by Tom Hubbard
They who had chiselled the names and the dates
On the angled and sunken stones
Had themselves died long ago. They shared
The worn anonymity: memorialised
And memorialisers alike.
So now, the living,
Gathered at the gates, the awkwardly present,
Barely hearing a new voice in their souls,
Uncertain, wary, inarticulate.
There were those who shuffled, agape, through the dry leaves,
As the group proceeded: some tripped on the masonry
Fallen from a pedestal, blamed their own clumsiness,
Marched with a fresh sense of their limitations:
Intelligent, and innocent.
Others had nothing to say but said it anyway,
Loudly lachrymose in their displayed embraces,
There was one who stood apart, silently,
A lady of the north,
The mother of two boys
Of the marked alien folk -
She was blonde and they were swarthy:
She was their confidante through adolescence.
Soon she will find herself through southern ways,
By sun-toned courtyards: sprayed upon their walls
Such fresh inscriptions of unsignatured hate,
Hate, that she can’t decipher. She’ll stop awhile,
Caress an approaching cat, and then pass on,
Smiling at this encounter.
Where a gallery is poised to offer homage –
Image for word – to Dante’s Purgatorio.
This lady of the north, honouring south,
Has shaped her people’s gestures into bronze.
She’s on the upward path, maze beyond maze,
When of a sudden, smoke
Whirls around her, as a noonday’s gloaming.
Who is that hooded figure through the haze,
A pilgrim lost in a deserted lane?
Is it herself? Is there no other guide
To avert her stumbling as the path narrows,
Widens and narrows again? She has a vision
Of a multitude, a myriad of souls,
Missing the steps, perpetually falling …
This lady of the north
Has shaped her people’s gestures into bronze
For the welcoming people of the south,
Gestures for gestures exchanged; those silent images
Far from the screaming words, sprayed on the walls:
And the still mercy,
That of all the languages she knows,
This is not one of them.
In this poem, I'm working through imagery, cadences, suggestiveness, rather than explicit statement. Though fictional, it's based on an experience of some 30-odd years ago when I was at a festival in Italy and was in the company of a lady with Jewish connections. We took a walk outside the hotel where the participants were staying, and I was horrified to see an anti-semitic slogan painted on a wall. I didn't want the lady to see it, but was relieved to know that if she had, she didn't know Italian - that wasn't among the several languages in which she was fluent. The introductory material about the cemetery concerns an earlier but not dissimilar experience, and the witness of someone else with Jewish family connections. I just fused the two instances together in imagination, while changing the festival to an exhibition of sculpture inspired by Dante and which I visited in Ravenna.
Tom Hubbard is a novelist, poet, and literary historian.