Ginger Henry Geyer

Porcelain Sculpture

Excerpt from Chlora's Grand Detour: Rome
Copyright 2015, Ginger Henry Geyer

It is the first day of Chlora's Grand Tour.

fall of rome
The Fall of Rome

2013, glazed Limoges porcelain, with acrylic
App. 6" x 13" x 11"
Adaptations of Eric Gill's Stations of the Cross for Westminster Cathedral, No.3:
Jesus Falls the First Time
, No. 7: Jesus Falls the Second Time, and No. 9: Jesus
Falls the Third Time
, and of Jasper Johns' Three Flags

Chlora was half asleep
yet wide awake as the taxi cab
zoomed down skinny streets.
It was a rough ride, but with each turn
she saw something vivid.
It was all new and it was all very old.
Nothing ordinary
gave her eyes a rest;
Rome was exhilarating.
The driver laughed as he cussed
and honked his way through
a slow crowd of tourists huddled
around a lady waving a big sun hat.

The lady pointed to a building
with columns and a big dome.
Whatever it was, it took up a lot of space.
No, dis is not the Parthenon, ladies.
That tis in Athens. Dis is de Pantheon,
the one with de big hole in de ceiling.
The dome of dat building it defies gravity.
You should go in dere when it rains.

The airport in Rome had been a big blur.
She, her sister Joanie Kay, and Aunt Poppy
had been on that plane from New York City
for hours. They were all dressed up
for the trip and Chlora had been so excited
she couldn't sleep.
Both the plane and the airports were full of
perfect strangers who spoke foreign languages.
The conveyer belt of luggage
made a loud heave-ho
and Chlora's red suitcase
came tumbling from its mouth.
She gladly lugged its thirty pounds
off onto Italian soil, that is, marble.
The taxi that whisked them away was
so small that Chlora had to hold
her suitcase in her lap and crane her
neck to see out the window.

The sun had come up over the
Roman landscape as they sped under
the arch of an ancient aquaduct.
The cab driver explained
these arches also repudiated gravity
and thus were miracles.
The miracle now is that they
survive traffic. And he spoke of
the waterworks
back then, how the mighty Romans
invented concrete and plumbing
and were proud of their
public water fountains. You ladies
could spend your entire holiday
just touring de beautiful water fountains
of Rome. My best one, it has little turtle
crawling on it. And don't miss de elephant
sculpture by de church. Back then
elephants were a big thing.
But here now, dis is de Circus Maximus.
Chlora looked for the circus elephant
parade. No, not dat kind of circus,
dis is where de gladiator fights
happened with dere chariots.
Joanie Kay murmured
she had seen that in the movies.
The place simply looked like a big field,
not at all like a circus.

Now it was the crack of dawn
and the whole world was awake.
Aunt Poppy used a broken mix
of French and English
to instruct the cab driver and finally thrust
a hotel brochure in his face. Voila!
Chlora's head nodded
with each bump in the road
but she was determined to get
her first impressions of Italy described
and drawn into her travel diary.
She had glued a picture of
the Mona Lisa on the cover.
Already she had a mother lode
of useless beauty to record
but her pen could not possibly
write on a ride as rough as this,
plus she couldn't retrieve her
travel diary in such close quarters.

Truth was, Chlora didn't have words yet
for this beauty. It played hide and seek
with her, hiding behind
peeling posters glued to walls,
one overlapping another for an entire block,
as if people were too stupid to get the point
unless repetition drilled it into them.
Lots of cats examined trash.
Several old buildings
propped up with scaffolds and
wire fencing reminded Chlora of the braces
on Joanie Kay's teeth.
Joanie Kay admired the skill of girls
who maneuvered cobblestones
in their red stilettos, somehow avoiding
the spewing city buses.
Chlora would stick out like a sore thumb
among those gals.

The cab maneuvered into the historical
city center and Chlora was jolted awake.
The Roman Colosseum, just sitting there
right in the middle of traffic,
stood dead center and unavoidable.
They circled the Colosseum twice,
at Aunt Poppy's request.
Ancient brutality hung
in the air, eeked out from the stones,
like power itself was embedded there,
tamped down by the weight of history
but ready to spring up like a tiger
chained below the floor of the great stadium.

And we thought our college football
stadiums were grandiose.
Even football concussions couldn't
compare to the unsportsman-like conduct
the Romans extolled.

