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Poems from the vaults: “Roman Shade”

Revisiting older work, here’s “Roman Shade,” my anthology poem, based on a misunderstanding of the phrase that became the title. This poem was acquired for Strange Horizons by editor A.J. Odasso, and first saw publication in January 2014.


A summer evening at Aunt Celie’s house:
she entertained the Poet and myself.
He wore gold rims. I thought the world of him.
Celie, the social lioness, in search
of plum and melon ice cream, tactfully
stepped out and let me show the Poet round.
Rooms of sea-green, peach, silver, dull gold, blue,
antique and vintage, lacquer, marble, glass.
Our Poet ambled through it in his tweeds,
approving this or that with little nods.
He smiled upon the paintings, busts, and prints,
the views of Edo and the Russian vase,
and Celie’s grand piano, cream and gold.
On all he beamed, and in his beams I basked,
watching his lips for brilliance. “What’s in here?”
The darkened dining room we never used.
The Poet murmured, “Ah! Yes! Roman shade,
remarkable.” I couldn’t stop to ask; ideas
came flooding fast. I stood and guessed.

1. She-Wolf

At the height of summer, smoke goes up from Rome.
Beneath the fig tree, their mother lies and pants,
her flanks heaving. In the shade, she smells sacrifice.
The tyranny of sun glares white from those walls;
her sons grew alien and left her to her grove,
went off to be day-creatures. They were both soft.
They were smooth and chubby, could not bear nipping,
learned to walk clinging to her angular sides,
clamped their mouths on her dugs, as real cubs would do.
Hundreds of years have passed since then. The she-wolf
many a time has borne cubs of her own flesh.
She loves them. But she never forgets the weak ones.
They must both have mates by now, and cubs of cubs.
When they grow old, as she, eternal, will not,
they will have children to lick their faces clean
and hunt for them. The she-wolf is comforted.
She never saw the wall her human boys built;
by that time, they had both forgotten her milk,
when the naked wolf-lad leapt over the wall.

2. Arena

I grew up, grace-given, under the stars striding;
I slew the lean lion and the deer felled daily.
They caught and bound me, as the brown bear mighty,
in chains they bore me from my cliffs of hunting.
Here in the caverns of Rome am I cabined,
in building blocks’ darkness, as a cur cowers.
From here, they will hoist me to most hateful sunlight:
an oval plain, shadeless, eyes over eyes staring,
friendless, to force men at my spearhead to stagger,
till one drag me downward to meet shadows’ mercy.

3. In His Habit As He Lived

“I’ll meet thee at Philippi,” the ghost sighed,
looming above the youth of aspect sad,
who squinted at the specter and replied,
“I thought you were supposed to be my dad.”

“But aren’t you Brutus?” said the Roman shade.
“You’ve come to the wrong theater,” said the prince.
“I hope you find him.” Caesar, much dismayed,
vanished with fog and an embarrassed wince.

4. Antique Roman

In that same castle by the sea,
much later, in another room,
while lamp wicks smother in the gloom,
blood’s cooling on the marble floor.

Beside a pile of noble dead
they’ve known their whole lives long, there lie
two students. One came home to die.
The dark one holds the fair one’s head.

The drugs to put him out of pain
stand by the dark lad on the floor.
He’ll follow after; he is more
an antique Roman than a Dane,

and there is yet some liquor here.
The fair boy, lying on his back,
slaps down the glass to roll and crack,
with the last strength of his career.

Somebody has to stay behind
to see their story still draws breath.
“Mine is the easy part, that’s death.
The labor’s living; as you’ll find,

to live’s the hardest task of all.”
The fair-haired boy begins to fade;
he whispers, sighing out his shade.
At last there’s silence in the hall.

5. Mount Auburn Cemetery

H. Wadsworth Longfellow, I’ve heard it said,
Lowell and Holmes,
lie in Mount Auburn’s hills of mighty dead,
where now the tourist roams.

I, with my guidebook, and a friend in tow,
too awed to talk,
passed by the marble houses, row on row,
and fought the urge to knock.

Up the long hillside, under hemlock trees,
tombs faced a brook.
Every door had a window with a grille;
I meant to have a look.

The first was dark to my sun-dazzled eyes.
Something had groped
with muddy little hands at the next door.
Just a raccoon, I hoped.

And next, a tomb’s screen door, like iron lace,
a dark design.
Deep in that tomb, a grimly smiling face
was staring into mine.

The honesty for which I’m always known
leads me to say
I fell back flailing, gave a strangled moan,
leapt up and ran away.

Soon, cooler heads prevailed. That ancient shade
inside the tomb
had been as white as marble. Less afraid,
we faced him through the gloom.

That eagle-nosed and grimly smiling face
far at the back
under a skylight, in a sunny place,
stood out against the black.

Was he the image of a man who lay
near in a box?
Was he a prank meant for a sunny day,
to give the tourists a shock?

Was he, perhaps, some rich collector’s prize
among the dead?
We whispered, “Ave, ave,” to the eyes
of that white, knowing head.

6. In the Roman Wing

Free day at the museum:
I walk from bust to bust,
among the marble Romans
collecting clean dry dust.

Dead eyes in beaky profiles,
old men with baggy skin,
a bull-necked man of action,
a widow’s dimpled chin.

I paused before a matron
of curly, braided head.
Her eyebrows were raised, disdainful,
and this is what she said:

“Slaves with a saffron awning
would keep me from the sun;
both modest and accomplished,
I worked in wools and spun.

“Hairdressers I had seven,
and half a dozen maids,
the envy of the City,
girl-masters of their trades.

