The Desert of Empire

By Mark Rudman b. 1948 Mark Rudman
How easily our lives could have been easier if our
fathers hadn't done in whoever stood in their way.
Did progress demand they set factories belching smoke
like volcanoes? You're right to be dumbfounded as to why

you're forced to spend your time making up for
your ancestors' mistakes, waste this beautiful day
restoring ruined shrines and temples
so that the gods might not abandon Rome for good.

There could be a turn about: after they were rid of
the Etruscans, a few farsighted countrymen
had the savvy to steal their fine
sarcophagi designs, along with the booty.

Decadence is your legacy. I hold out hope
for satires, epigrams, and odes, but heaping on
the gore is not an answer, and our plays are weak
echoes of the Greeks.

If you want to have some say in the way things are,
put yourself in the hands of a higher order.
Have faith in faith. Bow down to the gods
who oversee and underwrite and sponsor.

There's nothing empirical left to this empire now.
What would have been routine raids on small fry
republics—from Vietnam to the Isle of Man—
are beaten back, and the opposition,

in ecstatic mockery, turn our spoils
to souvenir necklaces and key chains.
The ancient city, riven by civil strife,
escaped destruction by fanatic Bosnia and Iraq

with their demonic submarines, bombers,
and other dangerous toys, by a hairsbreadth.
Self-absorbed, promiscuous,
we've brought these evils on ourselves

like people who, anticipating the worst
from a routine physical, forswear
doctors until their symptoms call for
drastic measures; as only after

the condom-clogged, gaseous,
syringe-rich, toxic river
overflows and floods the litter-free,
segregated streets of the capital

will the Rivers Network organize
a mass cleanup on Earth Day.
The young, lured always by the glitter of cities,
find nothing cooler than the hotter—

than-ever-before dance-crazes flown in
from the clubs of Rio, Barcelona, or Berlin.
How was a girl to know that marriage sucks
the sap out of sex? And why not make it

with the guests, especially if it's just the boost
his mercurial career needs to rocket off...
How are they to know the sexual spectacles
began on their own ravaged ground?

And these out-of-towners are so endlessly grateful
for a dose of decadence because they
"sure don't get pussy like this in Topeka."
(The New Age victor is the one who gets

the onlooker to come without anything
physical happening between them.)
"How does he think I know how to get the dry-
cleaning-mogul's cock to stiffen, as if a good

dis weren't hard to find, like 'you use your tongue
like you're trying to remove a spot.'"
Her husband, in his white tux, appeared
nonchalant, but a second glance revealed

a man slaphappy and dazed from one
too many Zombies; either way,
when the Titania II pulls into port
she'll allow whoever has the best

offer, captain or mutineer, Delano or
Benito Cereno, to take her on the dance floor.
Dalliance supplies what she needs for her shopping sprees
which "this guy whose wedding ring I like never

take off can't get through his head are
necessary. He's so dense, like I show up
in this designer dress on my 'allowance.'
Men have no idea what it costs a girl to be

truly glamorous in times like these—
and when they land the commission
remain clueless as to why they
were chosen and not the other guy

with the goody-two-shoes type wife."
It's shattering to consider that these nerds,
for whom watching's the real
turn on, sprang from fierce, sturdy stock

who in their youth conquered conquerors,
brought down swaggering, gallant
Hannibal, Pyrrhus, and Antiochus,
dyeing the sea red with Punic blood.

But the early Romans, the soldier-farmers,
knew better than to double think what had to be done,
and dug with the tools of the long-gone Sabines,
and never neglected to cut the logs to honor

mom's firm yet anxious request for firewood as
shadows shifted on a far rise, night
fell, and man and oxen were the same
in their deep desire to lie down.

Who is immune from ruin by time?
Each generation wearier than the one before;
these days no one deigns to have children
until they are "professionally secure."

And the media waits long and long to warn
the idealists born during the baby-boom
that the future is also being sabotaged:
undone by sluggish sperm; hardened wombs.

                                                       (after Horace, Odes, Book III, 6)

Mark Rudman. "The Desert of Empire" from Provoked in Venice copyright 1999 by Mark Rudman and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.

Source: Provoked in Venice (Wesleyan University Press, 1999)

Discover this poem’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Mark Rudman b. 1948

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Subjects History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries

 Mark  Rudman


Geography, place, diaspora and eroticism figure greatly in Mark Rudman’s work. Born in New York City, he spent a large part of his childhood traveling, living in Illinois, Utah, and Florida. He returned to New York City for school, where he earned a BA from the New School and an MFA from Columbia University. He has also spent significant time in Mexico and Italy. His books of poetry include the five that form what he terms the . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT History & Politics, Cities & Urban Life, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., Mid-Atlantic

Report a problem with this poem

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.