Anyone who’s visited a city far from daily familiars—surrounded by new language, customs, landscapes, and cuisine—knows how the senses seem on high alert, including our acknowledgment that we inhabit a physical body attempting to maneuver all of the above with grace and even confidence.
Here, Jean Janzen’s speaker revisits a romanticized location known for its impossibly fragile yet astonishing infrastructure. She then ties this wonder back to the mysterious waterways that bring us quite literally into the world.
Janzen also steers the poem toward a biblical story many of us may have also romanticized, telling ourselves that if we can just make ourselves have enough faith, we’ll be able to [fill in the blank]. What stays with me most about this poem, however, is how Janzen reminds us in every stanza that we’re not alone—and rarely as in charge as we think— from our very first trek into arms that care for us. While key people in the poem are never recognized by name, they are vibrantly present, including Jesus himself.
The circle of somebodies—the bodies—making our daily steps possible (and sometimes even miraculous) is always larger than we imagined, from those who built the bridge we stand on, to those who ensured that a vessel is water-safe, to the dove chicks in the “two eggs / loose on the bare windowsill.”
-Becca J.R. Lachman
“Walking on Water in Venice,” by Jean Janzen
The whole city floats beneath our feet.
Arched bridges hold it together, we say,
lulled into dreams and into each other’s arms,
window open to soft lapping.
And at dawn a dove coos, two eggs
loose on the bare windowsill.
We arrived by air in Rome, then the train
on rails over wooden posts driven into sand.
A safer journey than our own conceptions,
that wild ride inside our mothers until
we entered her warm sea. Now the sun flashes
from the bay, as from a thousand broken
mirrors as we walk, a shimmering that blurs sight,
as when at birth we closed our eyes against
the glare and cried out, our lungs lifting.
And yet, the weight, the way we breathed
against our mother’s breast, held in her arms.
The way Peter, sinking, stepped back into the boat.
Somebody had felled a tree, sawed
and bent the boards, sealed them with pitch.
Somebody rowed him to shore.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.