a reflection from my recent pilgrimage to Rome
One of the things I loved about Fra Angelico’s Annunciation—at the top of the stairs, on the second floor of the Monastery of San Marco, in Florence—was a small window in the background between the angel and Our Lady. The angel’s wings are soft blues and browns and creams, and Our Lady’s gown is soft and cream and blue, and there’s a sweetness about both their faces. A loveliness.
But I keep thinking about the window in the background. Just an ordinary window, latticed, with the suggestion of trees behind it. The green shadows of leaves.
I’ve seen the more geometric Annunciation of da Vinci many times in reproduction—it’s also in Florence, at the Uffizi—but when I saw it in person for the first time my eye was drawn to something I hadn’t noticed before. The angel is poised on the left, as the angel usually is, and Mary is on the right, as she usually is, reading a book, but to the right of her, as we face the painting, there’s a door, and it’s open, and through it you can see a stone floor and shadows on the floor and a neatly made bed, or part of it, the bedspread a kind of rust-colored red, as if Mary is like me when she wakes up in the morning, and before she can pray or start her day she has to make the bed and hang up her clothes. Get things organized.
I shouldn’t love Rome as much as I do, as my tastes run more towards the minimal and spare, but I love it deeply, and I think it’s in part because what’s so grand and monumental about Rome, and what’s so often jumbled about it, and chaotic and intense, only makes the small things, the ordinary things, seem all the more endearing.
On our first trip to Rome my brother and I walked from the Coliseum about a mile, down wide, sunny streets, to the Protestant Cemetery. We circled the walls until we found the gate, then made our way to Keats’s grave.
A man about my age in a leather jacket and a wide-brimmed leather hat was kneeling on the path, sketching the tomb in pencil. Looking up he said, with a heavy twang, “I’d rather have Byron’s life.” He turned out to be a drummer in a heavy-metal band in Australia, though he kept a residence in Rome.
“I’m known as something of a poet in Australia,” he said.
The tombstone is shaped like a large, white thumb. Phallic. Hard to get into the frame. The famous inscription reads, “Here lies a young English poet, whose name is writ in water,” and standing there seeing it I thought of how young Keats was when he died, younger than my sons. How he rose up at the end and cried out.
But I was exhilarated. Sweaty and exhilarated. I had this sense at first of being on an expedition and of having found what I was looking for. Of having reached my destination.
I talked for a while with Ted, then he went to look at the other graves. The drummer had slipped away.
The cemetery, as I said, is walled, and when you walk in through the front gate the graves are thick on either side of a tree-lined lane. Keats’ grave is in the far corner to the left. You turn, and in a few steps the graves thin out and the trees thin out and there’s a sense of spaciousness. It’s more like a park. And the trees, I started to realize, had been reminding me of the trees in Spokane where my brother and I grew up. They were some kind of pine, and their needles on the grass and their piney smell had been reminding me of Ponderosa.
At the end, when Ted came back and I was standing there with him, at Keats’s grave, with my balding baby brother, middle-aged now, like me—late middle-aged—growing old–I was thinking of the way things looked and the way things felt when we were boys, in the woods above the river. Of the wide spaces between the trunks. The dark, volcanic rock.
MORE POEMS, PROSE PIECES, AND HOMILIES FROM THE TRIP: