite the fact that everyone else at the bar was ordering a harder beverage. “Ciao!” I announced into the night air when we entered, as usual. “Ciao,” the older man at the cashier nodded back to me as he handed Nick his change with one hand and cleared Peroni bottles off the top of the glass case of pastries with the other.

Newly caffeinated, Nick decided on our destination: Piazza del Popolo. In Italian, this means “Piazza of the People”; in the language of night walks, this means “Hold on to your sandals, kiddos, this is going to be one heck of a journey.” But we went anyways, along the Tiber (dark with no sun to filter through its trees), through Piazza Navona (bodies mixed with bodies in the blackness in front of me. I could only see those closest to the fountains clearly), across the broken glass bottles of Campo de’ Fiori, and into alleyways that confused the compass that I always keep at the top of my mind. I don’t know how long it took for us to reach the piazza, just that it was long enough to weave in and out of narratives of Rome, everything from our independent project topics to the story of deceit behind one of Michelangelo’s window trimmings.

When we did find Piazza del Popolo, it was deserted. Beyond deserted. Echoing and dusky and much vaster than I had realized back when I saw it clothed in hundreds of sneakers, it met us with its central fountain with four lions shooting water down through their jaws.

“I’m reading Byron,” I said. Then, pausing, “Is it okay if I read Byron?”

“We’re listening,” Nick said, and leaned into the bottom curve of the fountain. I took the folded paper out of my purse, looked up at the top of the fountain, and began to climb. One narrow step at a time. My sandals were not made to grip marble against water but I pleaded with them to succeed, and within a minute, I was straddling a lion, facing a deserted piazza, holding Byron in an 8.5 x 11″ message on my palm.

“Then farewell, Horace; whom I hated so,

Not for thy faults, but mine; it is a curse

To understand, not feel thy lyric flow.

To comprehend, but never love thy verse…”

I trailed off. I had chills. I had two people with closed eyes listening to me read Byron into the marble ruins around me. I was getting wild and romantic, and Lord B. himself would have been proud. On to later stanzas, and,

“Oh Rome! my country! city of the soul!

The orphans of the heart must turn to thee…”

Without acknowledgment I stopped mid-poem and passed the paper off to Nick, who also said nothing but clambered up the adjacent lion. And I stood on the center staircase, listening to words written in that place two hundred years ago. Then Ashley, who had initially shied away from our declamations, pulled herself up onto the central platform, and from above us, looking out, she finished the piece.

“Wow.” Nick said after a few moments. “I think that’s one of the coolest things I have ever done here.” “Wow,” I responded, quietly. “Wow.”

Piazza del Popolo at night. The four lions can be seen, barely, surrounding the base of the obelisk.

By the time we left the piazza, Ashley and I had red roses on our laps from a wandering vendor (“No grazie!” we told him. “No pay — you beautiful,” he argued back, and thrust them onto our laps.) We held them awkwardly in one hand as we followed Nick to our next destination, a “surprise,” we were told.

The surprise was at the top of a hill climb and past scattered Roman couples making out. It was first, a fountain, hidden behind stairs and walls, and second, a view through the Borghese gardens, one that looked out over all of Rome in its quiet repose. “We should recite something else,” we thought. And so, because it was the most firm text in his memory, Nick began the Gettysburg Address from this ledge in Rome in Italy in Europe across an ocean from its initial composition. At the end, we moved on. Each moment of the night cleared the paths of more people until, almost spookily, we were alone on most of our sidestreets. We were deep in the city by this point, and far from home.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. "

So far that our next stop was a climb down – down the Spanish steps. Here, we shared from memory the opening few pages of the Canterbury Tales (yes, Ms. Haag, I still do remember those, Old English emphases and all) and snippets of Shakespeare. By the end, we were sharing every poetic line that had ever stuck to the walls of our minds. We shook them free of their cobwebs and loosed them into the night.

The Spanish Steps

The walk back could be described as uneventful, except that we were walking in the footsteps of emperors and popes. We got lost, used churches as landmarks, and finally stumbled up the stairs more than three hours after our departure. Everyone in the apartment was sleeping, and so we put on pajamas, too; brushing my teeth felt strange after all of those mouthfuls of remembered words.

In the morning, we were tired, but not enough. We had already forgotten moments, but not too many. And we will remember, just for this long.

A rose (and a view) (and a city at rest)

( Now go work your neuron magic, mind. I want – no, I need – this file done right.)



Notebook Excerpt: Beach at Ostia

22 Jun

Who tries to write a poem

on the beach at Ostia?

