They Built on Water, Dared Defy the Sea
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desire.”
– Italo Calvino
Whole forests denuded, the south-facing slopes
of the Alps cut down for wooden stakes turned
to be driven deep into the lagoon mud.
Imagine rising dreamlike from vapors
an entire city on water on stilts,
the Grand Canal vibrant with boat traffic.
The prominence of the Republic won,
so legend tells us, in Constantinople,
the mantle of Byzantium from the Turk,
St. Mark’s winged lion and four bronze horses
taken from Istanbul like fallen standards
serve the town as proud symbols to this day.
Marco Polo at the court of Genghis Khan,
the plots of the Medici, carnival
intrigue and mystery enhanced by masks;
when Napoleon sacked Venice he swiped
the gilt horses. When his empire stumbled
they came home but blind, their ruby eyes sold.
The body of St. Mark the Evangelist
filched from Alexandria by the doge’s
agents hidden in a barrel under
layers of pickled pork to sneak the remains
past the Muslim guards, his holy relics
lie buried beneath a bust by the organ
immured with the corpses of laborers,
foundation sacrifices in the sacristy crypt,
the bleached white bones of maritime decree.
The spice-bearing galleons have long sailed on.
The loggias teeter, beset by tide and brine;
from seaweed born to seaweed must return.
A storm is approaching. A nude woman
nurses her child as a soldier looks on.
We who build on water handcuff the sea.
Alex Cigale’s poems have appeared in Colorado, Green Mountains, North American, Tampa, and The Literary Reviews, and online in Asymptote, Drunken Boat, and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Ancora Imparo, Cimarron Review, Inventory, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, PEN America, Two Lines and Washington Square Review. Until recently, he was an Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. He is on the editorial boards of Asymptote, Mad Hatters, Moving Poems, The St. Petersburg Review, Third Wednesday, and Verse Junkies.