Lance Lee

Poet, Playwright, Novelist

Book covers
Book covers
River of Flesh artwork

Roman Poems

with drawings by Charles Shearer
  1. River of Flesh
  2. Bernini Defends His Ecstasy of St. Theresa
    Against Charges Of Carnality
  3. Graffiti In The Underworld
  4. Giordano Bruno Steps Down From His Pedestal In The Heat
  5. Tivoli

River of Flesh

homage to Auden

I came to see the Dome
and the curved embrace of stone
that gathers in the faithful
to St. Peter and his tomb; to see
the catacombs where martyrs lie,
and the Sistine where
Michelangelo made
God in our image—

instead I heard a crowd shout, not men, not women
but sheets of loud color urging lion and tiger
to rend believers with fang and claw,
or chariots to run them under hoof and wheel
and scythe those left standing on either side.
A quarter million roared as those who still stood or
crawled were hacked or shot or hauled away and gassed
while vultures merged into a single shadow
above the blood and stiffening gore.

I came to see the Forum’s ruins
once brilliant in the sun,
to walk where the sacred fire burned
and kings bowed to free men
whose words gave life or death:
to see where Caesar burned
and Antony fired the crowd
to grief— all safely passed—

instead a lonely Asian tourist asked me by
anonymous ruins, “Where is Caesar buried?”
I sent him to the Forum, and left a
laurel bough in the grit and gloom of a basement
built where once he twitched his robe over his wounds.
Tourists lowed before the nearby Pantheon
where Italy’s exiled kings lie in place of Jove and Mars,
or Venus who might have brought love’s fist
to this flash-filled, loveless space.

I stood before St. Theresa
to see her body convulse
in God’s embrace:
to see Christ in supple stone
grace his mother’s lap,
and St. Peter’s chains aglow
as though he was never crucified,
head down—

instead a mass filled the street in every era’s dress:
I rubbed my eyes certain I was asleep,
but they remained when I dropped my hands
and gathered me in. Under a sky burning to coal I
groaned as they groaned,
begged as they begged
for water to ease my thirst, but no help came
in all the time it took the buildings to fall into ruin
under a sky raining hot ash.

I came to see fountains spray,
the four rivers stream
in Piazza Navona, Saldi’s
rising figures in the Trevi, the
Triton blowing his conch near
Via Veneto: to see lovers
take pictures to recall they
stood there, young, joyous—

instead I saw the generations fill the Tiber,
my own face rise and sink among the others
with dull or astonished or hopeless eyes,
and all those I love and all they will love and those too
in that river of flesh flowing past Castel Sant’ Angelo
towards the sea where all roads end
and all times meet, where striving follows striving,
thirst thirst, dream dream
we never waken from, or slake, or gain.

Rome, 2009

River of Flesh 1 artwork
River of Fleshby Charles Shearer
River of Flesh 2 artwork
River of Flesh 2by Charles Shearer

Bernini Defends His Ecstasy of St. Theresa
Against Charges of Carnality

“Why mock Theresa’s head thrown back,
lips parted, body helpless with pleasure—
or laugh at the angel with an arrow
hovering like a refined cupid
certain of the target? Or at the spray of gold
to show God’s grace entering the saint-to-be,
and her visionary ascent to His arms?
How should I celebrate the soul embraced
and reunited with its source? the mingling of
divinity and dust? With ashes in her hair,
charcoal on her tongue, rags in place of the
passionate flutter of her robes, sores
to mar a face of perfect, ardent marble?
What alternative does a woman have
to ecstasy in such a complete embrace
but convulsions of joy, her tears far from grief?
We know beauty begins with the flesh
but hope for a love that shows contempt for
the years, even dreams of defying death.
I wanted still more, the pure transcendence of
self in that Other who stands before and
after time whom our yearning, if nothing else,
makes real! So I caught Theresa as she blurs
into her dream’s sun, a woman lost to all
but the ending of her emptiness, loneliness,
childlessness... See if you compose yourself
so those untouched won’t laugh when you
are transported to a greater being. You will do
as she did: let yourself go utterly and pray
from your loneliness in that moment
ultimate love makes you burn and beg,
‘Take me. Take everything.’”


