Chad Davidson

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).