Teasing Threads – Ostia Antica by Peter Jeffery

Chris Palazzolo reads Ostia Antica, a cycle of poems by Peter Jeffery AOM

In this cycle of poems by the great West Australian poet Peter Jeffery there are two Ostias; one, Ostia Antica, a small Italian town near an ancient ruin 60kms west of Rome and a handful of kms inland from the river Tiber; the other, Ostia Lido, the port town of Imperial Rome located at the mouth of the Tiber. The geographical discrepancy between these two Ostias is the result of 2000 years of silting so that the Tiber now cuts an entirely different course to the sea. The focal point of this cycle is the distant flint of the river glimpsed between the grasses growing through the ruins, while spectres of the ancient entrepot parade through a gulf of remote memory.

Spectres are phenomena that confuse the distinction between inside and outside. Is a spectre something that is in the world, or is it some projection of the mind. The poems play with this confusion, drawing a parallel between the experience of the Australian poet wandering the ruins near Ostia Antica, circa 1970, and the Romans on their pleasure trips to the beaches and brothels of Ostia Lido. The spectres emerge from the crumbling simulacra among the ruins and crowd around the poet who, in his own metaphysical journey, has arrived at rootlessness and pleasure seeking. Through his own disenchantment the poet sees in this spectral Ostia the ancient world’s disenchanted termination.

An old cock with a lolling head,
I am too crushed on my foul perch
To clarion down dawn for Ostia
Morning city of Rome.

This is the Rome Tacitus wrote about; a great nation corrupted by a succession of weak, criminal and insane Caesars. And it is also the Rome of the Satyricon; its streetlife and pleasure spots. The poet projects his own sense of ruin into a sequence of decadent panoramas. He observes the proliferation of gods as prosperity and despotism pile complexity and inertia onto Roman life. He sees spectacles of enormous daily consumption in which the sea itself is drawn into nets to feed the expanding metropolis. He participates in the grotesque feasts of middle class holidaymakers, their desperate remedies for fading youth and vigour. He imagines himself stumbling through the rubbish discarded on the beaches. Everywhere he sees excess, overripeness, the falling point where energy and lust come apart.

All this reveals
That civilisation’s death
In this museum,
A most tasteful arena
for our taffeta minds
As tasteful as that day
When, above courtiers in wanton play
Nero unleashed tons of flowers
Drowning their screams in bowers
Of fragrant over-scented death.

But the poet’s restless senses will not accept such a death. There is a broiling rage in the long rolling lines of his verse. He fights against this dying Rome in the same way Laocoon fought against serpents entwining him, pushing and thrashing against it. This is the energy of the verse; this fighting, even as he feels himself succumbing to it. Sometimes it rises to megalomania, a fascistic glorification of virility, at other times an erotic fever dream of physical and emotional abandon.

No wonder they were brothers to the sea,
and saw the huge marriage feast of Neptune,
where nymphs and horses and gods trailed tails,
sexual, rhythmic and pulsing through water.
Their proudest stance
was prone or diving down
into the raptures of the deep,
where in bronzed love, these water gods
laughed ripples of minnows from their mouths.

These panoramas make a spectacular garment of literary and historical tropes which reveals the being towards death of the poet. Having reasoned god out of the world, the poet conceives of his existence as nothing more than a terminus of decaying mortality. He seeks meaning in travel, but finds the echo of his disenchantment in Ostia. But still, inspired by a brooch he sees in the museum, he’s consoled by the beauty and permanence of its setting, and clasps the garment together in a perfect phrase.

Till set down
In a book –
Rigid casting of print –
The jewel cannot shift,
In its brooch,
For yet, a thousand years!

Readers interested in obtaining a copy of this fascinating cycle can contact the author by email. peter.jeffery@iinet.com.au

– Chris Palazzolo