Aunt Poppy demanded the driver pull over
and wait ten minutes for them.
We only have three days in this eternal city
and we have to cram in a few things.
It will be ridiculous but not harmful.
They ran up the shallow steps to Capitoline Hill
as Aunt Poppy breathlessly described
Michelangelo's plaza centered around
Marcus Aurelius. The bronze emperor,
good and grand, was astride his horse.
His right hand offered a subtle gesture
of peace, as if he was moving through
an adoring crowd. Standing under that horse
reminded Chlora of the Fourth of July parade
when she almost got stampeded to death
and spilled her bucket of peanuts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poppy waved toward the museum
where the bronze She Wolf of Rome
resided with her two little suckers,
Romulus and Remus.
We must pay homage to her later
when the museum is open
and also the colossal head of Constantine
which is in that courtyard along with
some of his other body parts.
You won't even believe it, he'd be
taller than Michelangelo's David
if they put him back together.
My thesis is that the disassembled Constantine
is a visual version of 1 Corinthians 12,
the passage about the body is one
and has many members.
He was the one who made
Christianity official.
So, Aunt Poppy, was he a good guy
or a bad guy? Oh, both, like most.
You'll love his disembodied feet,
they're bigger than you are!

But right now let's view the Roman Forum
for free. Aunt Poppy walked straight
to the back of the plaza and pointed.
The morning sun had burned away the mist
and scraggly columns poked up
through rubble and wildflowers.
Look, the ruins!
What is ruined about them?
They are perfectly beautiful.
Indeed they are, and they are spectacular
when you go to the Sound and Light show
at night and they reenact the murder of
Julius Caesar. Just be thankful you didn't
live back then, Chlora,
or you'd get turned into a vestal virgin.
I won't explain what that is.

Chlora felt very small
looking over the residue of
buildings and government
that had been built to endure.
Why hadn't it?
Oh, all empires self-destruct
under their own hubris.
Like a backdrop to the Forum,
the Colosseum glowered,
still boasting of its bloodsport.
It was the centerpiece of a top down world
that touted Pax Romana.
Such peace was not peace at all;
imperial justice was about force,
gory battles and slavery,
the bloodguilt of the victors absent
as the rulers and troops marched
under the triumphal arch
to purify themselves of enemy
contamination.
The crowd cheered, hoping against hope
that peace would trickle down.
They knew from long experience
that violence is never redemptive;
they also knew that suffering can be.

The overview of the forum
was an overpowering glimpse
of the grandeur of Rome,
raggedly ruined but secure in the fact
that there was still nothing on earth like it.

The three ran back to the cab
and it roared off, the driver
making snide comments about the
fancy white monument
to King Victor Emmanuel.
Silly building it is a wedding cake,
not Roman, not Roman.

Immediately they were in traffic
that made even the JFK airport look tame.
They whizzed by Trajan's Column
which Chlora had tried to draw once,
from an art book,
eventually giving up as the
2500 figures twirling up it
were like squirrels chasing each other
up a tree trunk.
She'd heard students could qualify
to do rubbings of the relief sculptures
on it, and asked the driver if he
knew how to get in.
He said, no but Trajan he's the one
who invented condoms
big as his column, aha ha!
Aunt Poppy swatted the back
of the driver's head.

And over dere in dat window
is where Il Duce addressed the fascists
like he was Caesar himself.
He called it the balcony of blessings.
Ha! Dat building used to be
the Venetian Embassy
but now you go dere
to buy yourself a nice purse.

You need souvenirs?
Maybe a model of de Colosseum?
Some posta cards ?
A pope hat, or maybe a holy dish towel?
You buy them anywhere.
Does the Pope wash his own dishes?

Chlora observed an outcropping of
rubble and columns. A large pile of basalt cobblestones
was nearby.
All these civilizations were mixed up.
All rocks are ancient,
but in Rome they looked even older.
And dat? That is a pile of san Pietrini,
the stones used first in front of
San Pietro.
Oh dat down dere?
Is just some more ruins,
you know somebody tried to excavate
for parking garage and found
another floor mosaic so
dey call in the archaeologists
and ever body gets in a tizzy
and dey dig and dig and say
probably twas rich somebody's palace.
Chlora noticed in this flash from the past
that a pomegranate tree grew among the
ruins like a stubborn symbol of new life.

In front of a Renaissance church
sprawled a black puddle of fabric
with a hand stretched out from it.
Roma, dey are not from here.
Gypsies cannot get jobs so dey beg.
The mothers drug theys babies
into a stupor to get your sympathy
and your money.
The government takes away theys babies
so nice nuns dey hide them.
Joanie Kay said, well, back in the states
they could get jobs and childcare.
Could they really?
Back home we can avoid religion;
in Rome it is in your face.

