The crypt of the Basilica in Assisi:
behind glass a rough, patched robe,
no, a robe of patches, “beast-colored,”
king-sized, labeled as
the ascetic’s—Saint Francis.
In the corner, filigreed reliquaries:
spidery bones and flaps of pemmican
pried from the corpses of clerics
and other saints centuries past. Reliquary of the thorn
of the crown of thorns. Reliquary
of the hair of Saint Catherine.
Relic of the finger of Saint Andrew.
It is purport. It could be an ape
finger for all we know, displayed
by canny, enraptured, or even credulous
priests: for the flock’s tithes and offerings,
prayers, and pleas for dispensation.
For the continued fame of their parish
and of course the glory of the Faith....
Splinters of the True Cross cross
the empire, rusted nails and spots
of someone’s blood. There’s the slab
of marble in Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulcher,
submitting to the lips of prostrated millions,
although I learn “This is not
the stone on which Christ’s body was anointed.
This devotion is recorded only since
the 12th century. The present stone dates from 1810.”
The myth is believed, promulgated,
nurtured, notated, accepted. No one
knows whether Francis was thin or obese.
Paintings exist by the hundred of his imagined
gaunt frame, but the vast robe’s displayed
right there. Who is mistaken? Perhaps
no one is, and Francis was humbly
dwarfed by his tunic.
Another one in Florence has been proven
fake and one in Cortona is merely plausible.
The Assisi relic has not yet been tested.
At La Verna, monks pace the tiled loggia
in brown wool. Winter fog enrobes the cliffside
where Francis is said to have huddled in a niche
while Satan harangued and scarred him
through a storm. You can see the spot,
barely large enough to contain
my shivering ten-year-old daughter.
Far more believable are the humble ledgers
casually out of sight in an armoire
in the Volterra seminary-turned-hostel,
their frail pages inked with scrawled numbers,
400-year-old book-keeping, scrupulous,
humdrum and thoroughly ungilded.
In my town, an “Apothecary and Metaphysical Shop”
evokes the past, or its hypothesis. Kitty-
corner, a new steel dragon overlooks
the roof of an antiques shop with its horde of junk
and ephemera from my past, my parents
and theirs. What can I infer from such artifacts?
Their picture of history is idealistic, patched
and piecemeal, surmised, signage and objects
without context, cloaked in enigmatic clues
of stains, scuffs, creases.
The world is a reliquary. Dusty
centuries from now, will these words
exist? Will someone find a scrap
and peruse it like a knuckle bone
of a “typical American,” let alone “me”?
At home I stockpile albums of Daguerrotypes,
Grandma’s jewelry, drawers of letters, unpublished
manuscripts of my parents and great-grandfather.
The documents and relics they left
—the aspects they chose to preserve or hide
of their own lives and thoughts—
I weigh against the people I knew,
study and assay which truth, if any,
the story supports, and who might fit
the patchwork cloak.
This busy spot, in 1900, was remote,
red and dusty with the Builders Brick
quarry and factory, in the mining boom,
the logging days.
Firs, countless, were as big around
as their fellers were tall,
where now a few tame plantings
punctuate the chain cafes and condos
that push into the thinned remains
of second-growth alder.
Filled with miners, Red Town, Finn Town,
White Town, Rainbow Town
hotels and cabins erected in the clearcut
are only blemished photos
and foundations mossy and hidden in bracken
between rubbled mine shafts:
Ford Slope mine, Primrose, Bagley,
May Creek mine, Muldoon seam.
Hiking trails follow the old flumes
where the hewn trunks sloshed downcreek.
Joggers and dogwalkers erase the ghosts.
Those days, horse-drawn trams lugged coal and logs
down Coal Creek to Lake Washington,
where barges continued the five-day meander
south and then up the Duwamish
to the Sound and Seattle.
Steamers then carried on
to California and profit.
A narrow-gauge steam railway ran
where this five-lane arterial now pulses
with its Teslas, Porsches,
Maseratis. Money is still made,
these days and hereabouts,
but not from solid things.
Just in the years we’ve lived here,
the horse pasture down the street has gone,
the sheep and llamas, orchards and corn.
We are now more urb than suburb.
But bobcats, bears, coyotes, possums,
even baffled cougars prowl our yards
for food, as their foothills turn
to townhouses in cul-de-sacs,
the roads that reach them,
nail shops and pizza joints,
churches, firing ranges.
The news seems very black these days
unless you think it’s white. Regardless
where you hear it, it sears the heart and eyes.
