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Letter from Rome, on the Fly
[Note: From time to time Poetry will feature online exclusives by contributors. This second installment comes from Kevin Craft. You can read the first exclusive, Robert Archambeau’s “assessment of the virtues and vices of conceptual poetry,” here.]
It begins with the swifts. In summer, when I come to Rome, they are the first to make their presence felt. Sure, the gulls are louder, cackling from rooftops in the pre-dawn gray, rehearsing their loopy laugh track, telling each other the same stale joke of the day. But, for the traveler newly arrived, it’s the swifts that dazzle, at remarkable speeds. They shriek past the tall windows I lie beside, shredding what remains of sleep, all whistle and chill, like a chorus of knives, as if the air itself were bleeding.
Jet-lagged, ragged, nothing but edges as I slip from one world into another—old world, new world, underworld, airport-weary—I stumble onto the apartment terrace to take in the view. Morning raises its first parasols, varnishing the cupola of Sant’Andrea della Valle, brightening the ochre façades ringing the Campo dei Fiori, the invisible field of flowers at my feet. And there they are again, so close I could touch them—swifts, by the dozen, carving circles around the Palazzo Pio in cheerful formation, like a squadron of bottle rockets, hundreds of them now whirling and diving above the Campo, cutting the sky to bright blue pieces.
They are as ubiquitous as church bells, as the terra cotta roof tiles they nest under, these high flyers of the Roman summer, most of them returning year after year, in monogamous pairs, to claim the same crevice, hole, or brick-worn niche to breed in. One imagines their navigational instinct lighting up at the sight of St. Ivo’s spiral, or the great open cavity of the Pantheon’s dome, or Bernini’s keyhole colonnade at St. Peter’s. To them, Piazza Navona is still an open air stadium around which they run laps, indefatigable, mapping the Four Rivers with migratory precision.
The common swift—in Italian, rondone—the name itself a round of pure resonance—elemental liquids careening over rooftops, a piazza of open vowels, ebullience on the wing. They turn the centro storico into an airy citadel, a forum of mad dashes and open parentheses, both long-winded and quick-witted in the calculus of flight. Morning and evening they bracket the sky—shrill aubade and chaste serenade—just as the underworld beneath them springs to life.
One can learn things about the Eternal City, observing swifts. There is the frenzied, espresso-driven morning, the languid afternoon, the cheerful evening passeggiata. There is the fact that they do, indeed, return—the same swifts, year after year, each zeroing in on a perennial nest, the genius locus of a particular fissure, citizen of the return address. Not that I can pick out any one individual—though I recognize the feeling, having returned many summers to this same location (where I teach), hovering behind the statue of Giordano Bruno, over his right shoulder, gazing at the back of his bronze-cowled head.
Below my window, this morning as ever, the market takes shape, sprouting out of cobblestones like a tent city sown from dragon’s teeth. The vendors sing to each other, marking their territory, shouting out old jokes, call and response. Sunlight angles in for a look-see, warming the igneous surface of the Campo, every cobblestone a basalt column, a rising thermal, a lava bed, a saint.
Across the Campo, block letters hang on the umber walls of the facing building. I read Forno. I read La Carbonara. I blink awake. The shadows of swifts crisscross the façade. Water trickles from a hydrant, a shallow voice among the shouting. More water dribbles from a fountain, basin within a basin grown green with algae. The hooded form of Bruno, protean in his bronze-green cloak, ripples between shadow and light. Furnace, surface, matter, water, body, intelligence. Time underwrites this city, in every sense. It is so palpably old, so built upon earlier versions of itself, that history and geology converge—every street a strata, every building an echo of the one beneath it, every strut a chord struck from an underworld of bass notes, dirge and demiurge resurfacing through centuries of market chatter, recording and replaying the rhythms of daily life.
This is what I’ve come to recover, to depend on, in this city of layers, with its vast, open air archive, its memory stored in brick and stone and light. “Arriving in each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had,” Calvino writes in Invisible Cities, and you feel it here, all the ways your life could have gone, all the lives that were lived to make yours possible. “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have,” Calvino adds. Or, as the Romans say: non basta una vita. One lifetime isn’t enough.
