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Two Poems
Of Aqueducts and Parapets

And amphitheaters for that matter,
one must believe in practical architectures
though devastation is just across that water
and those distant mountains and is coming.
Any stage facing west is obvious enough,
and the piazza of the tower of the oil of the olive
is always ripe for deep changings, changes,
as subtle as a shift in the language you just witnessed.
Light, especially shifts, but also kingdoms come
to ruin which always pleases a few, and kingdoms
come to their height at the expense of many
with the bitter salt of unbearable sadness
and one man mad for power he calls order.

Author of roads, slayer of horses, seller of men,
come up to the parapets to survey
what you may control for a while but what
will eat you like a white bird eats a fish,
and you, despite your epithet, are forgotten
like that. The bird floats on the Tyrrhenian Sea,
the only speck of white in blue as far
as the eye can see. The field of whitecaps
in the wild wind yesterday are gone,
though resurrected in memory like understood words
on a single page of a foreign newspaper.
But one stands out, one bird, one word,
like the oldest chalice in a museum of chalices
inscribed as Nestor’s, but which Nestor?
Nestor, the horseman and charioteer and king
of advice and burdensome hospitality,
or Nestor, the local chief who had a pet monkey
on an island of monkeys no one else could tame?
It was a small achievement, but visitors
to the island always wondered that the monkey
could understand words, commands, and even
a look or signal. They loved it until just after
the monkey was instructed to bring the machete
which he could barely carry from the other room
into the courtyard, which was a place of justice.



Nothing like a view of the sea to remind you
there are multiple happinesses in any moment:
sailboats tacking toward Naples as if stitching
the wind, or making patient love to the infinite,
finding a rhythm in white caps on gradations of blue,
limestone cliffs on the far shore stacked with houses,
and behind you some ridiculous songbird so full of zest
he seems to tally all the photons of the sun
that strike this wall solid pink with bougainvillea.
You are on an island named for monkeys
with no annoying monkeys any more.
Only seafood and rabbits, so it seems.

Even yesterday in that minor museum in Umbria
where no whole vase exists and what’s left
of the swords are ten thin pieces of green patina
each no bigger than a bookmark for a little prayer book,
and the best shield you can find is the one
they found buried with a baby’s bones perhaps
to ward off some afterlife assault of ghost Saracens
and future fire mixed with lead, there you can find
a perfect alabaster needle some wealthy woman
must have prized and, pausing from her stitching,
held it to the light to let translucence carry her
beyond her musty hillside cave in winter.

And that is only what happens in the countryside.
Dear God, a monk must one day exclaim in earnest,
there is nothing like a trip to Rome, a new cape, and a shave!
Even so, ink diminishes. Or a wound awaits you just
tusk high in its unscrupulous thicket, an arrow
or maybe just a sorrow that pierces the dictionary
of specific sorrows straight through.

When death comes, please bring it not as a doorknob
breaking off inside a room, but like a good shave,
slow as a distant ferry on wide water, and let the door
come down like iron on the concrete port like my very own
special trumpet blast in the bay of the dying,
and only then let my spirit disembark like an oil tanker
whose pilot sings in one of the only
growing dialects in all the modern world:
O, one is the other and the other is now.

John Poch’s recent poems have been published in The Yale Review, The Common, and The Nation. His most recent book, Fix Quiet, won the 2014 New Criterion Poetry Prize. He teaches at Texas Tech University.