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Mediterranean Cities Poems


Dear head to one side, in summer dusk, Olga
On her terrace waters potted azaleas
Thoughts of friends, their fine successes, their failures
Greek reliefs, Russian poets, all water with her;
The plants rejoice; across the street, the high wall
Reached the decayed park of a long dead Pope
Urchins stole the sphinx near the fence up the hill
Where woods grow thick, sold it to a Yank I hope;
Now young priests smoke at the basin, by blurred sea-gods
Above them rises a hairy thicket of palms
That male in their joint green dusk yield Rome the odds
Returning with the night into primeval realms
As laughing Olga, feeding through the window cat-shadows
Then reading, then sinking into slumber, too does


She opens with the gondola’s floated gloze
Lapping along the marble, the stir of swill
Open to night sky like in tenement hallways
The footfalls, and middream a bargeman’s lone call;
Sideways leading to her green, like black, like copper
Like eyes, on the tide-lifted sewers and façades
Festooning people, barges a-sway for supper
Under hunched bridges, above enclosed pink walls;
And crumbling sinks like a blond savory arm
Fleshed, a curled swimmer’s pale belly that presses
And loosens, and moist calves, then while the charm
Subsides, Venice secrets pleases, caresses;
The water-like walking of women, of men
The hoarse low voices echo from water again


A governing and rouged nun, she lifts the cubed
Jewels, garlanded heavy on hair, shoulders
Breasts, on hands and feet, the dark-blue the cell-roomed
Splendor’s fountain lifts sunken to Him Who holds her;
But the emperor is running to his pet hens
Cackling like a hermit, and his foolish smile
Alone in the vacancy of noon-glazed fens
Haunts a blossoming water-capital’s guile;
Holy placidity of lilylike throats
Ravenna of fleets, silent above the cows
A turnip plain and stagnant houses floats
Exultance of sailor hymns, virginal vows;
In a church’s tiered and April-green alcoves
Joy rises laughing at ease to love God’s loves


Delicious tongue that poisons as it kisses
Arno, that Dante guzzled sandy and hot
Licks streets glummer than New York’s but possessing
Capacious idols dead magicians begot;
Graceful as the idols, glancing limbs and fingers
Swaying bellies thread the streets, liquidly proud
A kissing of observant flirts who tingle
Dangle like brass ornaments on a used bed;
Beyond the hospital, slopes of soft olives
A prospect of humped tower and of floated dome
Shapes in the confined landscape where August seethes
Wasting, present Tuscan violence untamed;
Alurk, the hillocks, a dwarfed peak, a shallow plain
Peasant like Arno, lie insidious in the blaze


Lost in cool small sane hills an immense sea shell
Palaces drowse around its void, jockeys swirl
Far above a shaft adolescently swells
To stiff blossom, a tower like a still girl;
Stone hollow, luxurious as memory;
Fine-boned, the feeders at Byzantine messes
Catherine’s blood people, in corners of an eye
They stroll cool and joking with Duccio faces;
In her darkblue shell, Mary, by coppery angels
Exalted, warily heavy she retreats
On her picture, comes forward like a heaved bell
The fat pearly Son frowning into the surf-beats
Of my heart, till where an overwhelmable shore lies
Citied, in almond-blossoming foam, deep-sea selves rise


Pear-brown Rome, dyed for the days whose blue is sweet
Disencoils as a garden would the wreaths and noses
Waists and loose fountains it adores to prodigate
A fair-weather darling as loose as roses
Soft up to the scar, dead Imperial Rome’s;
But an American in the exposed ruins
They meet him like a face unrecognized from home
The mute wide-angle look, to Europe alien;
A stare of big men worried about their weight
Gaze of bounty, but too clumsy to have mourned
Or held, listening to the heartbeat which was a fate
Sky-hues that will return, the slope of solemn ground;
And I to whom darling Europe is foreign
Look home from here, to its mystery, with longing


Beneath me this dark garden plunges, buoyant
Drops through the trees to basins furtive below
Under me wobbles the tip of a mast-thick fountain
I laugh and run down; the fat trunks heavily grow;
Then cypress, ilex rise reflected immense
Melancholy, and the great fount thrusts forceful
Tiny, their seclusion perches over the plains
For plains billow far below toward Rome remorseful;
But rilling streams draw me back in, up above
To the spurt, dribble gush, sheath of secret water
Plash, and droves of Italians childish as love
Laughing, taking pictures of laughter, of water
Discovering new fountlets; so dense, so dark
Single on a desert mountain drips he locked park


