Alive and Well:
Tomb Sculptures In the Staglieno Cemetery

Genoa, Italy

1 Angel

So this is death, lifelike in marble
and unconsoling, on a merchant’s tomb.
No man with a scythe, no man at all,
but her, slim-hipped in an airy gown

nipped at the waist. On the high breast
one hand rests, the slender fingers
limp, waiting to beckon or direct,
come-hither lips — barbed wings.

The eyes translucent, clear lakes
you want to fathom, but the gaze
says, I don’t want to be known
or understood. Angel of cold passion.

Angel of sex and death: essential answers
hidden in one vamp. When I pass by,
she turns to follow. Death, you terrify —
just as you lure me with a knowing glance.

2 Widow

I know her by the pleated satin dress,
hair in a bun, the hesitation
as she lifts the sheet, letting air in,
astonished, peering into darkness —

(what will she find there?) — at her husband’s body,
suddenly altered. Questions run through her:
dare she kiss the lips now growing colder?
Can he hear her? Leaning awkwardly,

loath to leave him, venturing a touch,
she asks now, why him? In unending silence,
she clings to precise details for an answer,
side-glancing at the unmade bed, the high

pile of cushions falling from their place.
I know her by my husband’s silver watch
that hasn’t stopped. The still warm belly.
The pearl pajama button on the terrace.

3 Dreamer

Clerics opposed her installation here,
so close to rosaries, hands clasped in prayer.
Officials said, a travesty of holiness,
pagan, impious. Other slurs unclear.

What was it? Not the lips about to part,
the mouth to speak, the tousled hair,
the robe that slides down a bare shoulder,
curvy hips — those were the sculptor’s art.

Nor was it her calm perch, dreaming, not dead,
The dream, though: those three ovals in her hand,
seemingly blossoms, are poppy pods
formed after flowering, from whose sticky substance

opium is drawn. Demeter in grief
over her daughter’s fate, would sip the stuff
to soothe her loss. At the Staglieno,
sexy is fine. Is life. Addiction, no.

4 Maria Francesca

Eyes shut, as in elation more than death,
the legs straining to spring from their marble bed,
a sheet slipped to reveal the nude young breasts,
spool waist. Not the shattered body found

in a car crash, fingers severed and flung,
this likeness is perfect, shaped, from a photograph
— notice the glow, the urge to speak, to laugh.
Unlike some broken statues, hinting at arms

and phalluses, she gleams in all her parts.
Alone but not alone. Her man in marble
bends to kiss her and clutch her thigh,
not in lust but in finality.

I know the scene. Your body fixed but yearning
to move again. I’m moving now in scattered
pieces, over miles and time. Free neither
to finish the task of life nor to abandon it.

5 Struggle

If these stones were flesh, you’d hear their cries:
Death, blank-faced and stiff, and a lithe woman
who won’t be taken by those tigery claws
without a kick, a blow, a fierce objection.

She bends, covered waist down in see-through tulle,
actually marble carved to look ethereal
with the same mallet, calipers, and chisel
the sculptor used to shape rock into muscle.

Waist up exposed, but raging, unafraid.
The work unfinished, dinners to order,
dresses to try on, letters to write.
When, that last night, you called for slacks and blazer
from your sickbed, I watched the pull-away,
the savage, sun-driven though futile, fight.

Note:

These poems and their sculptures are: “Angel,” for Francesco Oneto (1882) by Giulio Monteverde; “Widow,” for Pienovi (1879) by Giovanni Battista Villa (1832-1899); “Dreamer,” for Carlo Erba (1883) by Santo Saccomanno (1833-1914); “Maria Francsca,” for Delmas (1909) by Luigi Orengo (1865-1940). And “Struggle,” for Cello (1891-93) by Giulio Monteverde (1837-1919).

Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman has recently been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2016, she received the Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry, awarded by the Poetry Society of America. Her recent memoir is Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage (Turtle Point Press), and her seventh collection of poems is Without a Claim, (Mariner). Editor of The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking), she is Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, C.U.N.Y.

Among her other honors are the Aiken Taylor Award for poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, and five Pushcart Prizes. About her poems, Harold Bloom has written, "Grace Schulman has developed into one of the permanent poets of her generation." Schulman is former director of the Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1974-84, and former poetry editor of The Nation, 1971-2006.
Grace Schulman

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Author: Grace Schulman

Grace Schulman has recently been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2016, she received the Frost Medal for Distinguished Lifetime Achievement in American Poetry, awarded by the Poetry Society of America. Her recent memoir is Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage (Turtle Point Press), and her seventh collection of poems is Without a Claim, (Mariner). Editor of The Poems of Marianne Moore (Viking), she is Distinguished Professor of English at Baruch College, C.U.N.Y. Among her other honors are the Aiken Taylor Award for poetry, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award, and five Pushcart Prizes. About her poems, Harold Bloom has written, "Grace Schulman has developed into one of the permanent poets of her generation." Schulman is former director of the Poetry Center, 92nd Street Y, 1974-84, and former poetry editor of The Nation, 1971-2006.