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I’m hanging around the outskirts of the altar.
Entra! the custodian tells me, sweeping his hands,
and hesitant to step up there, I do:

What strikes me first is the long aisle
that spreads from where I stand through the expanse
of the church’s hollow. Like a theater’s

stage the apse gives me a different view
from what I thought I’d seen, a backwards view:
I see where people seat themselves to listen.

I see the path that leads them to the pews
but don’t see what’s on either side, and don’t
catch any of that whorled maze of mosaics

that crown and background me (or who would speak
from here). The baldacchino’s columns
gleam with faint slant lines of light.

I’ve glimpsed a lot of gold-encrusted rooms
with radiant digressions on each side
and lavish, painted chapels, but I think

the best place for God-worship is like this:
a narrow rectangle, a room plain and severe
so no one loses focus, with, above,

Authority, and Awe boxed in below.
In a pew by an effigy, a beggar woman
with a cloth around her head sits, bends, and bobs

as she mutters to her Christ. Outside
the thunder cracks and splinters like a gun
(we came inside from violent morning rains).

Still up on high, I linger to one side
of the lectern, so my vision is askew,
but I don’t want to bother honest worship
and I’m aware of my shoes that, trailing rain
and runoff from Rome’s flooded cobblestones,
muck up the clear, delineated marble:

gray-green, white, and blue triangles and squares;
octagons, circles in circles, perfect forms
tucked and bound, eternally, it seems.

Out in the pews, another person prays.
He catches sight of me, but doesn’t frown
or shake his head. How does he bear

us awkward, gawking tourists who don’t come
to worship in his space? I step back down
and look behind the lectern as I do:

the dark, wood-carved reliefs around the apse
show angel after angel with splayed wings.
For a century they’ve kept their length of silence.

The man who waved me in is locking doors
with clicking sounds. The woman leaves her pew
and kneels before a sculpture of the virgin.

With high, insistent tones her phrases rise,
lilt and rise before red candles burning.
We enter rain to fragments of her pleading.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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