Catacomb

By Charles Tomlinson b. 1927 Charles Tomlinson
A capuchin—long acquaintance with the dead
   Has left him taciturn—stands guard
At gate and stairhead. Silent, he awaits
   The coin we drop into his dish, and then
Withdraws to contemplation—though his eye
   Glides with a marvellous economy sideways
Towards the stair, in silent intimation
   You may now descend. We do—and end up
In a corridor with no end in view: dead
   Line the perspective left and right
Costumed for resurrection. The guidebook had not lied
   Or tidied the sight away—and yet
Eight thousand said, unseen, could scarcely mean
   The silence throughout this city of the dead,
Street on street of it calling into question
   That solidity the embalmer would counterfeit.
Mob-cap, cape, lace, stole and cowl,
   Frocked children still at play
In the Elysian fields of yesterday
   Greet each morning with a morning face
Put on a century ago. Why are we here?—
   Following this procession, bier on bier
(The windowed dead, within), and those
   Upright and about to go, but caught
Forever in their parting pose, as though
   They might have died out walking. Some
Face us from the wall, like damaged portraits;
   Some, whose clothing has kept its gloss,
Glow down across the years at us
   Why are you here? And why, indeed,
For the sunlight through a lunette overhead
   Brightens along a sinuous bole of palm:
Leaves catch and flare it into staring green
   Where a twine of tendril sways inside
Between the bars. Light from that sky
   Comes burning off the bay
Vibrant with Africa; in public gardens
   Tenses against the butterflies’ descent
The stamens of red hibiscus. Dead
   Dressed for the promenade they did not take,
Are leaning to that light: it is the sun
   Must judge them, for the sin
Of vanity sits lightly on them: it is the desire
   To feel its warmth against the skin
Has set them afoot once more in this parade
   Of epaulette, cockade and crinoline. We are here
Where no northern measure can undo
   So single-minded a lure—if once a year
The house of the dead stood open
   And these, dwelling beneath its roof,
Were shown the world's great wonders,
   They would marvel beyond every other thing
At the sun. Today, the dead
   Look out from their dark at us
And keep their counsel. The capuchin
   Has gone off guard, to be replaced
By a brother sentry whose mind is elsewhere—
   Averted from this populace whose conversion
Was nominal after all. His book
   Holds fast his eyes from us. His disregard
Abolishes us as we pass beyond the door.

                                                            Palermo

Charles Tomlinson, “Catacomb” from Selected Poems 1955-1997. Copyright © 1997 by Charles Tomlinson. Reprinted with the permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation.

Source: Selected Poems: 1955-1997 (1997)

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Poet Charles Tomlinson b. 1927

POET’S REGION England

Subjects The Body, Death, Living, Religion, Nature, Travels & Journeys

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

Biography

Poet, artist, and translator Charles Tomlinson was born in Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire in 1927. Fluent in German, French, and Italian, he read English at Queen’s College Cambridge, studying with poet Donald Davie who was an early influence and later became a close friend. Tomlinson taught elementary school before joining the University of Bristol, where he taught for 36 years. His collections of poetry include Relations and . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT The Body, Death, Living, Religion, Nature, Travels & Journeys

POET’S REGION England

Poetic Terms Blank Verse

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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