George Franklin

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/


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