Two Poems


Scott Harney

Climbing Mount Vesuvius

Not the mythic hike you might imagine,
nymphs and satyrs flitting about the steamy slopes,
a distant hiss of orange lava just about to spill
over the crater’s edge. Not the grand tour trip
via funicular, ladies fanning off
volcanic dust, as the tram groans
to the cone. Just a ride by air-conditioned bus,
through the slanted suburbs at the base,
up through fields of weeds, clotted    
with tar from a recent eruption,
perhaps that spurt in ’44, a fart in the face
of packing fascists. Halfway up, we stop
at a souvenir shop, where Gregorio,
his hair ash-white beneath a black leather cap,
explains in several languages that he alone
is the Keeper of Vesuvius, and will sell you
glossy books of hot red shots. For nothing more,
he’ll sign the flyleaf, adding a sketch of his charge,
the smoking mountain on the bay, the usual view
from Posillipo. The driver checks his watch.
Perhaps he hears a distant rumble
that signals magma rising, enough
to melt down half of Naples, or perhaps
his stomach says it’s time for lunch.
He drops us near the summit for the last ascent,  
by the parking lot and toilets, snack bar
and more stuff for sale, necklaces of lava
and a wine called Tears of Christ.  
I came to see the fires of hell and find
instead a rest stop on the way
to heaven. But up ahead, a wide path rises,
filled with pilgrims streaming toward the rim,
and so I follow, the sky spreading wider
over my head, and land now falling away–
the crater on one side, the sudden sea
on the other, the way between
forever narrowing.  The great abyss
today is just a gravel pit, with a few small fissures
letting off steam, but still no place for a picnic.
Just stay steady for the walk ahead, to a shack
on the narrowest edge, where they sell limoncello
for a euro a shot, and you sway between the crater
and the rest of the world, deciding where to fall.

The Blood of San Gennaro  

They come to the cathedral for the miracle of blood
shed by San Gennaro, beheaded by pagans
when the furnace refused to burn him, and the lion
he was fed to bowed instead. Sopped up by a follower
and squeezed into a vial, the blood is most days
clotted rust, but today the mayor will come,
the new Camorra boss, his whore
and other dignitaries, escorted by a color guard
of dapper Carabinieri, the plumes of their Napoleonic hats
perched like preening parrots after a tropical rain.
Today, San Gennaro’s blood will boil again,
a sign that Mount Vesuvius will not,
at least for another year, cholera will not seep up  
from buried aqueducts, and soccer bets
will pay. After the Cardinal’s invocation,
the Holy Order of the Aunts of San Gennaro
(all in black cardigans, rosaries clutched)  
chants and begs for blessing and protection,
until a sudden gasp, a handkerchief is waved,
the congregation claps, and then the Cardinal
holds the vial high for all to see. The blood
has liquefied, fresh from AD 305. The Aunts begin
to sing Te Deum. Bells are rung and guns are shot
across the harbor from a castle’s parapets.

How many days we wake and wish the rust
that was our blood, lost in the minor martyrdoms
of our lives, could flow again. Blood that dried
and stiffened the gauze of Band-Aids mother
peeled from our knees.  Blood the bullies
drew from our noses. Blood of the first menses
or the last surgery. Blood of the rose
that melts in our dreams. Even if the latest theory
calls the blood hydrated iron oxide, quickly liquefied
when shaken, the miracle an ancient joke,
the faithful file in all afternoon to kiss the reliquary glass.
Outside on Via Duomo, the street is closed
for the usual carnival, blow-up animals for sale,
candy and roasted corn. And San Gennaro smiles
from a giant poster, torn and flapping
in the wind. Il miracolo è fatto.  The miracle is done.