The Last Man in Pompeii
Imagine now the last man in Pompeii.
Though there were many, one will more than serve
to hold the many in a stable shape,
if poetry has more in it of truth
than history, than all the catalogues
of ancient flourishing: the olive groves,
their number and their yield of polished jade
that swelled in earthen pots of spicy brine;
the fishing nets that, like relentless flails,
threshed the cool husks of water from the grain
of swaying underwater fields—sardines’
stilettos sheathed in light, jewelled anchovies
that clipped the hair of nymphs below the waves,
black mussels closed like lacquered cabinets
hiding erotic frescos, prawns as pink
as polished nails of well-bred courtesans;
autumnal stores of sweet and sun-dried fruits—
the waxen, fleshy lobes of apricots;
the public fountains, the elaborate baths
and wealthy private houses, which a spur
of Aqua Augusta gifted with the cool
water that quenched the wrestlers in the grand
palaestra with its central swimming pool,
surrounded by long, shadowed colonnades,
where youthful voices echoed, footsteps died;
the din of dusty markets at the height
of Tyrrhenian summers, when the salt
blew hot and brawny from the flexing swells—
the angry god’s strong arms, inhuman blue—
and merchants courted buyers with one voice
woven of many voices, silken, coarse.
The plentiful display of what is lost
beggars his face. Envision him, he stands
in rags of smoke. The tended vineyards blaze
along the molten slopes. The hump-backed mount
bends to the anvil, hammering the steel
of arms that will destroy what walls protect.
Huge boulders steam within the cataract
that buries cultivated plots, which kept
nature in tidy bounds. Bird-bath and urn
choke with ashes. All that can burn, will burn.
The palimpsest of vulgar Latin scratched
in pungent alleyways outlives the scrolls:
elegiac couplets, bold hexameters.
Rapacious salamanders eat the modes
of sceptical philosophers; the tongues
of flame are schooled in subtler rhetoric
than any taught in manuscripts that lie
in silence of abandoned libraries.
All who retreated to their houses die,
and those in shadow of their toppled cults
find refuge in mimesis as they freeze,
their fleeting forms encased in artifice.
No tongue will taste the vintage of these years,
the wine fermenting jars have all been sealed.
The grid of streets is like a fishing net,
hauled up by many hands into the gloom
(an insubstantial underworld, where men
are overcome by shadows, suffocate
in thick sulphuric vapours, as they fade
into an ashen semblance of themselves).
The graven fate of cities in the slow
shadow of disaster, now lines the last
surviving face open to witness this—
imposing as a geometric proof,
the vast triangle against the slate sky;
all held within the amber of an eye
whose smoky resin hardens in the depths
where vision fails, words fail. His tongue can taste
only the slow cremation of dead hopes.
He stands alone inside a pantheon
of dun stone statues that commemorate
final defeat—the silence of a bone,
a shard of pottery, buried in time.
Those who unearth him pause, perhaps, reflect—
as aeons softly fall away from brush
and chisel ticking at the fragile edge
of his uncomprehending mouth, as dusk’s
red flows across the excavation site—
they too are buried in the soot of night,
their brittle reliquaries, frail husks.
“The Last Man in Pompeii” was shortlisted for the Newcastle Poetry Prize in 2011, won the Harri Jones Memorial Prize in the same year, and was published in The Wombat Vedas: Newcastle Poetry Prize Anthology, 2011.
The author’s book of poems Chains of Snow can be purchased directly through the Pitt Street Poetry website: http:http://pittstreetpoetry.com/jakob-ziguras/.