As if the waves are not proof enough that forward movement transitions (always)

to floating back

As if the sand here hasn’t been made from rocks collapsing

into finer and finer versions of themselves over ten thousand years –

as if my half hour stanzas won’t get buried here, too.

(As if the language of heartbreak – the poetry of it, the tight collapsing phrases, the staccato moment of letting go – exists even through the disappearance of the shade.)

Caesar’s Notes: Wednesday, June 2 – Parades, pizza, poetry, pub

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for this past Wednesday

Our syllabus for Wednesday reads as follows:

“June 2 – ITALIAN NATIONAL HOLIDAY: FESTA DELLA REPUBBLICA. Enjoy the parade! Think about Roman triumphs! Nationalism! The role of the military in the identity of the state! This is an assignment; you will be expected to share your astute observations as they relate to the themes of the course. Please note that stores, markets, banks, etc. will be closed.”

Okay. So. That’s our day, then. I put the assignment sheet down, roll out of bed, look at my wardrobe, and immediately wonder what I should wear to a national parade. Do I go all “Jessica-on-the-fourth-of-July” on them and smother myself in the colors of the Italian flag? Do I dress up and put on impeccable make-up to compete with the bella Italian girls who will be surrounding me? Or do I not care about any potential traditions and put on my shorter dress so I can save the longer ones for our church visits all next week?

I go with the latter option and a pair of crossed fingers and end up doing just fine. The piazza is packed by the time the ceremonies and the parade start, and the band tries to warm the crowd up with a rendition of the national anthem, but only a few of the people there know it well enough to sing along.

This is where the ceremony takes place. It is one of the biggest and newest monuments in Rome; visitors adore it, while locals call it "the birthday cake" with a complete look of disgust. As in, "tomorrow we will be meeting at - ugh - the birthday cake." Does this make anyone else's stomach growl?

Important people arrive for this parade, including Silvio Berlusconi, who walks up the gigantic steps of Italy’s memorial commemorating the republic and places a wreath in front of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. He descends to watch the parade, which starts at that moment with tank after tank of military officials. Then the soldiers. And more soldiers. And a marching band. And more soldiers. I am beginning to see why we are supposed to think about the relationship of the military to this whole celebration. Best of all, the soldiers sing as they march, which makes a nice counterpart to the stiffness of some similar American processions. Here’s a video I took of the singing soldiers during an excerpt of the parade. And here’s a random but necessary picture of soldiers wearing pompoms:

"Timmy, what did I tell you about jousting with feather dusters? Not inside the house!"

Also part of the parade (probably one of the most famous parts) is the flyover of military planes streaming the colors of the Italian flag behind them. If that sounds crazy to you, check it out:

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's a -- no, wait. That really is a plane.

While the rest of the group leaves to grab an early lunch, Frances and I stick around for a concert of national songs sung by a children’s choir and a military band. And at that moment, I really start to ponder the assignment.

This parade began to commemorate the founding of the Italian Republic. In 1946, a referendum was held for the people of Italy to decide between a monarchy and a republic for their government, and after a (quite close) vote, they decided on a republic. This was exciting, but also meant that Italy had a ton of catching up to do; it is, in this sense, a very young nation, and one that still doesn’t have a strong sense of Italian national identity in the ways that we think are customary for patriots. For example, the flag, songs, parade, holidays, etc. all kicked in within the past 50 years, so many Italian teenagers don’t know the words to their own national anthem and instead just mouth along to the tune. From the point of view of an American, this seems strange. After all, don’t we see Italian flags all over the place? And what about “Jersey Shore”? But here, there is a much stronger sense of regional or metropolitan identity than a national one. Even the language varies so much from region to region that my professor, who is completely fluent and has been translating Italian for years, has trouble understanding some of the people she meets from the south of Italy. According to her, it is only through television that any sense of common language and traditions is shared.

So this explains the lack of little flags and some of the mumbled singing. But what about the military? Italy on the whole teeter totters on its past; it wants to diverge from the brute force of Mussolini while still maintaining its ancient tradition of battlefield valor, and so it constantly runs up against the question of how to build national pride without stepping into bad memories. When it came to the parade, this meant that the military was the focus, but no epic, battle-ready speeches were made, and it ended with a children’s choir. It meant that tanks with exposed guns rolled through the streets, but so, too, did nurses and firefighters. It meant that despite the fact that they had assigned the parade as our daily class, our professors did not go themselves; they said that no one they knew would be caught dead going to such an elaborate but empty display of state power. For me, the whole shebang felt very distant from the town parades of my youth. There were no local performers, no young children dancing, no wives or floats. Just orderly marching, and the soldiers’ songs.

