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Catacomb

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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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Catacomb

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