by Dennis Nurkse

Dennis Nurkse

Caligula ordered the night city illuminated.
Every stoop, porch, or balcony was a stage.

He made the senators dress as prostitutes–
tight silk skirts, paste-on eyelashes.
Up to a matron to wriggle into a boy’s shorts.

Marcus Severus, one-armed veteran
of our labyrinthine border wars,
had to hobble into the amphitheater
armed with a plume, and attack a lion.

A plume! We were fascinated.
We were all players, who was the audience?

The Emperor chose me, me, me, and me,
and slept with us. He was passive
as a bedpost, but listed his demands
in documents we had to sign in advance.

Slaves–who had been stockbrokers
or insurance agents a moment ago–-
carried triremes on their backs to Rome.
Sails billowed above our seven sacred hills.

Would it ever end? We were enthralled.
Every breath was a saga
when you long to skip to the finale.

We no longer washed, brushed our teeth,
or picked a scab–just him, him, him.

It was Cassius Chaerea who killed him–
that silent tribune he called ‘pansy.’

The Emperor lay on his golden bed.
We were mesmerized. All we could do
was compete to reconstruct the portents:
headless chicken racing all morning,
kitten born without eyes, huge cloud,
tiny cloud, cloud like a fist..

For a few hours the Chronicler
listened and scribbled, but soon
he grew bored, we bored ourselves,
so began Caligula’s slow death–

Caligula who so often said of a captive,
‘make him feel he’s really dying.’

Now we’re helpless as always,
faced with twilight, a child crying,
birdsong, the breeze, our seven steep hills.

A Country of Strangers

Last updated December 21, 2022