Roma

‘Time’, wrote the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, ‘is a river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away.’ In Roma, Bernard Saint follows the shade of Marcus Aurelius through the elastic time zones of the Eternal City. There they encounter Gregory Corso, Chet Baker, Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg; they walk down the Catwalk, watch Reality TV and guide a rock-star into rehab. Like Cavafy’s Alexandria, Grass’s Danzig, Borges’ Buenos Aires – and Fellini’s Roma – this is a book about a city where time never walks in a straight narrative line. It is a book about imagination and history, accidents and architecture, faces and frescoes; a river where past, present, and future meet.

Cover image: detail from film-poster for Fellini's Roma (1972)
Author photo credit: Harry French

Sample Poems

Tribute to Marcus Aurelius

Long ago it seemed
The city did not circulate by money –
You occupied poor quarters nonetheless
Jobs and bed-sits few would countenance
	
With poetry your permanent companion –
So a boy of seventeen might estimate
Hope and inspiration
Sacredly above the prudent mind

Regarding sober stoics who maintained
There is one trusted guardian at best
Dwells within your house when all grows dark
You lacked both chronic need and inclination

You craved the muses’ food of mere seduction
A storm-fly pressed against their windowpane
You turned aside from knowledge to those passions
Whose false-reflected pleasures twitched your wings

Marcus Aurelius on the Catwalk

Meeting Marcus Aurelius at Bar Zero
That fashionistas’ hangout on Bologna’s main piazza
Where media Italians shop for leisure and for labels
Foraging its shaded porticoes
We remark how little fashion ever changes –
Prioritising youth’s ephemeral beauty
Applying its discretions to those advanced in years
Its acolytes remaining unconstrained
By studies of a philosophic nature
That only tone the mind
When one has aged

Money  Power   Success and Pleasure
These remain its mantra from conception
That one might wear an outer show
Of attributes insensible to virtue –
Even dress that deviates
Soon finds assimilation
To high style –
So Punk and Grunge parade now in gold clasps
And safety pins of platinum will have you max. your plastic
In purchasing your daughter her contemporary demeanour

When we were young we had the uniform
Some called bohemian –
It was a uniform for non-conformists
Unquestioning we rigidly conformed
Else we might never
Recognise each other
Holding as we did diverse ideas
Maturity then ripened into seeds expelled from pods
Our separate ways to sow and walk alone

Then little did we know
Nor should we guess
Our future days –
Of sensible supportive footwear
Ergonomic chairs
Our regimens of pills and
The elasticated waistband…

But I digress – it was the Roman hedonist
Gave birth to our most venerated models –
Anorexia Nervosa and her twin
Bulimia I see
Haunting constantly the vomitorium
Their perpetual cigarettes
Preserving pearl-like European pallor

Do you realise I dined once with a model?
Her photographs superbly draped
The glossy leaves of Vanity and Vogue
But in the flesh – my gods – appeared a fright
Her pitchfork limbs and bulbous eyes evoked
A range of famine pogrom and addiction
I swear I lost my appetite
So like herself I pushed – about a mile –
Two spinach leaves around my dinner plate
And found no room for pasta

No doubt you’ve seen Fellini’s parody –
The Ecclesiastical Catwalk?
Kinetic head-dressed anchorites
Entering on roller-skates
Circle an audience of dowagers
While skeletons from catacombs parade
Cobwebbed and crumbling to dust –
So my fascination for this clothes-horse
Had its touch of horror

Aurelius – though you profess
Not the slightest interest in fashion –
Surely there had come a day you found
Your rough Greek cloak of wool
An affectation?
Put aside the tweeds and corduroys
We might advise the modern thinker
Seek out those master tailors
Peppino Scarapazzi
Giorgio Battistoni –
Creators of ‘the simple and the good’ Italian suit –
A future time may come to call it Mod –
Though men forget its elegance
Entirely stems from Roman Stoic values

Marcus Aurelius & the Cult of Celebrity

Observe the kind of mind that chases fame –
A ship cannot rely on one small sail
A life cannot sustain by one ambition –
Self-serving man sustains a little while
Until his sea of arrogance subsumes him
	
Your envy will outlive all happiness
Of those whom you believe are held above you –
But court dissatisfaction with your lot
Many form from this well-paid professions –

The cynical psychologists who claim
‘Everything is what you think it is’
Carving up the words of Epictetus
To suit their busy bromides
Reducing to banality
His vision of the unity of all things

The world is filled with nature’s refugees
In exile from the heart as from the soul
Yet dedicate a little time
To those few things you need
To suit a Roman and a man
Of independent dignity
Considering the cosmos
A single living being

Your life is but a moment
Do not set your happiness to waver
On flattery or censure of some other –
Only seek the company of those
With whom your capabilities expand

This narrow ledge we walk some call ‘alive’ –
Enticed with promises of pleasure
Constrained by alternating thoughts of pain –
How cheap and how corruptible –
Whose judgements and opinions
Confer renown on a harried rock?

One who sets his sights on fame
And while obscure endures the dream
Of posthumous recognition –
The praise of all the world
Means nothing to the dead
The living who remember him
One by one resume oblivion
Memory and fame are this
A rock-pool between tides
While ceaselessly the river meets the sea

Chet Baker in Bologna

Concerning Chet Baker my lips are sealed
By a calm vermilion glowing coal
At the centre of a snowball –
This was his sound – his soul
	
A snowflake turning to a flame mid –air
A cool conduit concluding
In a candlelit basilica –

The groove above our upper lip
A fingertip impresses before birth
Advises silence on our true abode –

‘Hush this is the world
Which shall pass
Though music last’ –

To contemplate at lowered microphone
A whispered existential question mark
That bends his reputation to a stance

Of spretzatura understated cool –
Articulation of the difficult
Without personal bravura

Reviews

‘Bernard Saint has a fine intelligent eye for the parallels between Ancient Rome and the modern city. These poems are continuously enjoyable and rewarding for their alert observation and sense of history.’

Alan Brownjohn

‘He is a neo-classical, undeceivable poet whose own music, to adapt his lines for Chet Baker, articulate the difficult without personal bravura. These poems stay with you.’

Grey Gowrie

‘An elegant evocation of Rome's unresolved and self-contradictory past and present, anchored by the ghostly figure of Marcus Aurelius, a gentle stoic whose life was consumed in warfare.’

Elspeth Barker