I’m thinking of a church in Rome that sits
upon a clutch of secrets, speckled, rare.
Some sixty foot below, there is a house
filled-in and lost, burned down in Nero’s fire;
on this, the people made another house,
next-door a temple; and these are but roots
for what’s above, four hundred years thence:
a basilica which, in turn, gives rise
to our present, built on its very bones.
Bricolage of ages, stones and frescoes,
St Clement’s thousand years of orisons
hushed up a thousand more of unsung chants,
until men broke daylight back in. And I
fell through the clotted seam of now and here,
descended down these vertiginous pasts,
Time more coldly coating me in each layer.
Dropping through a quadruple tier of ghosts,
– oh, but they were such dead, unshy, lively –
I saw what I had come for: the witness,
earliest, extant, to Italian.
Found in a fresco, flaking on the wall,
half-grown away from its crib of Latin,
the writing goes with a quaint miracle:
St Clement, as saints will, has caused a fuss,
and his arrest is ordered by a lord.
But when the heavies come to take him in
they find him heavier than sin, for they
mistake a fallen column for the man,
arrest, and try to heave, the masonry,
while St Clement steals home, unseen unheard,
muttering (in Latin). What are the words
so precious, with which we glimpse the tilting
of tongues? A prayer to accompany this
comic affair? A bible verse? A song?
It is the nobleman’s demented hiss,
his profane raging at the three blackguards:
– Fili dele pute, traite!
– Go on, you sons of bitches, pull!