A tank rolling through the parade.

After the parade and the mini-concert, Frances and I walk back to Trastevere. I haven’t gone out yet for a sit-down lunch, and she is in the mood to enjoy the afternoon, so we look around for a place to eat. Thankfully, Frances speaks Italian, so we go with my favorite method of finding food here: avoiding any place that speaks English (this includes bakeries and supermarkets, a tactic that has turned every one of my solitary shopping expeditions into an adventure and/or debacle). After darting down a few side streets, we find it, and boy, do our stomachs (and our wallets – the prices drop the farther you get from piazzas) thank us. We have bruschetta (correctly pronounced brus-KET-a in Italian) and fried artichokes for appetizers and split a pasta and a pizza dish between us. Here’s the damage done:




After. And yes, we do give autographs.

Just as we are about to head out (rolling ourselves all the way home), a musician walks up and starts performing at the front of the restaurant. Watch my video to check it out. And no, Dorothy, you are not in Kansas anymore.

That night, I head out with some people from the group to my second poetry-related experience in two days. This time, Mark Strand is giving a reading of his work instead of a workshop, so I grab my notebook and go. He is phenomenal – down to earth with his phrasing and incisive with his words, and I am soaking up the language as quickly as he can release it with his tongue. After each poem he reads, his translator steps forward and delivers the translation, and that’s when I really start to get goosebumps. Since I can’t understand the Italian, I am reduced to measuring his success in sounds, in tumbles, in crispness and reverberations. I let myself be carried by the dips and curves between consonants; I am imbibing, and tucking it within me. In short, I am remembering and reawakening myself as a poet, and oh — oh, the pen feels nice between my fingers.

At the end of the reading, I buy the book. I buy it in Italian, on purpose, where the original English is on the less dominant page, and I read it aloud to myself at the reception. I roll my “r’s” into the air like a fool, and I am so resonant with that sound that I am buzzing. Mark Strand signs my book before I leave. I already know I will keep it on my permanent bookshelf.

Post-poetry-reading, we are all full, some of us with words, some with the hors d’oeuvres from the reading, so we whip up some light bruschetta, grab a quick pint at a local pub, and call it a night. And that’s what I call an inspired evening.

Caesar’s Notes: Tuesday, June 1 – “You are 2000 years old. I am 20.”

6 Jun

Belated and abbreviated post for Tuesday – since I have more time this afternoon, I’m going to try and include a few of these in rapid succession to finish recording the week!

On Tuesday, Ashley and I woke up and decided to go for a run. To the Colosseum.

Living in Trastevere, this is not nearly as epic as it sounds. We lace up our sneakers, change into running clothes (our professor would hate this — we were told not to wear shorts or white sneakers in the city to avoid pegging ourselves as tourists!), cross Ponte Garibaldi, run through a few streets, sprint across the Circus Maximus (which isn’t a big deal in itself, or anything), and look around until we spot a big hulking ruin on the horizon. Excusing the fact that Rome is filled with big hulking ruins, we spot this one pretty quickly – and bam. All of those hours of History Channel watching are condensed into one building right in front of me.

We don’t have a camera, so instead of pausing for pictures, we jog closer. And closer. And closer, until I can reach out my hand and touch the wall. “You are 2000 years old.” I say to it (I’m starting to get into this weird habit of talking to ancient structures.) “I’m 20. Excuse my language, but holy shit.”

Dodging tourists, we run the entire perimeter of the Colosseum, silent the whole time. I am a bit out of shape, the Euros tucked into my sock are itching me, and I am getting an awful sunburn on my right shoulder, but I can’t pay attention to any of that. I am too busy seeing the Colosseum on my morning run.

An hour and a stop-start shower later (to conserve hot water, we all have to wash our hair, stop the water, soap up, start the water, stop the water, shave, start the water…rinse and repeat as necessary), I am on the #3 tram on my way to the Capitoline Hill, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum. These sites are our class for the day. I am in dork urban history heaven.

And that’s before I meet Jan Gadeyne, our guide for the day (and for one of our classes next week, too.) His reputation far precedes him – so much so that we heard about him for nearly a half hour from last year’s students during a pre-departure mingle in New Haven. Why, you might ask? Because he’s a beast. First of all, he was featured in the History Channel’s “Rome: Engineering an Empire” and PBS’s “Did Rome Really Fall?” Second of all, he has not one but TWO Facebook fan pages and a YouTube impersonator. And third of all, he walks SO. ABSURDLY. FAST.

