Virgil at Mantua, 1977
Well done maestro! High on the monument
you stand. Right arm outstretched instructs
the town, palm turned in the classic pose
of a Monty Python General: settling the laws,
fingering a grateful pigeon. Left elbow crooks
the book you wrote for Princes, though, here too,
coarse rock doves sneer and are not fooled by marble.
Good luck to you! You worked the World’s own ways
to your best ends; and the inscription finds you great:
A Virgilio — La Patria. Your brilliant, vicious Italy!
Your modest ears would burn.
Around, Aeneas slays, and Tityrus pipes in stone; beneath
(since need finds marble irresistible)
the age has swirled its slogans round. Your triumph runs
along a stone’s four sides:
No more madonnas, no more whores, just women….
Assassin cops kill red brigades.
Be realists; ask everything.
Cemetery of the Capuchin Friars, Rome
Cool steps of stone beside two Central Banks
lead to a cellar, some tonnes of old friars’ bones
if you can spare ten minutes and a coin.
Quello che voi siete, noi eravamo;
quello che noi siamo, voi sarete.
Death’s jury’s stacked:
four hundred pairs of sockets stare you down,
each with its name in ink upon the pate,
that cage where a tongue once flapped.
Rome’s heat, the timeless bread-and-olive stalls,
fierce traffic, fade into this gloom.
Japanese graffiti on an old friar’s knee-cap.
Wood-heaps of shin-bone; pelvic shields
like tureens heaped in a cool servery;
Comme vous nous etions; comme nous vous serez.
All tongues can let that coldness in.
No guards object: here ladies may flaunt thigh and bust;
the bones are antidote to lust.
Como vosotros nosotros eramos;
como nosotros vosotros sereis.
Thigh bones, round-tipped like tors,
muffle the tourist children’s noise
as long-divided tongues prattle and lick
for human sameness round the bones.
Was ihr seid sind wir gewesen;
das was wir sind werdet ihr sein.
As you are now, so once were we.
As we are now, you soon will be.
Outside two tourists meet. “Darling! How are you?!”
ABOUT THE POET
MARK O’CONNOR was born in Melbourne in 1945 and graduated from Melbourne University in 1965. He has been the Australian National University’s HC Coombs Fellow and a visiting scholar in its Department of Archaeology and Natural History. His poetry shows special interests in Italy (where he spent some years), in the Barrier Reef, and in other Australian environments. He has published 15 books of verse and is the editor of OUP’s much re-printed Two Centuries of Australian Poetry. He was Australia’s ‘Olympic poet’ for the Sydney 2000 Games, with a fellowship from the Australia Council to ‘report in verse on the Games’. Visit him at www.australianpoet.com