Richard Jackson

Archeology: Letter To Stern From Mantua

What is the word for the way starlight spins
itself out to become dawn? Or the way the first
breeze tries to push away desire while the heart’s
thin web hangs last night’s words by a thread?
What sort of day was it that flew off like a crow
from the side of the road, what clouds trying desperately
to cling to the distant Eugenean hills, what sunlight waking
inside the empty cocoon of a silkworm, or what night
trying to pry open their dreams, these Lovers of Valdaro,
Amanti di Valdaro, the newspapers call them, after the little
village outside Virgil’s Mantua where they have been unearthed,
embracing, hidden in their grave since the stone age, or else
locked in some desperate struggle that neither will ever give up,
we’ll never know, though we like to say unearthed as if
somehow we had made them pure spirits. Now the air
seems to float on the cottonwood seeds of our souls.
In truth, their embrace started long before Virgil
who must have walked over their bones on his way
to the forum, maybe to buy his favorite apples, and before
the Christian Vergil, Blessed Baptist of Mantua (1447–1516)
whose prayers never unearthed them, and before the Nazis
used Mantua as a collection point on the way to Auschwitz
and left their own obscene piles of bones, some alive, some dead,
and before Mantua’s own ruins and factories and smog.
And long before I ever thought to walk in their vineyard
brushing against the flowers that will blossom into grapes
as they have for hundreds of years, listening to some child
practice her violin in a stone house that seems to block the sun,
the early swallows sweeping the vine tops for gnats, following
my own footsteps or letting them follow me, it no longer
matters. And those lovers—this is why their knees are
drawn up into each other as if they were trying to step into
each other’s bodies, for it is a lovers’ embrace, I am sure,
and not a struggle, as if they were too shy to face the future,
holding their story the way the violin holds one note into
the next, its string still vibrating, the sound entering the pure,
nameless time that holds so many stars below the horizon.