Once in the streets of Rome

I engaged in a duel of roses,

en garde, en garde,

with Veronica Piraccini,

painter of the invisible,

connoisseur of a way to conjure

color in darkness,

who would hold her mamma’s

antique parmesan grater

between her knees,

a madonna in a fury

working that contraption

to amass a cloud of cheese

as she made a midnight

pasta carbonara for her and me.

She talked a mile a minute

(a kilometer, should I say),

peppering her Italian

with over-the-top,

the only expression in English

she ever used, a subtitle

for the comedy of her life,

while I, drunk on an excess

of vowels, held my tongue

lest she scrape her skin

or fail to check the boiling water

if a bout of mutual laughter

were to begin.

What was the spur of this humor?

Nothing less than the trouble

her beauty got her in,

one adventure after another

ending in a disastro

flourishes of gallantry

followed by bad behavior.

How did we get those flowers?

We found a fresh bouquet

someone must have flung,

who knows why,

over the rail of a café

we’d soon be strolling by.

Rose in hand I raised my arm

to the sky, en garde,

en garde, and she,

rose in hand, raised hers.

From the outside,

how did our duel appear?

We didn’t care:

we upheld our honor,

defending our right to be there

no matter the hour.

Late it was

when we parried on the bridge

where a pope sought refuge

crossing, where the stems

of our roses crossed.

I can still hear the horns blow

in the shadow of Sant’Angelo

(Bernini’s angels in a row,

one holding Veronica’s veil)—

and a boy calling out to Veronica,

Che bella, che bella,

Marilyn Monroe,

from a wingèd scooter on the go

in the year of the Great Jubilee

at the close of the last century,

2000 anno domini,

zeros lining up anew,

a trail of pilgrims murmuring,

jostling, streaming through.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 2, on page 29
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