Wednesday, September 5, 2012

James Wright

A Lament for the Martyrs

    I am sitting in an outdoor cafe across the street from the
Coliseum. The noon is so brilliant that I have to wear my dark
glasses. You would think a Roman noon could lay even the
Coliseum wide open.
    But darknesses still foul the place and its hateful grandeur.
The Roman Chamber of Commerce and Betelgueze in
combine could gut the Coliseum by day or by night till the
ghost of Mussolini and the ghost of God turned blue in the
face, and light wouldn't mean a thing in that darkness. Cities
are times of day. Once Rome was noon. Do you get me? To
take a slow lazy walk with Quintus Horatius Flaccus at four
o'clock in the night was to become light. If you don't believe
me, I offer you a method of scientific verification. I lay you
eight to five that you will go blind if you take a walk at high
noon with the President of the United States. I love my
country for its light. I love Rome because Horace lived there.
I am afraid of the dark. I am game to live with intelligent
sinners. Sometimes these days the Romans say that whatever
the Barbarians left behind was later sacked and raped by the
Barberinis, the noble family who needed the remnant marble
for their country palaces. I find them fair enough for me.
When I was a boy, the mayors of five towns in the Ohio
River Valley solved the practical problems of prohibition by
picking the purest and most perfect bootlegger between
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati to become Chairman of the
Committee for Liquor Control. I think it would be wicked
for me to wonder what the five mayors did with their cut in
private. All I know is that within a year after Milber's public
appointment to a legal office, a symphony orchestra
mysteriously appeared in one town, two spacious football
stadiums appeared in two other towns, the madame of the
cathouse in Wheeling was appointed a dollar-a-year man by
the Federal Government, and I lost an essay-contest whose
subject was the life and work of William Dean Howells, an
American author who was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio, for
Christ's sake, and whose books I had never even heard of,
much less read. (As I look back over the shadows of the years,
I confess that I have read one of his novels. I like him. He was
a good friend of Mark Twain.)
    But right now the Roman noon is so brilliant that it hurts
my eyes! I sip my cappuchino at a wobbly sidewalk table and
ponder the antiquities of my own childhood: the beautiful
river, that black ditch of horror; and the streetcars. Where have
they gone now, with their wicker seats that seemed to rattle
behind the dull headlights in the slow dusk, in summer where
everything in Ohio ran down and yet never quite stopped?
    Now, the Romans and the discovered Americans stroll blinded
in the Coliseum, deaf to the shadows the place never loses, even
at noon in Rome, that was for a little while one of the few noons.
    Some archaeologist gouged out the smooth dust floor of the
Coliseum to make it clean. The floor now is a careful revelation.
It is an intricate and intelligent series of ditches, and the sun
cannot reach them. They are the shadows of starved people who
did not even want to die. They were not even Jews.
    There is no way to get rid of the shadows of human beings
who could find God only in that last welcome of the creation,
the maws of tortured animals.
    Is that last best surest way to heaven the throat of the
hungry? If it is, God is very beautiful, if not very bright.
    Who are the hungry? What color is a hungry shadow?
    Even the noon sunlight in the Coliseum is the golden
shadow of a starved lion, the most beautiful of God's creatures
except maybe horses.

--James Wright

in Unmuzzled Ox, Vol. IV, No. 1, 1976


No comments:

Post a Comment