On the Dogana’s Steps
“I sat on the Dogana’s steps
For the gondolas cost too much, that year…”
~ Ezra Pound, Canto III
I. A Small Apartment It was cheap to fly on New Year’s Eve, the Plane roaring through dark air, the sun left behind Seven hours to the west, the invisible Ocean laid out below, something we can’t see But believe exists. I forget how long Ago that was. I only remember my Son asleep in his seat, his headphones slipped Down around his neck, the lemon peel I’d Given him to fend off nausea falling From his hand. Did we land at Zurich? Milan? I forget that too. We were traveling to Venice, a small apartment across from the Opera house. Nothing was playing, but The lights were on, and tourists would pack the Square at dinnertime. There was the fish market In the morning, gorgonzola dolce from A shop nearby, and blood oranges on an Old blue platter. At night, I walked with Simon Through narrow streets to the San Marco, where Venders sold mechanical toys and colored Flashlights. You could still feed the pigeons then, I think. Now, the police will give you a stern Warning. I didn’t know why I was there, Browsing hand-blown glass and silk ties I couldn’t Afford. I slipped between pews of churches And down stone stairs in galleries, searching For Tiepolo angels and Bellini Madonnas, Mantegna’s Saint Sebastian. I looked for Pound’s grave in the cemetery And leaned on the rail of vaporettos. I stared at my reflection in the canal. II. Acqua Alta This has been a year of destruction. Notre-Dame Burned; now Venice floods. On the Giudecca, Palladio built his church high above The canal where lumbering cruise ships send Their rough wakes crashing against the embankment, The docks. Someday soon, it may be all that’s Left dry. I had a dream once like that: a drowned City with only a few buildings standing Above the water curling against their steps. I was following a woman in that dream Without success—an embarrassingly Obvious reminder of wanting and need. Today, the morning tide was more than a Meter deep, climbing the stone steps of the Basilica in the San Marco, seeping In across the tiles, café tables and chairs Washed away out to sea. The videos on The news showed the flood but not the damage, Floating suitcases, storefronts, and men in Yellow slickers, rubber boots up to their thighs. I think of places I’ve stayed, apartments where The lagoon must have entered the living room, Soaked the wallpaper and the furniture, The bookshelves with histories of the Doges— Art books ruined, stains that won’t go away. III. Ruins There are islands in the lagoon with ruins, Collapsed houses, walls that turn red at sunset. It’s a mystery who lived here, why they left. You pass these on the way to the airport. Whoever built them, they wanted solitude And must have had the money to purchase it. On Torcello, there’s a mosaic of the Last Judgment that’s just shy of a thousand Years old and a white stone chair said to Have been carved to fit Attila’s rear end When he chased the fleeing Romans across These swampy islands. It’s not true, but it’s A good story. Back in North America Nothing is really old, except the caves And the Indian mounds. It makes us think History began with a few men in wigs Deciding what to do with a continent. It makes us think time is a harmless snake With rings of bright color like a bracelet, Only biting people who deserve it. In Texas once, I found arrowheads by The Guadalupe River and even a Sharp wedge of flint that might have been part Of an axe. I cut my thumb on the chipped edge. I used to believe that if things turned bad, I Could fly to Venice, live on coffee and Polenta, sit somewhere on the Zattere, And read all those books I’ve been meaning to Get around to. Now, that seems unlikely. The lagoon is taking back the palaces, The churches, the narrow streets, ornate windows, And the Dogana’s steps, where Pound sat, host Crabs and squid. On the roof of La Salute, Baroque angels stare blankly at the waves. IV. Quarantena Palladio’s church in the Giudecca Was built by plague survivors. The Scuola Di San Rocco was as well. Tintoretto Spoke to that heaven prayers couldn’t reach. Doctors in black cloaks, drugs that didn’t cure, Left only this, paintings posed against death. Simon, at four or five, played beneath the Busy crucifixion, asked about the wounds— Afterwards, coffee in the sunlight, the same Sun that draped shadows five hundred years ago, That made us squint as we crossed the canal. The richest fled to their estates, burned herbs And candles—transactions in the eternal Ledger, this much gold, a painting to honor The saint, the virgin, avoidance of this vice Or another, faces carved in gray stone. Ships from infected ports flew yellow flags And waited forty days, quarantena, Before they could dock. This summer no one Is traveling. Our groceries are left Outside the door, and masks are back in fashion. The shopping mall down the street has reopened, But there are few cars. The golf course is empty Except for white ibises, Muscovy ducks. I look up at the ceiling fan that doesn’t Work. There is no Tiepolo above me, Full of gods and clouds, just wooden beams and A roof, a narrow strip of sky dividing The Atlantic from the Caribbean. The sickness is getting closer. Simon’s Mother called to say she was being tested, A sore throat that had lasted for days, shortness Of breath. The hospital ICUs are full. My great-aunt used to tell stories about Quarantines, Spanish flu, the yellow fever They had in Mississippi when she was A child. She was very short, and my mother Said yellow fever had stunted her growth, Killed others. She used to warn me about Night air. On the Lido, there’s an old Jewish Cemetery overgrown with vines, gravestones Falling on top of each other, sinking Beneath their own weight, Hebrew letters, carvings, Two men with hats carrying grapes from a pole Over their shoulders, a jug, a basin. The dead will always outnumber the living.
GEORGE FRANKLIN is the author of Noise of the World (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions), Travels of the Angel of Sorrow (Blue Cedar Press), Among the Ruins / Entre las ruinas (Katakana Editores), and Traveling for No Good Reason (Sheila-Na-Gig Editions). He is also the co-translator, along with the author, of Ximena Gómez’s Último día/Last Day (Katakana Editores). More information can be found at https://gsfranklin.com/