Ulysses O’Neill’s Roman Holiday
1. The sea at the end of the road welcomes me back.
with a wave of spray from beyond the jetty wall.
I have got to where I was going anyway -
around in circles. My journey home seems to lack
a certain point of departure and arrival.
Wandering is the only place where I can stay.
‘That’s poetry for you.’ The wave recoils. ‘A port
of call to re-provision yourself, and to sport.’
Reality is my home, a continuum that wears
me out, drip by drop, till I drown in a puddle
of my own making, and hardly notice it. Cares
come and go, and in between, the daily muddle.
‘You need a break’, says the wave. ‘Give yourself poem.’
So I transport myself by Homer Tours to
2. It started badly.
Built in the reflected glory of laying waste,
with monumental works and pomps deifying man,
marble is riven rock. The limestone it overlays
strains off the marsh until it cracks. I saw sliced pan,
the cut-price manna, go with the
And it was snowing on the Via Veneto -
the flakes less real than special effects, or the moult
of da Vinci’s beard. I didn’t recognise any-
one from cinecittà, sin city of old,
save a living statue of Marcello Mastroianni,
and a bag woman as Sophia Loren in Hades,
scarlet lipstick smeared behind her luminous shades.
The Gucci world is counterfeit. I try Trastevere.
Only the young about, tourists in the travails
I once thought were life. Now all the same to me:
blind dates in tawdry bars, loud music and cocktails.
Where are the backpackers gone? And real Romans?
Have the ragazzi been re-housed in the catacombs?
A blank screen in St Peter’s Square. Papa, they claim,
gone home to play Holy Father Weihnachten. So it’s
Caravaggio and Francis Bacon reign profane
in the Borghese. The cold hand of Judith
draws blood from the Babylonian’s neck. The ketchup ooze
on Berlusconi’s mugged mug is the latest news.
I see the uptight frescos of Sodoma Bazzi
through the eyes of Vasari. ‘His beastliness tamed
in the Barberini is a shame. Alas, he
had to pay his taxes.’ Old Masters can’t be blamed -
anymore than those who stuff their ears and faces
with mobiles and tortas. It’s just the way it is.
But Benedict is in town. He blesses a crib.
Speaks of God at Natale making Himself a child (ii).
Midnight Mass was early. A woman in red skipped
over Swiss Guards to knock him down, and he smiled.
Now pressing the flesh will be a thing of the past.
He’ll only be touched by the Almighty. Peace at last.
I haven’t the heart to bus out to the outskirts
to gawp at the life Pasolini loved unto death.
‘Our Neo-fascism must abort all hope at birth,
homogenising what it assimilates.’ Yet
Mussolini knew his people. ‘Faith moves mountains
as it gives the illusion mountains move.’ Fountains
freeze in the air. The
before my eyes. All hell-fire traffic and neon signs
for goods you get anywhere. No longer the shrine
my mother came to for a pre-nuptial blessing.
Basta! Jump the sightseeing bus for a last gape
at the Second Vittorio Emanuele’s marble cake.
All roads lead to
see it and die. But Homer Tours gives me the nod.
‘Pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela leg it.
We’ll conjure you up a flight by a winged god
to where you came from, on condition you submit
to not returning, learning to live with it.’
3. Experience is the name we give to our mistakes,
or our mistaking others. It goes with the flow
like a meandering river, till the dam breaks
with memories flooding back, as you grow
to regret what you are not, and what might have been.
In the dark night of the soul it’s your waking dream.
Glad to be back. Catching up with what I didn’t know
happened in my absence. Home truths. What Zeus ruled
for his playthings, ‘Mankind is taught wisdom through woe’
may suit the powers that be. But I’m no longer fooled.
The left behind made do, and were well without me.
I end up where I began, breathing easily,
though the breath of life seems nearing its last gasp
as the Mediterranean beckons. There’s no more
past imperfect, future tense. Here I am. I bask,
salaaming the sea, and hearing its inner roar
at the futility of voyaging anywhere,
save in the poetry of what’s neither here nor there.
Mooring ropes rattle their corsetry in the wind.
and sailors, knowing they’re going nowhere, compose
shanties about their lives, not what others imagined.
I’ll sing life out too. And the revenants of those
I lived with, and left somewhere between right and wrong,
return as the chorus to my valedictory song (iii).
Sing to the belated triumph of the human
over the ignoble in man. I hear myself
answering to what is around me. I tune in-
to the down to earth. What has been left on the shelf -
the pots and pans of living life against the grain,
and going down to the pub. ‘What will you have?’ ‘The same.’
(i) ‘How can you, Palladio, give this building the noblest form possible? Because of contradictory demands, you are bound to bungle things, here and there, and it may well happen that there will be some incongruities. But the building as a whole will be in the noble style of the Roman ruins, and you will enjoy doing the work.’ Goethe, Italian Journey,1816
(ii) ‘At Christmas, the Almighty becomes a child and asks for our help and protection. It is His way of challenging our way of being human… God’s sign to us is that He makes himself all small. He lets us touch him. And He asks for our love.’ Pope Benedict, Christmas Message, 2009
(iii) ‘In Ovid, love speaks as though it were a human being…The Latin poets did not write in this manner without good reason, nor should those who compose in rhyme, if they cannot justify what they say; for it would be a disgrace if someone composing in rhyme introduced a figure of speech or rhetorical ornament, and then on being asked could not divest his words of such covering so as to reveal a true meaning. My most intimate friends and I know quite a number who compose poems in this stupid manner.’ Dante,