Historical interruptions were also a given here,
one layer of time jutting into another.
If Rome lives rather uncomfortably
with its past, Chlora sure couldn't tell
that anybody was bothered by these
head-jerking paradigm shifts.
The Italians had all learned to live with it,
sitting and smoking in their sidewalk cafes,
watching the world go by.
They just had a different kind of ordinary.

Aunt Poppy, Joanie Kay and Chlora
sleepily stepped onto the curb
and right through a gigantic
wooden door that opened into
a courtyard for their hotel.
It was a whole new world within,
the streets now replaced by flowers.
The driver lugged their bags
over to a small fountain
bowing deeply as Aunt Poppy
gave him a dollar bill.
He filled up his water bottle
and said Chow.
Someone jammed them on a rickety elevator
with double creaky accordion doors.
Chlora perched on her suitcase
like a bird in a cage.

Their hotel room was tiny,
but it had its own bathroom.
This however, presented a dilemma.
Which one was the potty?
Chlora decided the one with no water
was a foot bath, as there was no
comfortable way to sit on the thing,
either frontwards or backwards.

This hotel was nothing like
the Chicago Hilton, where Chlora
had been last January.
There were no little gift toiletries,
no hairdryer.
There wasn't even a washcloth.
The toilet paper was scratchy as sandpaper
and thick as a paper towel.
Chlora decided this would be the
first collectible of her trip.
Next question was
how do you flush???
Then, can we get room service here?
Do they deliver pizza for breakfast?

Aunt Poppy insisted they go out
for coffee to avoid napping
and thus fend off jet lag.
The city was at its best in early morning,
even if they were not.
She gave the two girls a few
funny-looking coins.
These are for the fountains.
What? The driver told us water is free.
Joanie Kay said she'd make
earrings out of the funny money.

They ventured out.
A few shops and cafés had opened up
and Poppy headed straight for
the best coffee in Rome, at St. Eustachio's.
She got espresso in a little doll's cup.
She gave Chlora a sip
and she had to chase down the taste with a
whole bottle of fizzy water.
Nowhere was any ice to be had.

They strolled in the neighborhood.
Marketplaces were setting up,
sweeping away stinky produce
from yesterday and poking up small tents.
Garage doors creaked up to reveal
souvenir stores, while booksellers arranged
old books and prints salon-style,
cheek-to-jowl.
Chlora looked at a set of pictures
by one of those grand tour artists
who had crammed all the monuments
of Rome into one scene.
A painter setting up his box of pastels
motioned her to sit down
for a swagger portrait, but Chlora declined.

They headed toward a lively splashing sound
and Aunt Poppy pointed out Neptune
in his fountain.
Bernini. He's everywhere in this city.
So's Caravaggio.
Just duck into any church around here
and you'll see something
that any U.S. museum
would give its eyeteeth for.
She directed them into the first of many
cool, dark churches,
San Luigi de Francesca.
She fumbled for a lira coin
and lit up an alcove.
The Calling of St. Matthew
rose up from the dark.
Unlike many Caravaggios,
these got to stay in place,
here in the church they were made for,
which is where they belong.
Chiaroscuro, Chlora, look it up.

Which guy is Matthew?
Well, just follow the line where
Jesus is pointing.
One self-effacing man seemed to light up
on the far side of the composition.
Was Matthew a tax collector
or a money changer?
He worked for the IRS.
Which reminds me, girls,
watch your wallets.
And leave your passport in the room.
Pickpockets on vespas will steal it all.
Chlora keenly felt this trip was a gift,
so if she got robbed of money
she hadn't earned, was that a theft?
What really belongs to us?

Now wide awake, the trio hopped
on a city bus that crawled across
more unexcavated monuments--
who knew what lay below?--
up to the famed Spanish Steps,
which, of course, were Italian.
Chlora asked for ice cream.
But it's morning. It is night time to me
and my ice cream stomach is growling.

No wonder people say travel
is transformative.
Chlora's first gelato
was enough to change her life.
The word sounds like Jell-O
and she was concerned that
it'd be wiggly and warm.
Her reservations melted away
and coveting was unavoidable
when gazing at the serpentine counter
of deep trays piled high with
swirls of color.
Gelato had a slick, soft texture
she'd never seen before.
How was one supposed to decide
with so many temptations?
It was like Joanie Kay and her
flavor-of-the-month boyfriends.

Chlora pointed to the green one—
Mela—green apple and pistachio.
Greed was easily embraced
when a triple-barreled cone was presented.
She chose a good color combination,
unsure what they would taste like:
deep pink, light green, and speckled cream.
The scoops were enormous,
the waffle cone towered.
Give it a lick and a promise,
and do it quickly.
And she had thought home-churned ice cream
couldn't be beat!
It was not easy to keep drips in check.
Chlora was getting an ice cream headache,
savoring both pain and gain
as they walked out into the sunlight.
Always eat dessert first.

