FOR MARIA ONETO
on the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday
Picture an evening ninety years ago:
Genova in springtime; small boats,
returning home, lightly knock against
the calm of Il Mare Liguria;
Piazetta San Matteo, empty now,
delicate pink palaces on the Via Balbi,
background mountains catching the late sun
they exact a hush so that even the sea
chides the noisy stones.
A girl, Maria, lighter than calls of birds,
races lace-lined waves
until a scudding cloud menagerie
shadows the inlet which contains this scene.
And though the sun will lower soon
to fire the leaves of olive trees,
it is already late.
Now picture an evening only weeks ago:
a room in New Haven with big chairs
and a tiny, century-old woman. My sons wrestle
on the floor near her swollen feet
and will not be instructed to take care.
When she speaks, I do not understand,
and when I talk, she cannot hear.
So our conversation goes on she sings, I roar.
Clumsy aunts come to rescue her,
to help her move from room to room,
hoping for chairs in the right place,
for scattered rugs to obey their feet.
I do not help because I fear such fragility.
A stupid suitor afraid to touch the one he loves,
I am in awe of her, of what she knows.
So what is left for us to give but praise?
I write for her who cannot read,
say lines for her who cannot hear.
It is otherwise only a matter now
of waiting and courage and listening:
for lap of waves upon Ligurian shores,
for knock of boats against the homely piers,
for cries of birds against the pressing dark.