Roman, the narrow road in a brown plain
And freaking the grass undercut heaps of brick
Turdlike shapes or fungoid, that are tombs by name
Ruined Roman tombs famous as picturesque;
Stalking the undulant expanse, legs piecemeal
Of dead aqueducts, discolored by distance; close
A farm; by a parked scooter a couple quarrel
Intently, standing in stillness anonymous;
The solitude has the face of an actor who
Sits in his wrapper and hears silence return
But not yet vanity; so giddy, so free
As if one were dead, were dead, the heart becomes;
At dinner with lively friends, drinking Tuscan wine
In Rome that night, how I loved the restaurant’s shine


Who watched Antinous in the yellow water
Here where swollen plains gully, Roman and brown
Built for fun, before a flat horizon scattered
Fancies, such advanced ones, that lie overthrown;
Urbanely they still leer, his voided surprises
Curved reflections, double half-lights, coigns of rest
Embarrassing as a rich man without admirers
Peculiar like a middle-aged man undressed;
Over the view’s silent groundswell floats a field
Enskied by one eerie undeviating wall
Far to a door; pointing up his quietude
Watchful Hadrian exudes a sour smell;
The ratty smell of spite, his wit, his laughter
Who watched Antinous smile in yellow water


Samnite, such a high hilltown made Romans cross;
Viewed below, April ledges of grape or rye
Slim greens, deeper green in the valley, and a voice
Chanting on the mountainside; Dante woke too
To dawn of rain, thrush, or farmers’ and beasts’ tread
Leaving the cold alleys tight about the keep
Driven diurnally from the mountainhead
Down to farm, at dusk resorbed upward to sleep;
They sleep close; clouds like hounds coil on the mountaintops
And the bare Spring, girl-like Olympian hunter
Sharp for our smell, shudders; so old the night drops
While people lie flaccid and covered grunters
Godless; a dream stirs one, she scents them again
And they flee like hares through wide delight and close pain


I feel of night streets as of a reef, squamous
Grotto-wash; entombed, claws loose, a Siren lies
Who bleeds, the phosphor-drift leaps in these Naples
Eyes, thousands of eyes, thousand and one night eyes;
By day, a crater; the oldest the island
Ischia, a solitary shire in an
Illuminated sky; stinking springs, birds silent
Oblique speech where is sand or a hoed vineyard;
For between volcanoes Naples tattered shelves
Loud dense mother sudden in adoration
Among children who hop among her themselves
Deck her screaming in variegation
Each a spell or a carnation
Pensive, when she calls like the moaning in a lie
Parthenope’s lascivious guttural cry


Wasps between my bare toes crawl and tickle; black
Sparkles sand on a white beach; ravines gape wide
Pastel-hued twist into a bare mountain’s back
To boiling springs; emblems of earth’s age are displayed;
At a distant end of beach white arcs piled
Windows, and in the sea a dead pyramid washed
As if in the whole world few people had survived
And man’s sweetness had survived a grandeur extinguished;
Wonders of senility; I watch astonished
The old hermit poke with a stick the blond lame boy
Speaking obscenities, smiling weird and ravished
Who came from New York to die twenty years ago;
So at a wild farmer’s cave we pour wine together
On a beach, four males in a brilliant weather


In the sky the mountain hunches blindly forward
Hugely falling crowds close, and a caverned head
Grovels between foam; from blackened lips of shore
Grinding, the waves with snake eyes forever evade;
Averse sea, small on it a far swimmer died
Small in his skull a mother was calling, goatherds
Drunken pranced among boats, the orange branch, light
Of a streetlamp over the breast of a betrothed;
The mountain dropped him from its breast; rosmarin’s
Savage scent, an arching deep gorge, purple cliffs
Pink and yellow sky, sea-sheen with their sweets enspin
The hunched hugeness, the mountain of groveled grief
Jealousy falling forever inward unlike ours
A gigantic phantom fed on by men and flowers


In flowered cliffs she crouches, by a remote strand
Candid Amalfi, of boatmen’s burning eyes;
Down the peaks a tempest plunges, flood yells, drowned
Screams from alleys, then a dripping and warm skies;
Altered, the throaty voice rising sinuous
Caresses, antique look deeper than a kiss
Melting, the longing body smiling like a face
Sidles heavy-curved; and gratefully it lifts its grace
As in citizen dusk groups strolling witty
Provocative meet foolish eyes and sweet; a Pope
Old Briton, found the honor here as pretty
Eight hundred years ago, who watched without hope
Widen the sea, lilac below his palace
That far in storms Amalfi’s hearts would swallow


Buffalo among fields, an old bus, the sea
Rock hills grow small beyond a somnolent plain
Jacket folded placed near the bole of a tree
Between a jug stood and a wrapped package lain;
In the sweet alyssum and its honey smell
Noon-immobile, grey and ochre-hued like dawning
Of edged stone pocked by sea storms and shells of snails
Poseidon’s hall looms columned; I watch dozing
Merged like opposed wrestlers rear a majestic power
Clasped nape, nipple deep-chested, the crushing roof
Heaved; magnanimous the god rises toward me; prayer
Begins to spread me, trembles unused to proof;
But by sunset fired against a cloudbank of slate
And deserted, the temple burns isolate