The earth is evanescent, and solid things seem
illusive, similes morph to lies,
to belief, as easily as that bright
cloud above grows murky as it gathers,
a thick, broken layer flying doggedly north.
The sun peers through the fissures,
warm in a chill wind, and blinding.
My mesmerized retinas
turn black firs against leaden grey
ember-red. It’s a changeable
day. There’s a storm warning for later.
Branches may fall, they say.
Some trees have fallen already
this gusty spring. But forecasts
have been wrong before, pessimistic,
or hoodwinked with unpredictable
conditions. I sit in sunlight when I can,
hope it lasts, but prepare for the blow.
History flows over us, bright and dark,
dissipating and bloating, threat and promise.
Soon we’ll walk trails through new deadfalls,
hunting old foundations in the leafmold.
One advantage about being a passenger instead of the driver (aside from being able to nap) is the ability to snap photos while in motion.
Here are some abstract "canvases" that we passed one afternoon.
“If all movement is always interconnected, the new arising from the old in a determinate order― if the atoms never swerve so as to originate some new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence of cause and effect―what is the source of the free will possessed by living things throughout the earth?” ― Lucretius Carus Titus, 99 - 55 BCE
SWERVE AT 65
Sidewalk café. All that brings to mind.
Tiny table half in shade, pots
of shrubs and gaudy primrose, saplings budding
into sprays of white plus tender leaves, an arm’s
length from traffic. A crow swoops from the eaves
to investigate leftovers from a couple with a Doberman,
who just sauntered off leaving plates
and dregs in cups and most important crumbs.
Life keeps at it: two Latino guys
power-wash the plastic surgeon’s brick
plaza. Deliveries come and go, their boxy
trucks beetling around the corner. One hipster
driver wheels his handtruck, empty, back
to its mobile den. The Doberman’s ears were taped
and rigid as party tooters. He (or she,
I didn’t check) reared up, his front paws
on their table like someone making a point.
His point being, I want what you have.
This week I’ve discovered Lucretius Carus Titus,
his On the Nature of Things, his muse Epicurus,
his followers Bruno, More, Jefferson, Darwin.
I feel the knowledge seeping through my veins,
don’t know quite what to do with it...
Expensive cars crawl past, windows darkened,
engines drowned out by the pressure-washer’s howl,
a cross between waterfall and dentist’s drill.
Bristling with old tools, a yardsman’s truck
heads, implacable, for the next weedy landscape.
A well-dressed lady in a puffy winter coat
(it is warm and sunny) stops and lifts her phone
to the blooming plum, snaps a picture, checks it,
retakes it, stalks on. Across the street, apartments
overlook the scene, and me. Yes,
I am part of someone’s changing view.
Who lives above me, unaware?
If I lived here I would be home now.
That’s what the realtors are selling.
At the barber’s, a giant photo of an unshaven
but “handsome” man (quotation marks are mine),
in posh casual wear, gazes pensively
at the adjacent shot, a “man and son” (ditto)
enjoying quality time with their haircuts.
The workers pressure-wash them too: so clean
you could eat off them.
The last time I wrote such observations
I was 20,000 feet up and a thousand miles
from home, where I live now, and I
was registering the street life of clouds,
the passing traffic of mountains and rivers, as if
it was I who was static, not whipping through the air
at 600 em pee aitch, as though the sun
circled around the earth. Today I am free
to do nothing, leverage the sun
and its changing position, and, well, think—that is,
think thoughts, rather than worry at concerns
like well-worn stones—because my man, as they say,
has clarified with bar charts and spreadsheets
that no, I really needn’t go back to work.
I am retired. All that brings to mind.
My senses stir, small multi-legged critter
roused from a winter’s sleep. A few feeble
blinks, the stretch of a foot, a foreleg, a quick
flapping shake of the ears to clear the cobwebs.
I’ve been wanting all this time here pen in hand
to figure how to fit Lucretius in
to this story. I think I have it now.
I have swerved (cue vee Greenblatt),
like prescient Lucretius’s atomi, which make up everything,
which do not travel in straight lines like raindrops:
they jitter and they change their courses,
thus enabling evolution, happenstance,
free will, art, begging dogs and such.
I slouch writing in this sunlight
like one of those proto-fish dully amazed
to find his front fins scooting through the hot
sand of a scratchy beach, a beach that’s full
of new things, swerving, often, freely.
He wants what they have. He can live here
and be home.