the floating city

after Robert Browning & Terrance Hayes

Come with me to the Floating City, where
every dark sewer has a patron saint
& skeletal boats converse with stars. The marks
of flood years serve to chronicle what is
& has been & will be. But everywhere
I go, I’m an American, & the
bright stink of theme park tunes would wake the Doges
who sleep in crypts beneath the burg they used
to rule. Republics fly from faith to doubt to
faith in an oar’s stroke. If I’m to be wed,
no prince or man of wit will do: I’ll have the
poorest of gondoliers, for whom the sea
builds cities out of salt. And only with
him – be he Moor or Christian – will I trade rings.

It’s 1943. In Vienna, Shylock’s
heavily censored lines ring out, a bridge
between the audience & Werner Krauss with
his batty gestures & red wig. What houses
such emptiness? The English language, on
top of the world all century? Could it
be? Is this Shakespeare’s legacy? And where
is the Old Ghetto? The Jews of Venice, they
still live there as before. The streets have kept
their synagogues & butcher shops, & on the
feast of Purim they roar with carnival.

Napoleon rides in. Everywhere, dust.
Glum grinning masks of Arlecchino &
Pierrot look out from broken windows. Ashes
pollute the mid-May morning, while the dead
of other centuries know nothing &
the ghetto gates come crashing down. Undone,
the Doge tears his mink cloak. I wonder, with
all that has been & is, what will be? Venice
might not be so serene when she has spent
her coastline’s final inch. Earth melts. But what
I know is that the sea will weep for Venice:
a lesson left unlearned, a fate unearned.

published in the spring 2020 issue of jabberwocky (umass amherst)