Tiberius Learns of the Resurrection

Gjertrud Schnackenberg

In a mock-Rome, built with bird-cages,
The swallow was arrested for spying,
The pelican’s beak was sawn off
For fishing a governor's pond without permission,

And a parrot, which made its entrance
In a covered basket, like a puppet-king
Carried in a litter who had recited
Upon his first glimpse of Rome

The lamentation of captivity
On behalf of those he had betrayed,
Now ignites into a dazzling green torch,
Crawling headfirst down

The wires against which, unfurling,
It momentarily crucifies itself,
Then folds into silence.
In a mock-Rome on the island,

The mirrors tilted against the corners
Of the ceiling are stifling,
Producing other worlds of angles
To spy on, showing, backward

And forward, an infinity
Of Emperors, in a sequence of silvery rooms
Where the dagger-man leaps
But strikes someone else,

Where, strung up like withered cats
Who were executed for stalking
The talking birds from the thirty provinces
It is the Emperor's prerogative to strangle,

There are garlands for the Emperor,
“The Delight of the Human Race” –
Now nodding off, and sleep is a sheet of water
Glazing his troubled features. Tiberius

Dreams his face is carved onto
The front of a marble head,
Yet through his lowered eyes he sees
A little sparrow rolling toward his feet

A dry, round ball of straw -
His hand trembles outstretched before it
For it may conceal the face of Drusus,
A faceless, featureless husk

Like a war-trophy, a straw-globe
Girdled with rope, a head with feathers
Where the mouth should be,
The mouth stuffed with mattress-feathers

Owing to death by starvation, a head
Wrapped and sent to the Emperor
As proof of execution,
To whose lips he lowers his ear,

Man is a lamp that goes out when
I wave my hand. Mati is a walking-stick's
Ghostly supporter, following along.
Man is the victim of a wasp. A sack

Dragged to the Wailing Stairs and dropped.
A beggar's penny hurled into a well.
Something to wrap and bury in a hill.
Man is a madman clambering onto

The throne of Julius the God
At Augustalia, who picks up Caesar's crown
And puts it on his head, a crown
To crown the ruin of others with his own ...

He tries to push it away
But his bones weigh him down,
He sees his hand clatter down to his lap
Like a bone in an empty dish

And he cannot raise it, he tilts his head
And peers into a cistern, where,
Glinting at the bottom of a rumor,
Like a portrait of the Emperor,

An object's blinding brilliance
Makes him gasp himself awake before
The rim of, not a cistern, but
An orange blossom, offering not water

But an undrinkable perfume,
Like a pillow held to the face.
And mosquitoes float around his head
Forming soft, delicate, crazed

Letters in the air, writing his name,
Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus,
A secret message of blame
He could crush into blood-spots

If he could lift his hand.
Shoved around the island's boundaries,
The ocean's hurling-engines
Hurl bubbles into sand,

And banks of green-lit thunderheads
Are siege-machines
Constructed in the Pax Romana,
Contraptions meant to terrify,

Lighting up a court of blue lizards
Like agents provocateurs
Pretending to cower among the frescoes
Of lemon trees

Though they arc at the brink
Of showing their knives.
And a scribe
Is seated with his plume poised

Precisely on the last uttered letter,
A statue that writes,
These are my temples in your hearts,
These my fairest and abiding statues.

For those that are erected of stone,
If the judgment of posterity should turn
To hatred, are scorned
As sepulchers.

To be buried in one's own likeness
And image,
For a statue of one's self to be carried
By a slave through eternity,

A statue that crumbles, beginning with the face,
Into lime-powder, to be carried
Past a flotilla of imperial barges,
Like water lilies, floating among

Courtiers, soldiers, scholars,
All of them corrupt. He climbs a mountainside,
Balding, bowlegged, to survey his quarries,
And a marble stairway, polished by flies,

Begins to revolve, a waterwheel
He is condemned to tread in perpetua,
Even when it crumbles beneath his steps
Into a flat ocean across which a slave

Walles toward him, whose lips are leprous
But he has bent to kiss ...
His lips touch, inexplicably, flame.
A man laid in a new tomb,

Like a statue in the marble workshops,
But the eyes blindfolded,
The chin bound with gauze,
The statue of a god – of Tiberius,

Whose slaves carry statues of him
Down to the wharves, by the hundreds,
His features are multiplied in marble
A thousand times over, set afloat

On rafts, on ships, on imperial barges
Setting off, with carved blocks of marble,
Streaming past the rivers and ports
Into the open sea, the waterways

Filled with images
Of him, bound for marketplaces,
Temples, sacred crossroads,
Gardens, libraries,

His lips frozen, speechless among
The courtiers, the senators, the soldiers,
Unable to respond, to speak, to read
Aloud an inscription from which

His engraved name is stricken,
The marble face sheared off,
Exploding on the marble floor,
Or shipwrecked

In sand-laden winds,
In Egypt, where oceans are ponds,
In the reefs off of Scylla,
In Greek underwater caves,

Where he somersaults slowly downward
Through an oceanic realm,
It is not the Roman custom
To condemn any man before

The accused meets the accuser
Face to face and has an opportunity
To defend himself
Against the charge.

He tries to lift his head,
A whited sepulcher
With his features, his stone hand
Lies across the scroll,

But where he had drawn a map
There is only a palsied star
Like a wheel of knives wheeling
Toward him, he wrestles back

And starts awake. Nothing is there.
Mosquitoes softly float
Along a stone wall that conceals
A map embedded with borders of lightning,

And thunder rolls the sky away on wheels
Like a stone ceiling
Painted with clouds, but stone, stone.
Yet a god ascends through the worlds.

Gjertrud Schnackenberg is an American poet and winner of the 2011 International Griffin Poetry Prize.
Originally published:
April 1, 1992


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