Mudlark Flash No. 155 (2018)

The Graffiti of Pompeii
by Laura Sobbott Ross

•   (exterior of the House of Menander) Satura was here on September 3rd

Pompeii lies dying but doesn’t know it.
The first blush of death,
an aching, exquisite sensitivity.
Its epicenter stirs open. In fields,
the wheat chafes and winces golden.
The mountain breathes and sweats in pearls
that bud. A fever has been born.
The animals nosing its warm bloom

at the edge of everything. The basalt soil,
black as tea grains, infuses the grass
with the ancient essence of smoke,
but green has never tasted so feral.
Soon, soon, call the mourning doves;

harvests of olives and grapes
will fill the presses, and dormice,
farmed and fattened for their winter sleep,
will be ready for roasting,
to be dipped and rolled
in more than just this honeyed light.

Don’t try to catch them by the tails.
They’re meant to be expendable—
a bit of furred flesh left twitching in your fist.

Where are you going, Satura?
I hope for your sake, the sea
is a headier calling than this city-bellus,
its coffers of lily and sex and wine.

Let it let go
of your wrists, its whispers
holy and hot in your hair. Unlock
its shiny gaze. Then, listen, Satura.
Can’t you hear an ocean un-damning?

Soon, soon, call the voices from the ash
trees and the acacias. It’s time to go.
Take your satchel of spells and pomegranates,
your good winter horse, and ride home.

•   (In the basilica) Love dictates to me as I write and Cupid shows me the way, but may I die if god should wish me to go on without you.

There were plenty of deities to choose from.
        The gods and goddesses of
war and love and death. And thunder
and wine, keys, horses, and apricots.

Not to mention the one who first opens
the mouths of the newborns to cry.

And the punisher of broken promises.
        Some were lesser:
terrestrial and indigitamenta:
                divined, demi, and divi.
There was hardly a temple to spare,
or a flame not already lit
with someone else’s invocation:

a rib of linden, a small clay bell, a song thrush
with its throat slit. Love lies bleeding on the altar—
the name of a flower (Amaranthus caudatus).
A favorite of Venus? Or Clementia,
goddess of forgiveness and mercy?

Touch the shrine when you pray.
Listen for answers— auspices and omens.
The patterns of the pigeons. Your lover’s small lies.

Seek favor first from the gods and the goddesses,
but wear your amulet just in case.
Avoid owls. Never host an even number of diners.
Always cross a threshold with your left foot first,

and pay attention to your dreams. Remember,
    even one of the Vestal Virgins of Rome
    was struck by lightning on her way home.

•   (in the basilica) Phileros is a eunuch!

He was too well versed in mythology and languages to pretend he believed his mother when she told him the word meant unique. So what if he spent his time in the atrium sketching parakeets at the fountain, or the hoopoes among the scattered grains of emmer. Across the strings of his cithara, notes were pulled into the air in flourishes as fine as brushstrokes. He could sing an octave in alto. That small hand-knotted net on the bench beneath the myrtle tree was meant not for fish but butterflies. Both an iridescence, he’d shrugged, and noted to no one in particular. And when lunch was served at the sixth hour after sunrise, he preferred that his truffles and sardines didn’t touch on the plate, and insisted that a smear of cedar resin be kept in a small crock nearby to discourage insects. His mother fussed and pandered, invited daughters of high society friends to share a meal with them in the garden. Teach me how to braid, he whispered to Aquilina, the red-haired slave girl, her industrious fingers wrested from the peonies. Pulchritude and palindromes were his amusements:

M     A     S     K     S
A     P     E     E     K
S     E     X     E     S
K     E     E     P     A
S     K     S     A     M

Well, he hadn’t quite figured that one out yet. There was nothing vulgar in patterns or archetypes. Science and classical geometry soothed him: the ordering of columns, spaces and species. He kept a pair of greyhounds, dogs that looked like they were fighting a stiff wind. From his preened patch of hyssop and thyme, crushed fragrances in a silk pouch were pinned beneath his tunic. Even during the festival of Saturnalia every December, when the city unmasked into an incorrigible debauchery, he stayed home to offer prayers at the altar, not to Jupiter but to Cupid— that free flying boy-god with his quiver of unspoken intentions.

