Venetian Red
(for Michael Nathan)

In the dream muddle, lolling
across mama’s lap, the blue-gray
of her unwavering gaze – and just beyond,
the gibbous moon, a yellow birch leaf
still on black water, then – late!
Tower bells clanging and so
we’re off, my companions in tow, racing
through shadowy streets cobbled with
eyes, teeth, blue veining the ancient city.
“Sola, perduta, abbandonata…”
– a gondola
gliding past, the aria surging with each
thrust of the boatman. “E nel profondo
deserto io cado…”
–  the toothy smile
of a death’s head sideways on the prow.
Lost, I stop an old woman, asking alla ferovia?
but she sends us here instead: foundry,
furnaces belching red, ingots
of pig iron and bone. Gheto
becomes gâteau, the Duchess with
red encrusted lips, hair moussed
in black flame and every forkful
she raises stares back, bears a name.
“But for you, miei bambini:” (with a flourish,
voice like crushed glass), “panetti!” – the oven
crammed with little loaves browning in their tin beds.
From there it’s only a half-step to
, mother’s stone lap, and my head rocks back,
limp arm a pendulum, every lost second
another thorn – and just like that all my dreams
draft up the sooty chimney, tear-smoke
like an oily mist staining the terracotta roofs,
the gilded domes, even God’s hovering
moon-bleached hosts.

Click here to listen to Steven Ratiner reading "Venetian Red"

Steven Ratiner’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals, including Parnassus, Agni, Hanging Loose, Poet Lore, Salamander, QRLS (Singapore) and Poetry Australia. He's written about poetry for The Christian Science Monitor and The San Francisco Chronicle and currently reviews for The Washington Post. Giving Their Word, a collection of interviews, was re-issued in a paperback edition from University of Massachusetts Press and includes conversations with some of poetry’s most vital contemporary voices, such as Seamus Heaney, Mary Oliver, Bei Dao, and William Stafford.

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