Here’s a poem—only 24 years old this week—that although arising from a personal moment (awake at night watching lightning and rain across our fair city), is actually about history. The Roman troops were withdrawn from the imperial province of Britannia as homeland Rome felt the growing threat of barbarian invasion. The Roman general Stilicho, himself a Vandal not an aristocratic Roman, determined that to protect the city itself the outlying provinces would have to stand on their lonely own.
Britain (as yet unvisited by me in the year when I wrote this poem) seemed all gray and wet with winter rain to me, while Italia (still unvisited by us as I write this introduction) appears in my imagination as all lush growth, sloping hills and sunshine as thick as butter. From that contrast, my evident reading on the fall of Rome and that cold, wet night in Maquoketa came this poem…
Recalled from Britain
The fall of Rome:
a brittle thunderclap
echoes inside the skull’s full dome
as foggy raindrops trap
dismissed cohorts tramping down the sky
in aftershock of lightning’s
wet dark alone confesses, thickly pants
cold ceaseless trickles,
pours in scattered directions. The rain
is washing the fog away―polishes up
the neon signs, colored stains of light
clotted on the gleaming pitch, this wet night,
wound the cold and dark, and so it rains.
summoned us back from
stormy coasts and pebbly skies,
to defend Italia herself,
all halfbaked boasts and crafty
(and still remembered)
bedwarmed lies, former lives:
seaslapped silly country just like wines
drunk through a summer’s afternoon
or beeshoney without stings:
like a mother’s laughter
licking up your spine while cold rain falls.
The Vandal calls us home.
3/7 February 1986
The pattern of the poem is its layout on the page. Using the “blockquote” HTML command to create the indentation imposes some stanza gaps I had not intended (but which aren’t too bad on the screen here). Aligned totally left is the present (more or less), while the historical analepses are indented (more or less).
The speaker begins by thinking of the fall of Rome, which leaps his imagination (or his psychic persona?) back fifteen hundred years or more to the moment itself. A Roman soldier witnesses a lightning flash and thunderclap in his antique reality simultaneous somehow with the one the speaker experiences in the twentieth century. But the speaker/poet realizes he is just making this up—returning in his senses to recognize the lights across the hillside in his actual present, rainswept and unfocused or streaky through a wet window. He thinks of the name of that one-time Roman general, and that leaps the poem’s reality back to the fifth century and the soldier’s perceptions/observations, briefly transported back to the poetic present for an ironic judgment and back to the Romefalling era. For the ancient solider his mother’s laughter is a warm memory of comfort, but for the speaker a chilling thought. (My mother had died at Labor Day in 1982, of cancer, just months after Janet and I married. Recently, returning a prop gurney to the Jackson County medical facility morgue on Friday afternoon, I remembered carrying my mom’s body, along with my father and brothers and the responders—didn’t call them that then—out to the ambulance in our driveway on Green Street in Mt. Pleasant.) The soldier’s thought of why he’s leaving Britain is also the poem’s conclusion about all things.
It is possible, though unintended, that this poem arose from various fantasy stories I had read, perhaps particularly Robert E. Howard, who more than once used the notion of metempsychosis (“met-him-pike-hoses, oh rocks” from Ulysses—another source for this poem, really, and the original hero quite the wanderer/warrior, too) or a psychic union across time to start a story in his modern era but leap back into the primordial, unreal, mythical past for barbarian adventures. Although that idea may have held deep meaning in his own addled consciousness (more troubled by the thought of his mother’s death than I), I hope I have used the principle more significantly.