•   (Bar of Salvius; over a picture of a woman carrying a pitcher of wine and a drinking goblet) Whoever wants to serve themselves can go on and drink from the sea

This wine’s cut with water. In Pythagorean proportions.
Let all the Greeks raise their goblets. Hail to mathematical scholars.
To the greatest philosophers. To architectural splendors.
Only barbarians drink undiluted wine. Let all the Thracians raise their goblets.
Hail to everything beautifully uncivilized. To the gods
who likewise need no dilutions. Romans have the most enchanting whores.
Let the Gauls raise their goblets. And the Scythians. And the Thracians.
And the Germanians. And the Celts. Hail
to dice rolls and scattered knucklebones. Cast my lots.
Bring me olives and bread. No tantrum or bloodied fist will land you
double sixes, Inebrius— only Venus herself, but not in this reeking Hades
Leave your empty amphoras on Neptune’s altar, your crockery and bronze.
This barmaid’s sending us down to the sea.
Maybe the mermaids will satisfy your fetish for fish, Tyberius.
But be wary: that fermented mullet sauce in your beard will draw sharks.
Those floating lanterns of jellyfish are medusas with electric hair.
You can paw the sand over your defecations like a cat, Marcellus.
Your gonads will float like an avocet. The sea is a great equalizer,
Quintus; no, not a great elixir. Leave some coins by these drained goblets,
lest we all wake tomorrow on the rasping beach pebbles,
with seawater, sharp and scolding, on our shriveled tongues.

•   (Bar of Astylus and Pardalus) Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life

The hexagon in a honeycomb
            is a geometric perfection.
            Nature’s golden ratio.
A waxy tessellation of industry and sex.
            Honey, come home.
            There’s an audible buzz
in the hive. I’ve gone nectared.
            Honed to a node keening like a queen bee,
            you and I are a tightly threaded orbit
whose loose ends loll
            in the pollen of apricot, lily, and thyme.
            The butterflies are drunk on us.
Even the snails are gorged—
            plump and sugared.
            Honey, pour me some more.
I’m dizzled and dazzy.
            This instinct’s sweet.
            An amber drizzle on our tongues.
If only we could bottle it.
            Keep it for our own. Hold its gold
            up to the light.

•   (near the rear entrance vestibule of the House of Menander) At Nuceria, look for Novellia Primigenia near the Roman gate in the prostitutes’ district

Novellia Primigenia was past her prime.
Likely thirty; maybe more. She was garishly optimistic—
a canvas of coal, and white lead face paint
that made her teeth appear more yellow than they were.

The boys had learned not to kiss her skin
because its poisons
could accumulate in the marrow of their bones.

Novellia swaddled her heavy breasts to her ribs
as if there were nursing babies at her nipples. After all,
breasts were not for pleasure but for the sustenance of children
(and these men weren’t?)

She smelled humid, of fennel and seawater. An oily ripened rose.
She was well versed in Vergil: instead of a long skirted gown,
                  a tiger’s spoils hang down her back.

Her hair was a dark mountain fashioned with a coronet
riveted in seed pearls that looked like baby teeth.
She could leer with her laugh, and thought herself to be an epic
mime and muse, and an even better lover. Beside a flame,

she kept a bowl of trinkets. Small offerings at her own altar—
jeweled bits of minutiae traded for favors of a sensual nature

She-earth. Goddess of her body, its generous, reckless yield.
Oh, the way these boys fell wincing into her skin! Their praises
exhaled stale with wine and heat in an all too brief moment
of toe-curling exaltation. It was what she lived for.

•   (Samnite House) [Caricature of a woman with horns, claws, teeth, and wings, holding a scythe or staff]

As I pass through fields of wheat, insects shrivel and drop from the stalks, but only if my hair and bodice are wild and loose, and I am barefoot, but not at dawn. Because at dawn, everything in my wake could die. Or so the scholars say. You see, a menstruating woman is potent. Purple loses its luster in my presence, and mirrors go dull. Bees abandon their hives, and the tendrilled vinelings of grapes wither to dust, so don’t ask me for honey or wine. And to the men: run. Especially if there is an eclipse, lest I seduce you into something that will release in you distillations of poison or insanity, for I am no doubt in a fatal state of grace. By that I mean, this period. In which I can stop hailstones, whirlwinds, lightning, birth. I’ve been told to carry a small, red fish to temper my powers. Still, dogs will go mad. The linens I boil turn black. Copper pots rot and verdigris. Even tar will dissolve at my bidding. But remember, I am medicinal, a nurturer by nature. So, mix the ash of my monthly courses with the oil of roses, soot, and wax, and apply me to boils, headaches, and fevers. Protect yourself from curses and magicians, phobias and seizures. But, beware the essences of a woman of a questionable nature, and don’t stand with us beneath a tree heavy with apples and thorns, or a sky of simple stars.

•   (in the basilica) Sarra, you are not very nice, leaving me all alone like this

Everything has an epicenter,
a single point of origination
from which an impetus keens
open, chases itself in ripples that cease
to touch until they are dead as foam—
a tremble disassembling. See this town
square, these men and women navigating
in folds— tunic, and familia, both
a tight weaving of threads. Look
at the faces of the crowd. Can you see
the howl gone dormant in their molars?
The instinct for flesh. To lie down next to.
To penetrate. To be penetrated by.
These mountains are god-fisted, this sea
teems with a mercurial underpinning,
and at that shop I can buy seven
different kinds of olives, and at this one,
leather to lace my hobnailed soles.
No pole star necessary; I am oceaned
with humanity and imperatives.
If I let go of this stone door well,
I will swirl and eddy into the drift.
But loneliness, Sarra?
It is marrowed inside of us like air.

