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Venetian Interior, 1889

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for David Kalstone

Stand to one side. No, over here with me:   
out of the light but out of darkness too,   
where everything that is not odd or old
is gold and subjugates the shadows. There,   
now you will be no trouble and behold none—
anything but trouble, at first glance,
last chance to see what I say is worth a look.

This whole palazzo is the property
of a middle-aged and penniless dilettante,
Pen Browning (Robert’s son), who has made terms   
—palatial terms, in fact—with towering
premises afforded by the tact
of his New York heiress, Fannie Coddington   
Browning, dutiful daughter-in-law, doubtful wife.

Yet who would not be full of doubts, perplexed   
at having to define Pen’s talents and finance
his tastes? Their Ca’ Rezzonico itself
is dubious. The ripened fruit of centuries,
rat- and roach-infested, peeling, rank,
withers with each tide that rots the piles,
though apt withal to weather these tenants as well ...

He is painting from the model: Dryope,
undressed of course but draped against the draft   
in a looping swathe of silver-printed stuff   
that seems to move, glistening over flesh—
it does move! lapped in its silver mesh are coils   
of a python wrapped in loving torpor round   
the contadina’s undistracted torso.

The afternoon is numb: Dryope sleeps   
in her pose, the python slips a little
down the umber slope of her thigh, and Pen,   
spired, slaps a dashing curlicue
across his canvas. “I had the Jew come by   
with this brocaded velvet yesterday—
I bargained some old clothes against it, Fan,

so you needn’t ask how much it cost in dollars.”
To whom does Pen speak, his eyes intent, his hands   
“working busily”? Beyond his “subject,” look   
past the unimposing Dryope, look through
the tufts of pampas grass extending up
to the tufa vault whose patination casts
a pall of watery splendor on the scene—

if you manage to overlook the sumptuous junk,   
jasper urns, a suit of Japanese armor,
two stuffed bears, on the divan bearskins too—   
there, or in this atmosphere let me say lo!
on that very divan Robert Browning lolls,
a short and foreshortened colossus with feet of clay   
but the hardest imaginable cranium, among

his son’s possessions slightly ill at ease
though well bestowed on slippery pelts, and plays
(against the wealthy Fannie—see her white shawl?)
at draughts with agate pieces, red and green,
like a page from some old parchment of kings and queens.   
In approbation of his son’s economies   
the old man smiles now—but does she? The skull

interfering with our view of Fannie is,
I believe, or was the Mahdi’s which Pen keeps   
beside his easel (Victorians could make   
anything into a tobacco jar). “I took
my pipe through Cannareggio on a long tramp   
yesterday morning, right into the Ghetto,   
looking for likely faces, which I found!

Didn’t you say, Father, a satisfactory Jew
is worth a dozen Gentiles? The one who sold   
that velvet to me is sure to be ready by Spring:   
for Lear, you know, or Lazarus at least ...”   
Pen chatters on to charm the python, not   
Dryope or Fannie who look up
only when the poet, roused, exclaims—

as rapt before himself as a child in front   
of the Christmas tree: “A satisfactory Jew!   
Setting mere Rothschildsplay aside, Pen,   
I never saw but one in all my life:
Dizzy, I mean—the potent wizard himself,   
at Hampton Court a dozen years ago,   
murmuring at the Queen’s ear like a wasp

who hoped to buzz his way into the diamonds ...   
With that olive cast and those glowing-coal-black eyes   
and the mighty dome of his forehead (to be sure,   
no Christian temple), as unlike a living man
as any waxwork at Madame Tussaud’s:
he had a face more mocking than a domino—
I would as soon have thought of sitting down

to tea with Hamlet or Ahasuerus ...”
As if on cue, the poet’s high voice fades,
the lights on his tree go out. Yet we have seen   
enough and heard enough: the secret of losing   
listeners—did Browning never learn?—
is to tell them everything. We lose details.   
The Mahdi’s skull and Fannie’s coincide ...

The scene blurs and the sounds become no more   
than exaggerated silence. Stand with me
another moment till our presence is
sacrificed to transitions altogether.
Time will not console—at best it orders
into a kind of seasonable chaos.
Let me tell you, it will not take much

longer than a medical prescription—
give you ingredients, no cure ...   
Visitors to the palazzo used to speak
of the dangerous ménage—the menagerie!   
yet the Costa Rican python that cost Pen
(or Fannie) sixteen pounds was the first to go,   
untempted by the rats of Rezzonico;

Dryope followed Dryope underground,   
the girl carried off by a chill and buried   
at San Michele, the great daub interred   
in the cellars of the Metropolitan ...
“Dear dead women, with such hair, too,”   
we quote, and notice that hair is the first
of ourselves to decay before—last after—death.

In a year Robert Browning too was dead, immortal;   
in another, Fannie dropped her shawl and took   
the veil and vows of an Episcopalian nun;
and Pen? Oh, Pen went on painting, of course—
buono di cuore, in yellow chamois gloves,
obese, oblivious, dithering into debt
and an easy death. The sale of what we saw

or saw through in Venice realized, as they say,   
some thirty thousand pounds at Sotheby’s.   
I told you: first glance is last chance.
Darkness slides over the waters—oil sludge   
spreading under, till even Venice dies,
immortally immerded. Earth has no other way,   
our provisional earth, than to become

invisible in us and rise again.
Rezzonico ... Disraeli ... We realize our task.   
It is to print earth so deep in memory
that a meaning reaches the surface. Nothing but   
darkness abides, darkness demanding not   
illumination—not from the likes of us—
but only that we yield. And we yield.

Richard Howard, “Venetian Interior, 1889” from Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963-2003. Copyright © 2004 by Richard Howard. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.
Source: Inner Voices: Selected Poems 1963-2003 (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2004)
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