Walks in Rome

James Merrill

Little has changed. Of the buildings — tufted clay,
Like tennis courts upended —
Some to this day won’t see a dentist.
Others, robed in light green, head to toe,
For on-the-spot surgery, won’t see us.
The senior ones, as when the family doctor
Closing the consultation
Doffs his white jacket for a chat or chess game,
Have stripped to the gruff brick. Those latter-day
Sutures of iron hint
At the dramatically rose-lit
Martyrdom within, while the protruding giant
Veined foot reminds the patient that it’s all
A dream. Only a dream?
If so, one we can walk the whole night through,

Arm in arm, like lovers in a story.
(Or can we? —“Amore! Tesoro!”— OK, wise guy!
— As the unerring Vespa whipping by
Takes the word out of my mouth. Amore.)

And walk whole days through rusty, falling leaves
Above the river racing still.
It will never grow up, suffer the frugal houseboat,
The coal barge. Better one dragonfly
Scull hovering in place. Better an Angel’s
Bird-of-prey shadow rippling
Down from his ramparts. Yet once we descend, you and I,
To the cobbled embankment, push through gangling weeds,
Acne of burrs, to the brink,
Tiber, as usual instinctively
Sweeping itself from view, wakes the reflection:
It knows how to live! —
Current so debonair, so vital, why
Personified in sculpture with an urn,
Bearded, funereal, recumbent?
As I begin to follow, my eyes burn

The bridge of years. I feel in my old bones
A young man’s dread. His longing. To be cast
Upon the waters! Pleasure sauntering past
Looked back? He sank into these very stones

Now gilt with mist. Our trattoria empties.
Tall in the Ptolemaic night
Houses red wine unsteadies reminisce.
That was Umberto’s window, this was mine.
That bijou penthouse? Josie
Lived there one winter. Rome is a time exposure.
From his black square Orion cuts degrees
Of adamant whereby the here-below
Church, palace, obelisk,
Boarded-up flower stall, our square, all grow
Solider, and with each whispered nothing,
Each fading cry, more “eternal,”
While the cars, the people — ? Just a human smear
About the Bocca della Verità,
Then eerie, disembodied shots of light
Down a late artery. It develops
We’ve all along had somewhere else to go.

The friends of 1986 are Swiss.
Italian men, discos and Art Deco,
Fashion and Hollywood are what they know.
Gowns by Hadrian? — Here Antinous,

Everyone’s favorite,
Enters the strobe-lit crypt in shock. Despite
The warm blue honey of his glances,
Golden hair and mornings at the gym,
He didn’t get the part. Too old, said Truth,
Adding lines left and right:
My monumental chronicles drag on.
Life glitters once, an epigram, and — gone.
Time now to walk him home?
Anything but! Tour instead the sedated
Fountains of 4 A.M.? Half awake, offer
Our balcony’s coming attractions? —
Bells wrangling, cappuccino,
Charioteers of the marble Typewriter
Driving their team through bare sky, winged with flame;
Dew-glazed below, the neighborhood Franciscans’
Kitchen garden. Not his scene,
He smiles, blowing a kiss

And gliding off — our cavalier of stealth
Turning the nearest corner, lest we see him
Make for that blackest mass, the Colosseum,
Whose faithful have stayed up to drink his health.

Chessboards, buried one beneath the other,
How slow, how fierce the contests
That foundered each … Yet a young pawn I spent
Two years as (if time kept
So to oneself was spendable) blinks round him,
Dazed. For the opponent — thank you, Angel? —
Whose “men” and “moves” he parried is no more.
Problem solved? If not, its weight commuted
To levels underfoot
Where now-classic solutions rest in pieces
Hard to pry loose. The new subway
Performed a bypass through them, but how slowly,
Checked by the bone bishop of a cell
Fetid with faith, or queen’s encaustic chamber
Blossoming deep in the hive —
Work held up (two more years? porca Madonna!)
For fear that, looked too closely at by day,
The nectarine would peel,
And mote by mote the cupid fly away.

Malaise of airports. Even this morning’s King
Charles spaniel knew his hour on Earth was done;
Kenneled as baggage, howled. I wrote: Dear One,
My westbound high noon is your evening,

You’ve climbed — you promised — to a certain sunny
Outlook above trees in shade.
Overhead, the choral molecules
Will have already formed, their least electron
Blackly twinkling. Starlings, little stars.
On a vast slide you’ll study
The life in one gold drop of heaven’s blood —
Rapidly overlapping rival circuses,
Like animated ink
Drawings by Miró till a motif
Out of the ancient city comes alive:
Gladiators’ nets, the mortal
Fling and pounce reborn, over the ages,
As play. The victims too
React good-humoredly. They are big trees now,
Used in their noble calling,
Night after night, to dreams of suffocation,
Chattering burdens – nothing (Truth to tell)
The sunrise wont dispel.
Remember that. Who loves you? Write. Keep well.

James Merrill (1926–1995) was one of the foremost American poets of the later twentieth century. He published eleven volumes of poems, in addition to the trilogy, The Changing Light at Sandover. He also wrote plays, novels, and a memoir.
Originally published:
March 1, 1988


Louise Glück’s Late Style

The fabular turn in the poet’s last three books
Teju Cole

The Critic as Friend

The challenge of reading generously
Merve Emre

Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre

You Might Also Like

Days of 1952

On the rapture of experiencing art in solitude
James Merrill

To the Reader

James Merrill


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.