•   (written on a wall near the amphitheater) You have failed at times, but you could have failed sixteen times. You have drifted from job to job: innkeeper, baker, farmer, book binder, parts seller, junk dealer. You’ve done it all. Now, you’re a pot maker’s hand. Where are you headed?

Give them bread and circuses,
the politicians say.
One’s taste for blood and grain
in this kingdom pacified
at no charge by Nero (all hail).
The crest of Rome inscripted
on every oven door and iron blade
thrust into the heart. Cattle, we the masses.
Left to wander, but not hungry, really.
The swivel of our once watchful eyes
locked in rust, our taste buds distilled
to a governmental issue— a fat wafer
void of anything honeyed or gamey.
Or of conquest. Or coveted. And savagery?
At a distance, it goes dull. Another processional
bleeding into a horizon of blue mountains
and sparkly seas, where scattered bread crusts
are foraged by birds and foreigners.
Romans have the softest skin.
It’s the public baths, the slaves readied
with the strigil at our shoulder blades
to scrape away our daily portion
of oil and dust before the plunge
into frigid water satisfies the longing
to be jolted awake. Call me home, master.
Where is the shepherd snapping at my heels?
Where is the bell and the mud braided path?
The smoke rising from the coals?
The bald prong of the moon?

•   (Nuceria Necropolis on a tomb) Greetings to Primigenia of Nuceria. I would wish to become a signet ring for no more than an hour, so that I might give you kisses dispatched with your signature

If love was a stylized motif,
it would be nothing
as simple as acanthus leaves—
fluted and fruited and voluted
in stone and blown sideways
at the tops of columns
by architectural winds; no,
it would be your name.
No chisel needed
beyond the heart-opus
of a blood ardor in simpatico:
the ba-boom ba-boom ba-boom
of a craftsmanship too vast
and ornate for any template of
wax or ivory or travertine or sky.
Heat holding its shape. To coalesce,
more or less. This tongue,
a rudimentary stylus on a
razed substrate of bread and horse
and tree and stars and oxygen,
your wrist, your throat, your thighs.
My signum to your sigillum.
Translated: signed and sealed here.
and here.   and here.   and here.   and here.
And   oh yes, again,   here.

•   (House of Poppaeus Sabinus; peristyle) If you felt the fires of love, mule-driver, you would make more haste to see Venus. I love a charming boy; I ask you, goad the mules, let’s go. Take me to Pompeii where love is sweet

The passenger
I am thinking of a crescent of light on the lower lid of his eye that’s so fine I’d have to paint it with just a single whisker from a cat. Skin like milk. His tongue, a hook, and I am both ocean and a flitting iridescence, dull-eyed and ravenous. These clouds become a torso beneath this artist’s hands, equal parts impetus and desire, hard as marble. Oh, I am blindsided tonight by more than just the sparks that float on wings across the vetch and briar. My secrets smolder deliciously. If it wasn’t for the primitive weight in my loins, well, these old bones could fly.

The driver
I will get a fine wage tonight. In Pompeii, there will be bread and oil and fish. Perhaps a pottage or a whore. The sky silvers, and silhouettes of trees trudge by us on a landscape that is anything but linear. A tooth aches in my head like a premonition. I touch the amulet of green jasper at my throat and think of werewolves. Funny how the melancholy smell of smoke is not a geography, but a holy grain in everything. How old is the moon, I wonder. Does it burn?

The mules
A cadence, the cane. Impel, a good name for a mule. Or a driver. This mile carries the distant scent of cypress and fennel. The last one, the salt sea. I can lose myself in a rhythm. This small ache; that jag of hunger. My bones rattle and conspire. I taste iron, but long for spring chaff and rivers. On a small sclera behind my retinas I sense flame. My ears swivel and hone to map its distant current. The green of leaf and blade already lick hotly at my limbs, while smoke hisses from my pores. I will be tethered, hitched, whipped, and heavily burdened with your imperatives, caretaker, but I will not walk through fire. I won’t burn for Pompeii.

Laura Sobbott Ross teaches English to ESOL students at Lake Technical College in central Florida and has worked as a writing coach for Lake County Schools. Her writing appears in Blackbird, Meridian, The Florida Review and many others, including Mudlark. She won the 2017 Southern Humanities Auburn Witness Poetry Prize. Her poetry chapbooks are A Tiny Hunger and My Mississippi.

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