Ovid, exiled, wrote his Tristia
to plead with Caesar in the capital;
though he’d once written some erotica
his conduct since had been impeccable,
save one transgression he can’t bring himself to name,
more out of seeming reticence than shame.
And, as he makes his case, one notices
how clear the task was in his mind:
to prove to Augustus, and then Tiberius,
that he deserved their pardon, if not love,
and, reinstated, would help advance
those subtle arts most often left to chance.
In this, his case was different from ours,
who face, instead of kings, indifference;
that has as many faces as the slow hours
and braids its criticism without sense,
yet still consigns the writer to a spring
of thick ice, brown water, and slow blossoming.
And if we wonder what he did, what act
turned king and court against him in the end,
the scholars, with their customary tact,
cite several possibilities, that blend
slender intrigues of moonlight and complaint—
we do know, when accused, he showed restraint.
Exiled, Ovid sealed his world in wax:
flowers sprouting unevenly from frost and mold;
the harbor sliding under a mist that stacks
the slate gray vistas into hill and fold;
the packed earth of the village; the boarskin drum;
the hails of poisoned arrows and tedium.
And in his Rome, the insolent white light
still floods the courtyards in the afternoon,
where courtiers mock a youthful anchorite
and fix their boredom on the waning moon;
their studied conversation and bald lies
made timeless by the plain white balconies.
The Domed Road
At night, as I turn through the empty rooms
straighten up cups and shoes and chairs,
I always finish, as my mother did,
by standing briefly in the kitchen door
where, as the tap gleams with the street’s one light
the refrigerator pops and whines,
place my glasses on the countertop
and turn back through the open door to bed.
Sometimes, in the split, ramshackle haze
of my myopia, in which the walls
seem almost to thrill with an animal life,
a doubt begins as I stare through the dark:
the winged shadow of a Morris chair
or the banked cyclone of an Oriental rug
I gain a vantage point
from which my waking life seems harsh and small,
as if, in looking forward to my dreams,
I suddenly looked back through eye and mind
to find my life was wrong,
then found the traces of a larger, subtler life
like the sharp taste of ether in the mouth.
Even in the day that life will seek
the crazed, erratic jots of nothingness
that unfold like a coal mine in the air—
the coral fissures in the walk; the moss
rising like a cloud on a split fence—
and trace in them the pressure of that night
where we were spun from calcium and dread,
But who would stop the workings of that mind
when it can also trace a memory
to its progenitor in an old house,
latter shaken by the passing cars
and the odd peal of thunder through the rain.
Often, when a boy, I wondered why
she left her glasses several rooms away;
why, on turning in, she didn’t think
to set them on the nightstand near her bed,
for reading or just staring through the dark.
It seems now she left them there in faith,
to show she’d so surrendered to her house
that, late at night, should she be called awake,
she needn’t bother to distinguish things
from the soiled shadows that they cast,
or catch the moonglint on the patio
whitening the gloss of our lost selves.
Something willful, too, in that thickening
of the already close-knit atmosphere
first taught me as I came back home at night
from heated bouts of flashlight tag, or, later,
from the domed roads of cannabis and sex
of how we manage to accept our lives—
to leave one’s glasses on the countertop
so far from where one slept, turned out to be
a promise that the day would come
when all the rooms would wear the same starched black.