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Issue 14
Marco Polo at a Restaurant
Marco Polo at a Restaurant, by Nora Sturges

1.

“A restaurant lurks beneath the catacombs
where diners wait for service in my dream.
A dream it must be: alcoves stuffed with bones
stare, hollowed-out, from cave-walls; pigeons quake

along the floor for stray crumbs, undeterred.
A restaurant lurks beneath the catacombs.
Beyond the cave-mouth, walls—carelessly plastered,
sun- and lantern-lit—betray a window

where one lamb looks down and almost smiles.
Daylight meets grotto-dusk; a waiter walks
from fire and kitchen down to catacombs,
the human foot that occupies his plate

ungarnished. I don’t want to meet the chef,
whoever he is, although I pay him praise—
Nice job! Murder will out!—whatever works
to please or placate one whose catacombs,

here in the earth’s bowels, fill our stomachs up.
The specials are a late lunch and Communion.
The cigarettes stubbed out on ancient stone,
as if life, too, were stubbed out, lie unswept.

Who’ll feed me, take me from these catacombs?”

2.

“I’m too fastidious, even in dreams
where, finally, I could kick back, take a break,
and let things slide, let others take the heat.
Instead, I breathe the damp air of the caves,

bones mildewed in this underground cafe,
and wipe my glass, fastidious in dreams.
I have to lay a clean cloth on my seat,
sweep off the dirt, unknown contaminants,

small candle spilling wax, burning away,
while earth-bound pigeons look up quizzically.
It’s tedious, each night. I waste my dreams
on trivia when I could order steak—

cooked flesh of some kind, burgundy like blood—
consume my fill, and have a woman, too.
Instead, I’m here, trapped in the crypt-cafe
where cavern-walls hold bones for nightmares, dreams

from which no one returns. Even the sign
that hangs nearby—black slate with arm and leg
unsullied by words—is testament to Death.
No one escapes, clean glass or dirty plate,

and my turn’s next….Oh, wake me from this dream.”

3.

“Somebody upstairs plays Exquisite Corpse
to while away the hours. By now, it’s late.
The door is barred. Nobody gets to leave
until somebody upstairs says it’s time.

It isn’t time. A new page, folded over,
makes the rounds; one more exquisite corpse
emerges from the careful strokes of guests—
the careless strokes, the angry strokes—until,

unfolded, each unwitting author’s part
in augmenting the image joins at last,
collaborators in Exquisite Corpse
amused and horrified. Downstairs, I wait,

thinking of bodies blessed, one more lost guest
who hopes the bread arrives before the meat,
the meat before the bill. I know I’ll make
somebody sometime an exquisite corpse,

as those abandoned in these reliquaries
carelessly maintained once did as well.
Who struck their flesh from bones, mismatched remains?
Whose every pen-stroke left them monstrous, changed,

with every new round of Exquisite Corpse?”

4.

“I wake afraid—who doesn’t?—but the light
brings back the world: outside, my porter smokes,
boys mark the road in chalk, carts rattle past,
and vendors ring their bells. A woman sings,

somewhere, and I think only of my mother
singing me to sleep one night at twilight—
twilight: the time of two lights, when we rise,
asleep, awake, our bodies visible

yet out of reach, our souls’ eyes opened wide.
A child’s fears, the body’s appetites
forgotten, I can almost touch the light
and grasp it in my hand, moth-dust that glitters

as it falls like stars. My mother’s singing
carries me, as she did, falling silent
when she lays me down, in dusk, to sleep.
Today, I wake and find myself in light,

all that the dream encrypts already fading—
Death, the time of two lights; at my feet,
degraded doves, stone-gray, treading the tombs
from which, awake, I free them, and myself,

forgiven, not forsaken, by the light.”