Thursday, February 6, 2020

A Month Home from Rome

The time you might most want a guidebook is on your return from a destination.

The questions of what you will do there and where you will eat and how you will get from and to the airport no longer need answers. Other more important questions may.

The guidebooks I am finding most useful a month after my return from Rome, however, are unexpected ones.

One of them I began writing myself over twenty years ago when I was about to see Rome for the first time. Sitting at the airport gate in 1997, I looked down at a new leather-bound journal and determined to put the nearly inexpressible into words. I would find several occasions in the following days to open the journal again. Rome was all around me, I kept telling myself, and how could I possibly be the same? It was a time for "letting certain fears surface -- the fear of wasting this time in Rome, the fear of dying one day while Rome went on being Rome, the fear of not wanting enough to waste time with God." It was a "strange wonderful week of graces and pilgrim moods and tasks" before the arrival of my partner and the launching of two more weeks of sights.

Other guides for this time of return are early textbooks still on my bookshelves. Sometimes not anything I ever used in my own Catholic high school classes, Latin textbooks with my older brothers' names on the front pages had fed a young curiosity of mine. "Latin Still Lives!" began one cultural reading: "At every moment, somewhere in the world, a priest stands at the foot of an altar and says, in Latin, 'Introibo ad altare Dei,' 'I shall go in to the altar of God.'" Line drawings of Christian martyrs and Roman soldiers, black-and-white photographs of the Forum, a rare color plate of the Colosseum gave shape to what I might look for as an adult in a later Rome.

Another volume in my bookcase is a copy of a book I first discovered in a public library in the neighborhood where I grew up. This Is Rome, published in 1960 when I was nine years old, features the TV celebrity Bishop Fulton J. Sheen in dramatic black-and-white images by Canadian photographer Youssef Karsh. The idea of the book had been to show this handsome silver-haired cleric in his sixties walking the Appian Way, saying Mass in the catacombs, striding a Vatican corridor lined by Swiss Guards. A nine-year-old great nephew of Sheen's accompanied him, and the avuncular tone of their interactions became the focus of many a scene in Baroque churches and ancient ruins. Did I, silver-haired in my late sixties, treading down the Via del Corso, threading my way through the streets of Trastevere, betray even a bit of clerical gravitas?

Within a few days of our return to Boston, Jim and I had a good friend over to dinner and shared tales of our trip. In her early eighties, this woman has an academic background which enabled her to visit Rome again and again during her career. On a sudden, I took down from my shelves still another volume, a paperback copy of the Odes of Horace that I had purchased during my sophomore year of college. One afternoon a friend and I had attended a campus lecture on the structure of the four books of the Odes; I had gone directly afterwards to the college bookstore and found the English translation by James Michie, the Latin text on facing pages. Not a classics major, I nevertheless found myself drawn into this lyrical world with its Sabine farm and the snow-topped Mount Soracte. Having the book again in hand and resting it on our dining room table, wine glasses and learned conversation all around, made me feel a familiar tug.

What does that tug do to people? I found at the Boston Athenaeum more than one book that addressed the question. Repeatedly translators' introductions undertook to explain how Horace could come alive again after a long-ago classroom introduction to the Odes. There are standard biographies of the poet that show up on most bibliographies, but it was a book by another poet that has done the most to immerse me in the psychology of Horace. Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet is part biography, part personal memoir, part literary analysis, part translation, part travelogue. Harry Eyres has a journalist's sense of how to explore a strange phenomenon -- a befriending that takes place through a text, a venerable text by a writer who must have guessed he could end up being known as much as his poems did -- given the right reader.

It was an ambitious project Horace had set himself as a lyrical poet. It might have cost him an easy popularity. It might also have provided the kind of freedom that a freedman's son could value rightly. There would have been a lot of quiet for a writer like Horace distancing himself from Rome. Most evident was his ability to measure wisely the kinds of company he most wanted -- even if it did not arrive at his door with frequency and predictability.

Rome memories are fresh, and the pictures we took a month ago are not going away.

How did I ever hope to be standing again in front of so much of my life?