5:00 a.m.: the windows of the Forno billow with the industry of ghosts—bakers in white aprons shuttling between counter and oven, swinging bread peels as big as wings. The outdoor merchants arrive soon after, carting in parasols and table stands from nearby garages, setting up stalls, filling the piazza with clanging rejoinders. By 10:00 a.m., the waiters of La Carbonara are laying out their white tablecloths, anticipating long conversational lunches. 3:00 p.m., the produce vendors have deserted the high heat, leaving behind heaps of garbage for the pigeons and sparrows to pick through. The garbage trucks and street sweeps arrive, compact machinery wailing, circling and recircling like a dry zamboni, scrubbing the Campo clean. At 5:00 p.m. it gleams again like a sundial, the evening’s cobbled tabula rasa. Pedestrians trickle in. The saxophone quartets start on cue just after 6:00 p.m., Somewhere Over the Rainbow winding blindly into My Way. First plates come and go. Second plates come and go. Revelers carouse until 2:00 a.m., chased out of the piazza by the street sweep graveyard shift. Sleepers in adjacent residences toss restlessly, their scant sleep infiltrated by an uproar of bottles and broken glass. There is maybe one hour of stillness from 4:00 a.m. And then the day unfolds again.
I can think of few places where I recognize many of the same faces, summer after summer. Around the Campo dei Fiori, here they are again, the bakers in the Forno, the same guys I met a decade ago. The same butcher, the same grocers, the same dour couple in the tabaccheria. Even the same street people, alas. A troupe of sparrows has taken up residence beneath the folds of Bruno’s cloak, their red heads twitching, darting in and out like a lick of flame. In this way too, history repeats.
Not to romanticize the economics of stasis: the Campo has certainly changed considerably in the 15 years that I’ve been coming here. The fishmongers are gone. The produce merchants and deli trucks have yielded turf to spice stalls and the vendors of brightly packaged pasta secca, not to mention the encroachments of the souvenir T-shirt brigade. Splashy new tourist bars have supplanted favorite neighborhood cafes. But the diurnal rhythm of the Campo remains: market by morning, carnival by night, the same medleys pouring from the buskers, the same magician (Guarda! Io sono mago!) performing the same bag of tricks dozens of times each evening for a rotating cast of visitors, his toppled toupée bow gently mocked and mimicked by the waiters who know his routines all too well.
Returning to this neighborhood, absorbed in this ritual assembly, I am struck again by a familiar sensation: far from being an anonymous, modern metropolis, Rome retains vestiges of the tribal village. That vernacular nerve, that original tempo still flourish here, despite the tourist hordes, despite the pace of modern life. How easily the city takes a traveler into its circadian orbit. One feels his grievances narrow and dissolve. Petty worries and ambitions shrink against the larger scale of history which is, of course, so much of the landscape here. The bedrock of ontology shifts—io sono, loro sono—the way, in Italian, I am and they are inhabit the same inflection. Or the way one accommodates a happy dilemma, like the word ospite, which means both host and guest. In the end, what I admire about Rome is how little it has to do with me. It goes on minding its own affairs, matter over mind, recycling the forms of things, noisy and rough around the edges. And yet I feel my own life amplified by the dimensions of the city—the ingenuity of its memory, the sympathetic scale of its architecture, the perambulatory rambling of its streets, designed for getting lost. And found.
Pliny the Elder notes that swallows (he does not distinguish swallows from swifts, though one can’t help but wonder if the ancestors of today’s flocks had already marked the city as their own) “do not … enter under the roofs of houses in Thebes because that famous city has been captured so often; nor do they go under the roofs of Bizyes, in Thrace, because of the crimes of Tereus.” Roman swifts show no such hesitation. Adaptive, divinely indifferent to human activity, they seem to answer only to themselves. In summer, common swifts repopulate the northern hemisphere, from Madrid to Beijing, but they seem particularly suited to Rome, the epicenter of eternal return. In Anne Stevenson’s poem “Swifts,” they are
Sleepers over oceans in the mill of the world’s breathing.
The grace to say they live in another firmament.
A way to say the miracle will not occur,
And watch the miracle.
They arrive in mid-April, filling the sky with the invention of flight—as if they had invented it, or were at least its most outstanding practitioners—to find the one spot that remembers them on sight. By August, they are gone, taking with them a piece of the city, a map ingrained in their collective nervous systems, each of them a fractal fact, a nook, a node connected to instinctive vision, a net they carry south over the Sahara, swarming in waves, rising and falling like the blueprint of civilization.