...nothing human is alien to me

One midnight past my middle years
with slow stepsdulled eyes
I drift across Rome’s cobblestoned streets
busy with tourists by day down
to its underworld, tired of life,
love become rote gesture...
Fluorescent light fills the landing
and fades into tunnels on either side,
but no trains come, no one joins me,
not even ghosts to beg for blood
for an hour’s life. Stillness reigns...
In my hand I find a can of spray paint,
a knife on my belt: I wear black,
thick-soled boots, black leather
pants and a vest nail-head studded,
chained-looped: bewildered,
my hand is orange from rubbing
my spiked hair, and as I flex
my biceps a man‘s pelvis spears between
a woman’s legs. The walls writhe
with life, great blocks of letters march
their length, crude epithets and
epigrams snake above and below
mixed with scenes of women
who ride men like bulls, their cunts
hungry mouths. Caesar is lampooned
for a penis too big for Brutus’ mother,
Servilia, to mouth; pot-bellied
Berlusconi without corset and suit runs
from the horns his wife holds
towards Leticia, a Lolita who eggs him on
as she flees with a backward leer...
Dazed, I spray scenes of my own
in this two-thousand year old jumble
as crowds pour in from the tunnels
and sweep me up to ravish rob
pleasure all, and all pleasures one.
Lost, appalled, I become a heap of rags
stinking, homeless, abandoned,
until in the cold hour before dawn
I stagger home, a junkie coming
off a bad trip, creep in my door,
shower, slip into bed— and lie awake,
trying, unable to, forget.
Dawn spills its water across the floor...
I pretend to be myself when I stumble
down to eatto plan another day of
fountain to statue to column to ruin
taking pictures of the bright world
as though there is no other to record.
But as days and weeks pass
I see openings to that raw underlife
where I feel my heart feed in the
red darknesses that pulse in my flesh—
danger makes my blood beat
as strongly as any shared passion,
unable to tell pain from pleasure:
and danger gives my tenderness
its poignance and love its power
to hold the blood’s ravings within—
for my step regains its spring,
my eyes the light they lost
and love is renewed with her who
these many years keeps me warm
however I age or stray in the night.

Graffiti artwork
Graffitiby Charles Shearer

Giordano Bruno Steps Down
From His Pedestal In The Heat

with the grind and scrape
of bronze robes, hood swept
back with a thud, and wipes
sweat melting from his cheeks
with a heavy sleeve.
and tourists overturn flower
vases, household goods, and
food stalls in their rush from
Campo de’ Fiori. Giordano sees me
hold my ground, and shrugs.
They always run. His voice is
the scrape of rusted hinges:
It’s hard to stand when the sun
is summer in spring,
he adds,
I feel fires lick my flesh again and
blind my eyes. That’s how I died.

He points at the pedestal.
They piled wood around a stake
there and set it on fire, the crowd
raw with pleasure from my torment.
Another age covered the ashes
with this stone— those bastards
who burned me should see me
now, honored, statued.

He walks through the stalls
towards a tall spigot of running
water, robes flapping as though
already sodden, bends, and
sprays himself. Water steams
from his body, his head
he douses to still the heatwaves
visible even in this light. Still here?
I nod, mute, as his steam thins
in the air. They wait ‘til I remount
before they return to their stalls—
no one says a thing.

Something hollow laughs
Who would believe them?
Statues don’t walk around
Campo de’ Fiori— what a
heat-addled, mass delusion!

He strolls back to the pedestal,
surrounded by bronze plaques
that show him as teacher,
defendant, burning martyr.
I said, The round world goes
round a round sun, the cosmos
His wheel He binds us on:
at the root lies what we cannot
divide or destroy, quanta, in
your lingo, or strings, each
tuned to one special note
in His mind that together make
an earthly and divine music—
that flower there, or knife fallen
on the ground, the desert stone
and rain, hawk and prey, Gypsy,
Jew, terrorist, child blown apart,
each broken limb
are symphonies
that bind His fire to shape and
sense, each thing Him, sacred,
equally divine. I said, The mind
finds nothing opposed to Him.
They burned me for that.
They wanted Him a cleric
chanting matins at dawn, safe,
never to be probed or challenged,
or for us to grow or change
or face His danger or learn
this song He sings of Himself.

He remounts his pedestal,
flips his hood gray and green
with age over his face.
The Campo teems with life...
A vision then, delusive,
heat-addled, but I grow cold
as the blue sky peels away
and starfield on field opens
to view, each wheeling
across the sky faster than
the last, until the final whirl
of stars blurs into one light
holding all notes in one chord
I guess as though I near a
concert hall and imagine
the piece playing inside.
He laughs heavily... The sky
blues, brilliant: I hold
my hands up and see
my fingers are flames.
Welcome to the real, grinds
in my mind: look at me, at how
I burn in this music still.


How did I come to this height where
rain slathers down and binds the steep,
gray sky to the blood-soaked plains
no amount of water can clean,
only make grow more richly?

Through the graffitied
underworld into the land’s
green glare, snaking
towards Tivoli whose
waters stream and fall...

I remember...
We escaped to a hillside
park of fountains, sprays greater than
Rome’s set among pools and grottoes:
clouds merged and cooled and threw
drop down after drop.

A week juggling the ages
in Rome was enough.
I see my breath in the
cool air, and think:
I’m here...

When the sun beats the wet wheat,
soaked walls, silvered roads, will mist
make the earth look like an Eden
for me and the woman beside me
to enter, be renewed, begin history again?

Silence... then fresh rain
taps the ground.
I see my breath in the
cool air, and think:
I am...

I will go into the earth, merge
with the rain, grow or shrivel
as the season demands:
lover, husband, grandfather, poet,
let my life pass like clear, swift waters.

Tivoli artwork
Tivoliby Charles Shearer
Tivoli artwork
Tivoliby Charles Shearer