Pompeian Wall Painting


To become oneself is so exhausting
that I am as others have made me,
imitating monumental Greek statuary
despite my own feminized way of being.
Like the empire, I was born of pain-
or like a boy, one might say, for I have
become my father, whom I cannot fathom;
the past is a fetish I disdain.
Since they found the bloodless little girl,
with voluptuous lips, buried in me,
I am unsentimental. I do not see
the gold sky at sunset but blackbirds hurled
like lava stones. I am like a severed
finger lost in the wreckage forever.


Unable to care for people, I care
mostly for things. At my bitterest,
I see love as self-censorship.
My face is a little Roman theater
in perfect perspective-with colonnades
and landscapes-making illusionistic
reference to feelings I cannot admit.
Painted in Dionysiac yellows and reds,
my unconscious is a rocky grotto
where flies buzz like formalists.
Despite myself, I am not a composite
of signs to be deciphered. In the ghetto-
where Jews, prostitutes and sailors once lived-
I am happiest because I am undisguised.


Tearing away at an old self to make
a new one, I am my most Augustan.
I grieve little. I try to accustom
myself to what is un-Hellenized and chaste.
I let my flat black dado assert itself
without ornament. Can it be, at last,
that I am I-accepting lice clasped
to me like a dirty Colosseum cat?
On a faded panel of Pompeian red,
there's an erotic x-ray of my soul:
a pale boy-girl figure is unconsoled,
pinned from behind at the farthest edge
of human love, where the conscience is not whole,
yet finely engraved like a snail's shell.


If great rooms declare themselves by the life
lived in them, each night I am reborn
as men and boys stroll among the ruins,
anonymously skirting the floodlights,
sinking into me tenderly, as they do
each other during their brief hungry acts.
"As brief as love," they used to say, Plato
and his kind, exiling man from happiness,
but I am more than a cave whose campfire,
swelling and contracting, is all that is real.
Tomorrow, when I am drunk on sunlight,
I will still feel the furtive glances,
the unchaste kisses and the wet skin
imprinting me until I am born again.

From THE VISIBLE MAN (Knopf, 1988)


Poems by Henri Cole


White Spine

Pompeian Wall Painting