Even buildings built on the solid rock of the Eternal City sink with time. Hike up the Lateran hill and you’ll pass St Clement’s, where steps sunk into the cobbles deliver you to its door. Below the floor is the original church and, below this, you hit Roman street level during the first century AD, where a temple to the god Mithras still stands in a villa. These streets, like the ones rumbling with car tyres above, are cobbled. Irrigated water neatly runs alongside the pavement: in two thousand years nothing, and everything, has changed.
Jo Shapcott‘s Of Mutability develops some blinding conceits to explore change and death. In La Serenissima, the stage is set in Venice, the watery paradox of a city which, swanlike, appears serene on the surface, belying the underlying brute force required to maintain the status quo. This force is challenged in the poem as ‘the land didn’t belong / to earth any more […] / The pavement rippled under my shoes. / Everything I could see belonged to water: / liquid churches, theatres, monuments, houses’. Shapcott’s metaphor endows mutability with romantic grandeur – ruins in the Romantic sense are more sublime than the pristine edifice.
Yet, despite evoking La Serenissima, there is something disorientating and hallucinogenic here too: pavements should not ripple underfoot. A Roman street may sink in two thousand years but, in Venice, all it takes is aqua alta. The dramatic line break across the stanzas injects a new note, as the reader is pointed ‘towards rainclouds’. The tangents of city and body collide and the poem culminates in a dramatic statement of uncertainty: ‘Slow – slowly moving, I stepped on’ and the body is surrendered to the sea.
In ‘Religion for Boys’, Shapcott transports her reader to the temple of Mithras, subverting our expectations of a mystic cult worthy of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, by debunking these notions with colloquial language and everyday scenes. ‘Thursday night in the temple of Mithras / is busy. Deals to do, rituals to keep, / favours to return. But all the lads / take time to nod to the goddess as they go’. It’s hard not to be reminded of Eliot’s The Waste Land here. People have been offering blood sacrifices, and witnessing resurrections since the dawn of time: two thousand years ago, below Via Labicana, or today in St Peter’s Square. We will all die, but things will never change. Whether you see this as comforting, or occasion for a nihilistic scream into the void is up to you.