A barefoot beggar lady
tugged at Chlora's sleeve.
Chlora turned away and
stumped her toe on a cobblestone,
a stumbling block of faith
as obvious as her nose.
There it went: Splat!
The fall of Rome.
The cone plopped onto her foot
and ice cream settled into the cracks.

A cute little terrier waddled
over and helpfully licked Chlora's shoe.

An hour later, Chlora's foot
was still sticky from the gelato.
They had about walked their legs off.
She sat down, took off her shoe,
and dunked it in the Trevi Fountain,
an homage to the sexy blonde
who got to wade in it for that movie.

She used her shoe to scoop up
some coins. The lira were two-toned,
lightweight coins and couldn't
be worth much. She would give them
to the next beggar she saw.

Aunt Poppy told them the
three coins in the fountain story.
Toss one, you get to return to Rome.
Two, you get married.
Three, you divorce.
Poppy's coins splashed three times.
Joanie Kay's splashed twice.
Chlora said she had already tossed in two,
but at separate times, so did that mean
she got to come back here twice?

The Trevi Fountain was surprisingly
lovely despite the fact that it had become
overly familiar via tourist photography.
The sculpture seemed to be emerging from
the building itself, a stony morphing from
architecture into sculpture into water.
Some sort of epic failure
may have occurred here sometime in history,
but the composition erased it.
This must be the place where
the play of light terminology was coined,
here at this Baroque pool
that made no sense other than to be delightful.

Some really cute boys with curly hair
and flashing smiles were talking gibberish
to Joanie Kay, who was flirting right back,
telling them she was American
and couldn't understand.
Chlora recognized those signals.
So did Aunt Poppy, who charged out of nowhere
with her umbrella on point.
It wasn't raining, so why did she carry that
embarrassing umbrella?
She snapped it open like a shield in between
Joanie Kay and the boys, then
poked one of them in the butt
and they took off, snickering.

One boy circled back
and in baby-sounding English
said America is next.
De fall of Rome
notta due to gravity, you know.

Whew, said Aunt Poppy,
gravity always wins.
She plopped down in a café chair
and ordered lunch.
There is no such thing as a quick lunch.
It feels like we've been on a pilgrimage
to the stations of the cross,
checking off one key tourist site
after another.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was high time for lunch,
whether it was free, quick, or slow.
I bet you girls are hungry,
since Chlora dropped her gelato cone.
What gas stations are you
referring to, Aunt Poppy?
No, stations of the cross that
Catholics observe during Lent.
St. Francis started it, placing
chapels along a hillside and worshippers stopped
at each one to remember each of
the struggles of Jesus on Good Friday.
It's like an uphill climb of the soul.
You can identify with that, we have
walked up the hills of Rome today.
You'll see some of these stations
of the cross here in Italy.
Usually there's fourteen.
Three of them are Jesus falling.
No wonder, if ancient Jerusalem
had cobblestones like these stumbling blocks.

It wasn't the stumbling blocks
that killed Jesus, it was the Romans.
Jesus fell under the weight
of the sins of the world.
Fortunately, Simon of Cyrene
helped him out the second time
and he is commemorated
on the fifth station
in lots of sculptures.

The waiter set bowls of pasta before them,
enough to feed a family of ten.
Chlora gobbled hers up,
assuming it was lunch.
But then, they each got
a whole broiled fish,
eyeballs and all. Chlora declined
the creature and asked for pizza.
Joanie Kay was presented with
carciofo, a whole artichoke.
She did not know where to begin.
Oh, just peel off one layer at a time
till you get to the heart of it.
Chlora had no trouble whatsoever
with the pizza which was named
after a plain Jane lady called Margarita.
She rolled up one thin, sloppy
and very tasty slice and consumed it.

So Jesus fell and later Rome fell, right?
Were those two connected?
Well, the book of Romans that Paul wrote
sorta indicates they were--
the pax Romana business of justifying violence
by the peace it procured became the norm,
and all the killing just escalated. Still does.
It doesn't sound too radical now, but
Paul offered an alternative operating system:
he turned it around and said
start with justice, then get peace.
And by justice he meant distributive justice.
What is that? That means economic justice,
taking care of poor people first
instead of punishing them.

Are we on a pilgrimage, Aunt Poppy?
Yes, Darlin', we are on a Grand Tour.
Or maybe a detour.
Chlora tucked that idea inside her
cheek for later.
A cluster of Roma came by.
Aunt Poppy handed the pizza to them.
Then she ordered Chlora another gelato.
A modest sized one this time.
In a cup.