in memoriam, C. Waller Barrett, bibliophile 1901-1991
I followed him, and little had we gone,
Before the sound of water was so near us,
That speaking we should hardly have been heard.
Even as that stream which holdeth its own course…
A grey heron waits to strike on the edge
of the Arno. Swollen from big rains yesterday,
the river paints the same sienna as shuttered
facades overlooking its flow—temperamental,
it can shift from almost dry to a torrent in just
a few days. On a path between trees I walk by
the water, reflecting on what this stretch has
passed through: the Etruscan fall, Caesar’s army
camp, merchants of Medici rule, the Germans
blowing up all the bridges save the Ponte
Vecchio, to slow the allied forces down…
long poles of fishermen
and sun bathers on the banks.
My grandparents lived in Florence, 1966; Waller
wanted to perfect his Italian, to read The Divine
Comedy absorbed in the origin of its native tongue,
as if to hike up Monte Falterona to this river’s
source. A retired shipping executive’s indulgence?
—even so, his regret I feel as they fled the mud of
the flood’s aftermath, his aspiration taken by la
grande alluvione, that left over a hundred dead,
that damaged and destroyed millions of masterpieces,
some still not restored. My friend born here once
described the city divided by the deluge, his girlfriend
from the Oltrarno trapped on the other side. “I think
only: she is drowned!” Decades gone, but nightmares
still immerse him . . .
I did not die, and yet I lost life’s breath.
The regalia of white roses enchant me in this park
beside Santa Rosa Bistrot where I sip coffee and
study an Italian phrase book as a child would,
reading her first primer, “il fiume è lungo”—the Arno
out of sight now, the heron’s hunger fed perhaps so
flown, impervious to history, existing outside any
ancient walls. Like the river, it holds its own course.
for Ravenna, Deeda, and Tom Osgood
“The Arno—Florence” epigraph and line in italics from the Divine Comedy (tr. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Ciardi, respectively)
Virginia Barrett’s books of poetry include Between Looking, Crossing Haight, and I Just Wear My Wings. Barrett is the editor of two anthologies of contemporary San Francisco poets including OCCUPY SF—poems from the movement.