“In Assisi” appears in Issue 44.
The origins of this piece, fittingly, are in Italy; I first visited Assisi in the summer of 2014, as part of a writing retreat I lead every couple of years. A group of poets gathers at a sixteenth-century former Capuchin monastery to read, write, and find inspiration in each other’s words and the surrounding hill towns. It feels like paradise. Olive and linden trees, a few sheep in the barn up the hill, peace and solitude, delicious food and wine. And a bus that might take us to a nearby cheese or flower festival, some ancient Roman ruins, or the Keats-Shelley House in Rome and nearby cemetery where we read poems back to the spirits whose living hands—once warm and capable / of earnest grasping—wrote them.
In Assisi, we wandered the souvenir shops, shared a sublime lunch (pretty much synonymous with “an Italian lunch”), and explored the basilica, begun in 1228: two churches, one atop the other, filled with paintings and frescoes. What seemed to be the voice of God periodically boomed out of a loudspeaker with the stern admonition, “SlLENCIO.” Underneath it all is the crypt containing the remains of St. Francis. You can see the wool tunic he wore, an eerie artifact of his lost presence in the physical world. When we returned to our home base at La Romita, I jotted notes about friar-shaped mugs and the many Pinocchios in the shops, the various relics I’d seen, and bits about St. Francis, St. Clare, and the first round of the World Cup (Italy won), which formed an initial loose draft.
In subsequent drafts, St. Clare and Pinocchio and soccer disappeared, and I tried to figure out just what I had to say that had gotten stirred up in the poetic badlands of my psyche. Eventually I abandoned the piece, though at one point I tried to shoehorn some lines I liked into another piece called “Lives of Animals” that also never worked out. My personal graveyard of poems is full of stones that might easily be engraved “Called to Jesus Too Soon,” half-formed creatures that didn’t survive for long. It’s a good place to wander sometimes, to see if there’s a possibility of resurrection, hoping something can be made whole.
I returned to La Romita in 2016 and 2018, writing poems about other day trips—Nicky de St. Phalle’s magical Tarot garden, Signorelli’s frescoes in the cathedral in Orvieto, a beach picnic. Everyone stayed home in 2020, but in 2022 I was back, this time at the tail end of a Covid infection, so I was teaching outdoors at the far end of the table where we gathered in the afternoons. The day the group went to Assisi, I was quarantining in my room at the monastery and pulled out that draft from eight years earlier. My notes from June 2022 read, “found old one about St. Francis, really 2 pieces that never worked, & started playing with that, tearing it all apart & trying to find a better line/voice. May have gotten somewhere.”
A quote attributed—perhaps erroneously—to Einstein has it that we can’t solve problems at the same level of thinking at which we created them. That’s often true of the problems in our poems as well. The process requires time, and a new mind informed by whatever we’ve experienced since our last attempt to wrestle the ineffable and unsayable into language. Time is perspective, fresh ideas, and maybe a bit more craft and objectivity than was there in earlier attempts. Our little group of poets returned that day full of thoughts and stories from their literal adventure, while I’d been revisiting St. Francis and Assisi in my head, finally able to say, See, here it is, a warm and living poem, and like another poet who rests eternally in Italy and in so many hearts, I hold it towards you.