Poetry: Nato e Morto | clivejames.com
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Nato e Morto

My Italian is a pocketful
of leftover euros. I use them up,
requesting return vaporetto tickets
to the island cemetery of San Michele.

The bigliettaio assures us that
it’s too soon to take the one-way trip.
Out on the breezy green lagoon, my mother
does her trick with shades and scarf that cuts

her age in half and has waiters mistake us
for husband and wife. The low-lying isle
of the dead drifts towards us.
Once through the portal we find celebrity slabs:

Stravinsky and Diaghilev, Pound obscured
by petals and dust. I place a pebble
on Brodsky’s stone, add a biro to the bristling
jar at its base. He’ll not be short of a pen

when new ideas come. But we’re not here
for photo-ops or grave rubbings.
We came to mingle with the Catholic mass,
to walk where the locals serry,

shoulder to shoulder in the soil. We pass
the plots of friars, sisters and soldiers;
so many sailors are wrecked here, their fingers
purchasing just enough to keep them above

the sea that is coming to take it all back.
The dot of the groundsman’s tractor grows
from the squint of an avenue’s
vanishing point. We see the plume of smoke

before we hear the engine of its steady
approach. A pair of golden ballet shoes
swivel en pointe at the corner of
a sun-bleached lid, alongside (N1982 – M1996)

and a photo propped, as if on a table top,
of a black-haired daughter pirouetting
for the local press on the white steps
of Santa Maria della Salute.

Mum has wandered off with a watering can
from the neat metal stand and is sprinkling
some flinching plants and flowers shrinking
from the heat. To reach her I must pass

the freshest pit that looks and smells
like it was dug today and I stand
on the brink and wonder who made up this bed
and who’s to lie in it and will it be

a restful night, or is there an adamantine
pea of sin beneath the mattresses
of endless sleep? The tractor buzzes
in my ear; I can see the groundsman’s face.

She’s found a flotilla of tiny tombs
with baby snaps fading in the sun’s
nuclear stare. A crumpled face haloed
by knitted shawl; a hint of the old man

he might have become, but free of the decades
of graven care; his nato e morto
wrapped up in one year. “Read this for me.”
La tua scomparsa così improvvisa

mi ha lasciato in uno sconcertante
dolore. Aiutami dal cielo
come mi hai aiutato in vita
“What did it say?” she asks. “Something like:

the way you were suddenly snatched left me
in bewildering pain. Help me from Heaven
as you helped me in life.” The groundsman
has lowered the trailing blades into the beds

and the tractor clatters past this baby Boot Hill
with its milk teeth stones and whole histories
cupped between the palms of a single day.
Cut grass stings our eyes.

The boat ferries back the hundred years
we’ve amassed and which barely seem to displace
a molecule of water, or persuade
a single green weed to bend as we pass.