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Janiculum Staircase, and Santa Cecilia

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 3-4, 2014
pp. 314-316 | 10.1353/ner.2014.0016

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Janiculum Staircase

In a daylight façade of closed shutters,
       one window is always open,
       giving onto a modest kitchen,
              tidy, with a bowl of fruit
       that seems to change according to the season,
that ripens and matures.
              The bananas are my favorite.

I have never seen a person in that room,
       though the dishrag is folded and neat
       on the long neck of the sink faucet.
              But someone must live there, someone cares
       that a passing stranger should have a glimpse of it,
a tranquility that seems far removed from
              the city and its dirt and noise.

I am given this glimpse every day,
       and never without a sense of trespass,
       though the fruit could be made of stone, of course,
              in this kitchen that floats in midair,
       visible only from a staircase
descending in zigzags to Trastevere,
              since the apartment is on the third floor.

That staircase smells of human things,
       of things nocturnal and intimate
       fly-blown by day and indifferent:
              the leavings of compulsion, pleasure, both.
       And from the rich soil of that excrement,
from its corruption and its nourishings,
              figs and tomato seedlings have sprung forth;

so perhaps that kitchen is a mere antechamber
       to some other place intent with life, some
       fully-inhabited inner room,
              could I look past the fruit made of stone
       and my own constant longing to succumb
to the emptiness of modesty and order,
              while descending the stairs into town.

Santa Cecilia

It is Saturday morning, and my errand is to buy marmalade
        from the grumpy nuns at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere
        (Cecilia, who told Valerian on their wedding day
that an angel was watching over her maidenhood).

I think of slipping into San Francesco a Ripa,
        where they’ve made a broom closet out of De Chirico’s tomb chapel,
        and Bernini’s Blessèd Ludovica Albertoni is all
in her ecstasy, but I see men outside shouldering up a

glossy wooden box, and I hear bell metal struck,
        tolling a note and then the minor third below,
        the music of the end, even on a morning aglow
like this one, with the Tiber running high, colored coffee-and-milk,

pressing against the walls of the embankment: so I continue
        without delay to Santa Cecilia, where lapis lazuli
        and gilded pomegranates attend the sculpted effigy
of a girl sleeping her maiden sleep under the baldachino,

and only the gently weeping line on her neck
        and something uncanny about the rotation
        of her head, under its covering napkin,
suggest that she will not, after all, awake

to another ordinary day in paradise,
        the apse mosaics studded with dates from a palm,
        while, on an upper branch, a phoenix bursts into flame,
lambs leave the Holy City single file, and an ancient nun is

picking out a melody on the organ keyboard
        while still wearing, I notice, her bedroom slippers.
        But my errand is marmalade from the fruit of the trees
in the cloister garden, so she must be interrupted:

One jar, please, yes, with light enough in it
        to last the winter, and not sweet but bitter,
        with homunculus shapes adrift in its cloudy ichor,
cut from the astringent and salvific fruit.

Karl Kirchwey  

Karl Kirchwey is the author of six books of poems, most recently Mount Lebanon (Marian Wood/Putnam, 2011), as well as a translation of Paul Verlaine’s first book titled Poems Under Saturn (Princeton University Press, 2011). His new manuscript is Stumbling Blocks: Roman Poems. Kirchwey is Professor of the Arts and Director of Creative Writing at Bryn Mawr College, and from 2010–13 served as Andrew Heiskell Arts Director at the American Academy in Rome.

Copyright © 2014 Middlebury College Publications
Project MUSE® - View Citation
Karl Kirchwey. "Janiculum Staircase, and Santa Cecilia." New England Review 34.3 (2014): 314-316. Project MUSE. Web. 28 Feb. 2014. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.
Kirchwey, K.(2014). Janiculum Staircase, and Santa Cecilia. New England Review 34(3), 314-316. Middlebury College. Retrieved February 28, 2014, from Project MUSE database.
Karl Kirchwey. "Janiculum Staircase, and Santa Cecilia." New England Review 34, no. 3 (2014): 314-316. http://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed February 28, 2014).

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