All the Ashtrays in Rome
The popes, I mean in their own way, made a holy water stoup of Rome.
We Italians, I mean in our own way, have made it into an ashtray.
—Pirandello, The Late Mattia Pascal
Call it the end of an empire, consumed,
turned by English into a verb: to be
always in the image of the ancient
pilgrimage. You approach the walls, the basin
leading into Ostia still burning
with the memory of Visigoths,
can almost imagine the old roam through
the capital. So unbearable,
the heat from the Coliseum, its scalloped ruins,
Circus Maximus, Hadrian’s Mausoleum,
and how they all approximate the ashtray.
You don’t even need to be a smoker
to want to find a use for all that ash.
Make it sacred, as Etruscans did.
(Not having cigarettes, they used their dead.)
Or export it to America
in wicker bottles, cardboard funeraries,
memento mori. You’d be Nero-famous.
Like Al Gore smashing federal ashtrays
on TV. Millions listened to him
preach about the government waste inherent
in the glass. Hammer in his hand,
It’s not the ashtray I’m against, he said,
the swelling crowds cheering for the blow.
Consider the virtues of the ashtray:
depository of the bleakest moments,
way station for what cannot be
inhaled, digested, given back to Caesar.
For that time after the snuffing out
and the emptying of its bowl, the ashtray
is a continuation of the ascetic
mind. Hell, it could be anywhere.
Who hasn’t seen the women crowd around
a cupped palm with a flame inside,
cigarettes reaching out like white tongues.
Or the lone man in the park on Sunday
drifting through the sands of tall ashtrays
for the one half-smoked, his face slowly
pulled into his mouth. There must be days
even he’s convinced he’s really living
on cigarettes and coffee, which brings us back
to Rome. I’ve sat in bars and watched the slow
wave of smoke as the door opens again.
I’ve watched them by the hundreds, cigarettes
resting on their beveled edges, all
the ashtrays in Rome: the seashells put to task,
the bronze, the silver, glass—a history
of western civilization inside each bar.
Though it wasn’t always so glamorous.
The day Rome turned to the cult of the living,
ashtrays filled at twice the speed, spilled
onto the counters, shoes, the lapdogs
tied to sinking monuments. The Baths
of Caracalla went dry. Everywhere
the ash kept falling, cigarettes poised
in the manner of Byzantine art:
stiff, long, and usually symbolic.
Come morning ashtrays waited like open mouths.
They teetered on the bar, though the cost
was factored in. Some shattered. Others outlived
their users. What is the misfortune of breaking
ashtrays? Because when it was over,
and the crew swept up, they kept the fragments
for their mantles. To think: our very own vice
president smashing ashtrays. And we
rested well that night, replaying that
ecstatic moment when the hammer fell,
and everyone gasped. And it rained, or we
imagined it rained, crystals, incessantly.
And we awoke in cities made of glass.
“All the Ashtrays in Rome” is reprinted from Consolation Miracle (Southern Illinois UP, 2003).