The parachutists, 1943
The night before the Americans came the villagers evacuated to the cave.
Six men carried the statue of their patron on their shoulders—
the Marseillaise saint upon his horse, trampling a Turk underfoot.
As the sky hummed with C-47s, they touched the saint’s hands and face
and watched as balloons fell from the sky. Americans swarmed like ants,
dropping to earth, shedding their skins in the branches
of olive trees and on the jagged timpone.
Someone called them paracadutisti—and soon everyone used the word,
as if they’d known it all along.
Just as quickly as they came, the Americans left, heading north in pursuit of a retreating army.
Then came the race—
……………………………the villagers came down from the cave in search of the nets,
the fabric like none they had seen before.
‘It’s perfect for collecting olives,’ one woman said,
…………………………………imagining her net stretched taut between thick trunks.
‘With this, I’ll make a shirt for my husband,’ said another,
…………………………………testing it for tear resistance.
‘I’m using this one to fly,’ said a boy of fifteen,
…………………………………too young to be afraid or enlisted—
……………………………………………………..imagining he’d fly like an American.
From a crag above the cave,
the boy’s parachute caught the wind,
billowing out to form a mushroom.
It floated before opening
like a handkerchief,
folding in on itself
as it fell,
tumbling down to earth
to form a shroud
for broken bones and battered skin.
From Earth, stone, water
I: Gravel road, Pisticci to Craco
A boot-trodden path cuts through wheat fields
to the remnants of a farmhouse. A chimney
standing sentinel takes on the proportions of a belltower;
an archway cut into loose brickwork forms
a poor-man’s nave. What’s left of the kitchen hearth,
now a tip for broken bowls, coat hangers,
shards of glass. A clean slab of granite
might’ve once formed a kitchen bench,
propped up with bricks, a kind of altar.
Here the hills erode to barren dunes
where only tufts grow, roads wedged
on the backs of ravines: a pilgrim’s landscape
through which the Apostle Thomas might have travelled.
Here a well, ploughed deeper in a drought year,
has gone to clay, a silent protest
against the profane.
In the distance, Pisticci, perched above a drop,
its houses whitewashed and symmetrical;
the town’s water tower glints in the afternoon light,
its reservoir full, waiting for a slide to spill its barrel.
III: At Laurenzana
A man reclining on a low stone wall recounts the allied
landing at Salerno like it were a week ago;
how the mountains crawled with soldiers.
In these mountains a thousand years
is like yesterday and the memory of yesterday erased.
Pointing to the church on a spur, he tells me how
archaeologists who excavated the abbey floor
found a woman’s mummified corpse—
he stretches his arms out to indicate a crucifix.
At Santa Maria della Assunta a young priest
points at his watch, gesturing the abbey closed at midday.
No, he shakes his head, there was no woman found
in the shape of Jesus; found here were medallions,
a bronze plate with a Madonna and child,
the remains of rosary beads, a fragment of animal jaw,
Bourbon-era coins, buttons—many of them, of wood and bronze,
a pair of women’s leather shoes in perfect state of preservation,
the remains of a woollen blanket that swathed a newborn infant,
and a woman’s corpse, hands folded across her solar plexus.
At home with Peggy
In the former dining room Peggy stands
beside the reproduction dining table,
watching visitors admire the sideboard
topped with reliquary carvings from Gabon.
Dressed for guests, though now visitors
stay no more than minutes,
moving to the drawing room
where the Kandinsky and Mondrian hang.
Peggy rolls her eyes
as she overhears a woman
discuss the Magritte—
I’ve finally worked out
what’s wrong with this painting—
how can it be night time
when the sky is still light?
In the library Peggy sits
on the white lounge, watching
art school grads frame shots of the canal
through the iron-latticed windows—
tourists more drawn to the view
than to Cornell’s Fortune Telling Parrot.
A woman poses like Peggy
in the photograph that hangs in the corner:
legs crossed, arm stretched over the lounge’s back.
She pouts, and so does Peggy,
parroting her parrot.
On the terrace, Peggy sunbathes,
amusing herself with the reactions of guests
to Marini’s sculpture of The Angel of the City—
eyes delighted by the figure of the rider,
his arms stretched out in jubilation,
until they see the metal penis
Peggy has screwed in.
She hears an American tell his girlfriend,
You could give him a hat
or put a bucket around his arm
and turn it into an entirely different artwork.
Peggy turns to tan her breasts.
Peggy in the garden
beside the spot where her ashes are buried.
Peggy watching tourists take a break
in the garden’s cool shade.
Peggy listening to visitors discuss
whether it’s time for a coffee
or the special exhibition;
I want to check out the gift shop;
Are the toilets here safe to use?
Peggy in Pegeen’s room. Peggy studying
the photo of Pegeen sitting on the Byzantine throne.
Peggy observing her daughter’s paintings,
how they teem with happiness: scenes of sun and Riviera.
Pegeen’s paintings, primitive and naïve.
Peggy studies the long-limbed women standing naked,
the canals of Venice brown like oil slicks.
Peggy focuses on the brightness of the colours
and tells herself how happy her daughter was.
Peggy focuses on the colours and reassures herself
how untimely and mysterious
the whole thing was.
ABOUT THE POET
FRANK RUSSO’s writing has appeared in Contrappasso 6, The Weekend Australian, Southerly, Transnational Literature, Cactus Heart and in anthologies in Australia and overseas. His poetry collection, In The Museum of Creation, will be published by Five Islands Press in 2015. His writing has been short-listed for the Vogel/The Australian Literary Prize and other awards.