What He Thought


We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for ourselves,
our sense of being
Poets from America, we went
from Rome to Fano, met the mayor,
posed for the photographers and served
on panels (“What does it mean, ‘flat drink’?” asked someone.
“What does it mean, ‘cheap date’?”.)
Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts –
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib – and there was one

administrator (the conservative) in suit
of regulation gray who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was most politic, and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome,
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written. It was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn’t read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and
there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark one of us asked
“What’s poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori? Or
the statue there?” Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think – “The truth
is both, it’s both!” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

That statue represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government, but rather is
poured in waves through all things. All things
move. ‘If God is not the soul itself, He is
the soul of the soul of the world.’ Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which

he could not speak. That is
how they burned him. That is how
he died, without a word, in front
of everyone.
And poetry –
(we’d all
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
softly) –
poetry is what

he thought but did not say.

from Hinge & Sign: Poems, 1968-1993 (Wesleyan University Press, 1994), © Heather McHugh 1994, used by permission of the author and the publisher. Poetry Foundation recording made on 21 September 2007, New York

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