Are you Russians the boys said seeing us strange
Easy in grace by a poster with bicycles
Soft voices in a Baroque and Byzantine slum
Lemon pickers by swelling seas rainbow-fickle;
On the height drizzle, and among thyme and mint
A small shepherd, a large canvas umbrella
Leaps away down the crumbled ruins, timid
Where once they fought in moonlight, and Athens fell;
Up in sun, the Doric fort, stone blocks graceful
And fresh, erect as a statue in the air
Bright wind in our eyes, bright sea glittering peaceful
The dead come close trusting to embrace, and glare;
Beyond where rode an American fleet, Pindar’s
Snowy Etna, pillar of Sicily, blows cinders


Winter’s green bare mountains; over towns, bays
And Sicilian sea, I sit in the ghost stones
Of a theatre; a man’s voice and a boy’s
Sing in turn among the sheepbells’ xylophone;
From a distant slope sounded before a reed pipe
Sweet; a goatherd, yellow eyes and auburn down
Smelling of milk, offers from a goatskin scrip
Greek coppers, speaks smiling of a lamb new born;
Doric tongue, sweet for me as to Theocritus
The boy’s mistrust and trust, the same sky-still air
As then; so slowly desire turns her grace
Across the years, and eases the grief we bear
And its madness to merely a powerful song;
As the munching boy’s trust beside me is strong


Under orange groves from a winter sea rising
With winter roses, towns, vineyards rising slow
Rising massive with run magma, black slag shrines cling
To, the black screes, and the voidly soaring snow
Etna cloud-overbillowed, Etna in sun
Pure in the moon, huge diaphaneity
Phantom nearness, though nightlong burn in unconscious men
Dreams, and incandescence roars below the sea;
Rose bud, I love your pout, love the ash-built slope
Rising rising, the sea beneath me, the sea
Where in curls like these sweet in my hand a coast
Enjoys its shape and turns embraced, Sicily
Hard roses swelling, remote hills wild and steep
Lifts to a father’s mouth lips opening in caressed sleep


Leaving the bambino home, by bus, afoot
Past a wild sea-keep, we climbed to the viewed town
Got lost among pigs, at last unguided stood
Above roofs, steeps, the sea, under Etna in rain;
Cold poor town, more beasts live in it than people
Was their joke as the young priest showed us paintings
Who when I urged a hot-water bottle giggled
And took us to the cafe where all was wanting;
The gangster from New York was building his house
But sweetly priest and a youth leaping showed the path down
We ran down lost in sunset to make the bus
And in a black winter night got safely home;
The lithe girl watching her goats, sparkling and fifteen
Smiles her clear smile as sleep and tearing grief return


Where nervous I stand above nocturnal ships
The Appian road ends with one pillar at the shore
Ghostly Greece whispers in the waves’ lapping lips
Lips Vergil heard here, sweet Vergil dying in despair;
The old woman who sees him sleeps in that house
By his boots she knows him, his long white coat
He foretells lottery numbers, courteous
But she don’t win she says, she don’t read numbers good;
Harbor, lost is the Greece when I was ten that
Seduced me, god-like it shone; in a dark town, trembling
Like a runaway boy on his first homeless night
Ahead I rush in the fearful sweep of longing
And dead longing that all day blurred here the lone
Clear shapes which light was defining for a grown man


The traveling salesman helps me on the subway
To a Ritz in Union Square; up Levantine streets
I recognize afar the actual display
Of the Parthenon, a brown toy in morning light;
In noon whiteness I find Ilissus’ trickle
Past tennis courts and refuse; plane trees
Shade the concrete bed, planted for Plato’s sake
At girl scouts drilling a man through a fence peers;
I hope a bus, “Academy,” a boy fourteen
Looks deeply at a soldier, we reach a flat slum
A desolate vacant lot; Colonus is seen
Past factories, rising stony from the plain;
Ghosts I have brought with me smile at my discomfiture
Joyous they touch their dear city, laugh in its dry air


The keen Propylea spread like a male hand
Grey rock glints as with violets, on the height glows
Heavy-foreshortened like a body’s grandeur
Womanly, the Parthenon, yellow as a rose;
Desert blue of Attica’s heaven; white light
Like an intent silence enjoys the languor
Secret in her dominion, the intimate
Smile within holiness, droop in her candor;
Delicious her Ionian companions
New laurel wreaths at the fluted column’s base
Their straight pure walls beside her ample clear ones
Her maturity duplicit like a richer kiss;
She lifts from men dead into my passing life
A beauty of doubt that is homeless and not brief


