Walking in the Piazza San Marco, I Remember Ascension of Our Lord Elementary, and Lester Shelton, Who Wore the Same Clothes Every Day

by David Citino

To clothe the Creator in robes of gold
and dress up Mark’s meager bones,
which their ships had stolen from Alexandria,
the Venetians loaded their church
with three miles of mosaics,
portraits of gaunt and haloed saints
dressed to kill; an enchanted forest
of marble columns of every hue;
constellations of porphyry and jasper
swirling on the floor, as many stars
as puddles and peasants in the piazza
after a rain; the Pala d’Oro,
altar screen of precious enamels
encrusted with 2,400 jewels;
and four burnished bronze horses
brought from Constantinople
when that city was forced to put on
a darkness stark as Cleveland’s
in the depression of my youth.
For 1,000 years the Venetians worked
to make a heaven of their church
so that the best-dressed merchants
in the world, holding perfumed cloth
to their noses to disguise
the noisome scents of want and trash
in noon sun simmering in the lagoon
could worship with a magnificence
befitting their station.
To pay for the holy tolling opulence
Ruskin called “a treasure-heap,”
the Venetians sold Christians—
children, women, men—to the Saracens.
Did the slaves know anything of how
lives are bought and sold to make our art?
Centuries later an immigrant’s child
comes to Venice with his own children
to look upon the stupefying beauty
and write this poem
for these betrayed slaves,
for the poor always and everywhere with us,
for Lester.

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