Looking at the Romans







in the museum, the heavy marble busts
on their white plinths, I recognize one likeness
as my uncle, the retired accountant
whose mind, like a conquered country, is turning
into desert, into the dust of forgotten things.
The white head of an old man, big as a god,
its short curled hair still rich
as matted grass, is my grandmother,
a Roman on her deathbed, surrounded
by a citizenry of keening, her breaths rising out
of the dark of a well, the orange medicine bottles
massed like an emergency on the table.
The delicate face of the serious young man
is another uncle, the one who lost
his friends when a plane hit their aircraft carrier,
the one who dropped pomegranate fires
on the scattering villagers, on the small
brown people who looked like him.
One bust is of a noblewoman, the pleats
of her toga articulated into silky marble folds,
her hair carved into singular strands:
she is the aunt who sends all her money home,
to lazy sons and dying neighbors.
Another marble woman is my other aunt,
the one who grows guavas and persimmons,
the one who dries salted fish on her garage roof,
as though she were still mourning
the provinces. Here is the cousin who is a priest.
Here is the cousin who sells drugs.
Here is the other grandmother, her heart still
skilled at keeping time. Here is my mother
in the clear pale face of a Roman’s wife,
a figure moving softly, among flowers and slaves.


“Looking at the Romans” from Chord by Rick Barot, ©2015. Reprinted by permission of Sarabande Books, Inc.

Rick Barot was born in the Philippines, grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, and attended Wesleyan University and The Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. He has published three books of poetry with Sarabande Books: The Darker Fall (2002), which received the Kathryn A. Morton Prize, Want (2008), which was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and won the 2009 Grub Street Book Prize, and Chord. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Artist Trust of Washington, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace E. Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer in Poetry. Barot is the poetry editor of New England Review. He lives in Tacoma, Washington and teaches at Pacific Lutheran University. He is also the director of The Rainier Writing Workshop, the low-residency MFA in Creative Writing at PLU. More from this author →