“I beat them when they failed me
or when they made too free.
I bore no man’s reproaches:
they all belonged to me.

“Now sold and caged in crystal
to all, my face is bare,
while children suck their fingers
and old plebeians stare.

“Girls with red hair disheveled
pass by me but to say
‘Oh, is that Cleopatra?’
and then they walk away.

“My ancestors about me,
I’d thought to take my place,
to watch my children’s children
burn myrrh before my face.

“Base animals! Why bear me
to bondage, where I fade?
Oh, let me sink in darkness,
delightful Roman shade!”

7. The Old Women

M. Aemilius Structus, junior secretary to the Governor, to his wife Cornelia

You need not fear, my plum, I have abandoned you:
that I have failed to write may be ascribed to the state.
Tonight, I’ll make one letter do the work of four.

Here you may meet the fabled brutes in dirty furs
who bathe three times a year and grow their shaggy beards,
who heard no Latin till they were fully grown,
pursuing feuds in vengeance upon their neighbors’ cows.
Their neighbors’ women and children suffer most.

They lament at their new Governor,
who will not let them play their little games of blood.
Of course, they loved old Sica, who,
having gone native, lay unwashed upon fur rugs,
a lover at each hand. They try our patience.
The Governor is quite as vexed, but hides it well.

We must remember they are children,
these huge and dirty fellows, only little boys
with the powers of men. One can’t expect a child
to thank you for a thrashing, be it never so deserved.
You know that just as I do, mother of my sons.

You need not fear a rival. Let me say it once again:
the thought of a barbarian with watery blue eyes
holds no appeal for me. As for the brutes,
one never sees their women, and sometimes I think
barbarians are solely men, who breed by sprouts and buds,
or spring from horse-hairs dropped in mud, as serpents do.
We suffer presently from childish spite. Three days ago
one of them leapt upon and stabbed a legionary.
(We’ve set a guard upon the temple of Minerva;
these creatures will pry off the roof tiles, otherwise—
they do not count it theft to steal from Romans.)

The poor guard, Laenas, never out of Rome before these hills,
will lose an eye. He killed the leaper, who was very old.
So ugly and so old a hill-man I have never seen—
they murder one another in their middle years,
for the most part, before they can achieve gray hairs.
He was naked, and about his neck hung certain stones with holes.

We could not find his knife, and I vow that is a nuisance,
since those animals say Laenas struck the first blow.
Otherwise, they are deaf. Often these days, I wish
my time was out and I was tossed by whirlwinds to your bed,
my tiny mouse. I wish this three times a day.

The only touch of beauty in these hills occurs at dusk;
the dirty swine all cook their meat on open fires outdoors.
Their flames shine near and far. When they’re too far to make a stench,
why, one might think a hail of stars had showered to the earth,
although their drumming spoils the peace. You’d find this a fair sight,
my dearest plum—and this alone, of all sights here.

We finished off the fish sauce weeks ago, and now
we have no way to kill the taste of hill provisions.
One may eat even rancid lamb if one enlists the help
of fish sauce. We are almost through the wine. By the fifteenth,
the mule train should have reached us. We are counting days.

Today, we held the trial. The Governor made up his mind
to rule that Laenas committed manslaughter,
and must pay blood price to the dead man’s dirty kin.
Though this humiliates the lad, still, his centurion
stands with us: we have not only to be just,
but to show Roman justice done before them.

It falls to me to find descendants of the ancient beast.
They say he has no kin left, but they’re lying out of spite.
They’re inbred: brother-cousins, nephew-sons, bred back.
He must have kin. And so I spent today out getting nosebleeds,
battered by the windstorm as I trudged between their huts.

I brought an officer and men along
in case of trouble. I looked into goatish faces
that said “Not me,” or deigned to speak no Latin anymore.
They traced their toes in patterns on the dirt. At times,
I wonder why we try. Golden Apollo could descend,
singing of Troy, and they would bite his arm, hump his leg.

The day begins to fade. A man can sit beside the lamp
and write, as I do now, and sip his wine in twilight here,
content and almost at ease. One forgets the dirt and flies
and hill-men. This half-measure is the last wine I will see
for Bacchus knows how long, so I had better make it last.

As I began this letter, came another wretched fuss:
A naked little boy ran up and shouted at the legionaries,
all in that gobbling tongue. Still, there was one who understood—
a half-breed, though it’s not his fault—he says the boy cried out,
We will release the old women;
we will send down the old women upon you!

Of all the threats I’ve known, that’s feeblest.
What harm can they do us; will they spin us to death?
But, no: they are barbarians, no one here spins.
I’m picturing their hags, freed from kennels, with disheveled hair,
crawling along the earth to gnaw us with their toothless gums.

Crawling along the earth. It’s curious. I almost wrote
“a cloud has snuffed the stars,” but clouds have veiled the sky all night.
The stars upon the land, the hill-men’s fires, are going out
in swaths, and the most distant hills are wholly sunk to night.
There is no sound. It’s drawing toward us in a wave;
blackness is putting out the stars of fire.



I ceased, and, for the first time, was aware
of Celie trying hard to catch my eye.
The Poet had been shifting where he stood,
as though to speak. The sun had slid around
until it glowed in through the golden silk.
“Were any of my guesses right?” I asked.
“What’s Roman shade?” That made the Poet blink.
“A shade, of course! Why, that’s a Roman shade.”
He pointed at the window and its blinds.
“When the Victorians tried painting Rome,”
said Celie, “they gave Caesar drapes like these.
But, still: good guess.” “Oh. Thanks. My throat is sore.”
“That ice cream should be nice and soft by now.
Let’s go eat,” said Aunt Celie. So we did.