Spaciously outdoors of cafes Greeks put chairs
Set way across a square or a bare road, roomy
As if huddling weren’t the point of architecture
They remain present; so Greeks sit firm, ungloomy;
So a small house has a temple’s paint; flowers
Individually blooming in the stone landscape
Firm in brightness, bloom with a deeper color
Heavier fragrance than at home a namesake;
And deep blue as violets blooms the Protean sea
Heavy-petaled in the noon’s inclusive delight
Blooms among mountains, beaches bare afar and dry
Peaks keen in shape, islands lucid and afloat;
There on brown Egina this light broke a Roman heart
Vergil’s, whose voice comforts in our unlimited dark


By a gorge, the height where Clytemnestra slew
Scrub grows in Mycenae, a triangular
Peak above it and slow slopes outrolled below
Wide to majestic summer, Arcady afar;
A lintel in the grass, crimson stone; no walls
That remember; Rudy and I dark in a tomb
Speaking of the pompous Pantheon we smile
Cool underground we smoke in a sphere-curved room;
But the gorge, like a hole hacked furious in haste
At possession, gapes under the royal height
Grandly; and no need has a forgiveness; lost
We turn away to the parched plain, the desert light
To our friendship; under Greek oleanders
Blooming white in the brightness downwards we wander


High Cithaeron where Oedipus cried lies bare
Diluvian from in a plain rise cone-shaped hills
Two, far off as Thebes; uneasy through the glare
I watch them swell, step back; suburb, the bus jostles
And mounts; gone the wall music built, Amphion’s;
We enter Thebes past a Frankish tower, a shed
Of diggings, a clinic by American grants
Built; the painted street at noon stands wide and surd;
Reserved Thebes, a country town; after sunset
Wild-eyed, ragged in the crowding dusk a boy
Holds out silently for sale a toy acrobat
Daubed paper; I peer, take it with sudden joy;
On the Hudson in a room that branches brush
It lies on a table, hears the crunch of anguish


Heat on the majestic flank of Parnassus
Blazing noon; sunsick we reach beyond ruins
Cold Castalia’s source; watered farm horses
Wait in shadow, a man sleeps dark near the spring;
Above the cliff eagles, olives shimmer below
Mountain opposite, then deep the sea-plain, mountains
An airy ease rustles in this high beech grove
While outside on white plinths snakes make fulsome stains;
Through July noons the Pythoness snoring drowsed
And Plutarch conferred shaded; no fright is here
Where the unseen vent a thousand years was housed
And a stooled hillwoman shrieked to men in prayer;
Her pulpy moving tongue spoke truth, majesty
Is its vestige in the mountain peace we see


Dark pure blue, deep in the light, the sea shakes white-flecked
Foam-white houses sink, hills as dry as dried fruit
In a gale, in a radiance massive like sex
The boat bounces us and Greeks in business suits;
A thick-built landing stage; an isle low and small
And one old hill on it, cake-shapen; screening
Her solitude other islands bulge and sprawl
She lies dazzled, floating, as remote as meaning;
Left among the Hellenistic marble scum
Glistens a vivid phallus; marsh-born here before
At a palm, cleft-suckled, a god he first came
Who hurts and heals unlike love, and whom I fear;
Will he return here? Quickly we pluck dry flowers
The sailor blows his conch; Delos disappears


Brown bare island stretched to July sailing winds
At a beach houses blinding as snow; close-by
A warren of curved white walls; families within
Marine, the women, the girls are strict and shy;
On the saint’s eve, the square where they danced was small
Like a Greek loft in New York; between candles, chairs
A slow row moved stocky in the night sea-chill
The saint’s neighbors, the rest of the town not there;
In a bare room, like a sailor’s few souvenirs
The sacred objects—vowed small church that mates build
Cold during winter—all-powerful Christ repairs
As Son to such a table and sweetness is fulfilled;
The rose like our blood in its perishable bloom
Sweetens with remembrance a white unlocked room


Flying from Greece to see Moscow’s dancing girl
I look down on Alba Longa, see Jacob’s house
And the Pope’s, and already the airplane’s curls
Show St. Peter’s, and the Appian tombs’ remorse;
But Jacob, a two-year-old American
Is running in the garden in August delight;
‘Forum not a park, Forum a woods,’ he opines
In November quiet there on days less bright;
Now in New York Jacob wants to have my cat
He goes to school, he behaves aggressively
He is three and a half, age makes us do that
And fifty years hence will he love Rome in place of me?
For with regret I leave the lovely world men made
Despite their bad character, their art is mild

Mediterranean Cities first published by George Wittenborn, Inc. in 1956. Reprinted here with permission of the estate of Edwin Denby. (c) Estate of Edwin Denby.

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