Jan sketching out the four quadrants of the hill. At one point he turned and snapped at us: "Do not sit down! This is not an ElderHostel tour!"

So I came prepared, having stretched from my run and tapped into my Yale tour guide/New Hampshire cul-de-sac walker mentality. If you are unfamiliar, both the Palatine and the Capitoline Hills are famous in the history of Rome because they are two of the Seven Hills of Rome that surround and cut through the city. The Palatine Hill in particular is the site of the homes of Rome’s most ancient settlers, including (legend has it) the hut of Romulus, one of the twin brothers who founded the city (remember that story? suckled by wolves, Romulus kills Remus? ahh, now you’re with me). Archaeologists have found traces here of civilization going all the way back to the 9th century B.C. Because of its legendary importance, many emperors built their palaces here (Augustus literally built his to encompass the traces of Romulus’s hut), and we get our word “palace” from the name “Palatine.”

Me on the Palatine. It's not so bad to be "over the hill" when you're around buildings that are several millennia older!

Taken together, Jan Gadeyne’s guidance and my epic surroundings meant that I saw a lot of superbly-explained, stunningly-old sites over the course of three hours and was out of breath the entire time. Though I am proud to say that I KEPT UP, even when the entire rest of the group got lost behind us. Jan gave me a grudging, “You’re a little better than the rest of them…but I’m still not impressed,” at the end of the tour. We’ll see how I do next time we meet.

Ruins from the Palace of Domitian. At its (literal) height, the palace had walls that were 100 ft. high.

The best part of the outing (besides the scenery and Jan’s continuous griping about the flowers that had been planted on the hill “to please the tourists”) was the Roman Forum. The forum first became a proper Forum in around 625 B.C., so it beats even the Colosseum by a long shot. Heck, even Cicero had his digs here for a while. Among the ruins: the Temple of Julius Caesar (and the site where much of “Julius Caesar,” the Shakespeare play which we had to read during our spring term semester, takes place!); a few bricks left over from the Imperial Rostra, a platform from which ordinary citizens could get up and make speeches to the crowd; a handful of temples, each with a few marble pillars or ceiling blocks remaining; and my favorite, the Curia Senatus, or the former senate house which has been carefully reconstructed around its foundations to the point where I stood still, closed my eyes, and just imagined all of the debates that had raged there and famous orators who had spoken. Throughout the day, I felt as though I could hear the ruins echo.

Sections of the Forum; also, HELLO, pillars.

Talk about a walk back in time...

We made our way back to our apartment after class and did a little shopping for dinner, including a short stop into this delicious cheese, bread, and wine shop whose owners speak absolutely no English. We communicated with sign language and baby Italian.

Don't worry, I won't insert another cheesy pun here...oops.

Before cooking dinner (spaghetti with a sauce of meat, zucchinis, eggplant, etc; salad; bruschetta; wine and cheese), Jonah (one of the guys in the program) and I made one more field trip. We went to John Cabot University, a nearby English-language college, and we attended a poetry workshop by Mark Strand, former Poet Laureate of the United States and current Writer in Residence at John Cabot. Sitting in the audience with my notebook open, I couldn’t believe that I was hearing this American poet read poems translated into Italian while sitting in Italy. A cross cultural triumph.

When dinner ended, the girls and guys split up again, and while the guys were off exploring the local pub scene, we went for our first night walk around Rome.

Setting off on our night walk.

Rome is an AMAZING city at night. Everything is walkable, populated, safe, noisy, and full of couples making out (and I mean seriously making out, leaving no room for the Holy Ghost) until at least 3am, often later. We didn’t have a destination in mind at first, but we ended up at the Pantheon. Kind of like how we had “ended up” at the Vatican and the Colosseum. What can I say? Rome is a good place to wander.

My, Pantheon, what big columns you have!

The whole city changes in vibrancy after sunset, and while not everything is enhanced, many of the statues and buildings have an ethereal glow (okay, okay, or just an added glow from strategically-placed tea lights) when set against the night sky.

Just another bridge statue looking epic.

The buildings rise out of the darkness, and I am left feeling awfully small, and completely awed.

After almost two hours of walking, we make our way to the Vatican to see St. Peter’s after hours. The crowds are gone, no cars are whizzing down the street in front of us; in fact, were it not for our footsteps, it would be just the cathedral and our breath. And my thoughts quiet down, and I stop in the center of the street, and I think there is a whole world waiting for me in this silence.