from THE MOUNTAIN
Now with more dire convulsion flings
Disploded rocks, her heart’s rent strings . . .
I couldn’t see my feet
stumbling over flinty ground
as I headed for one of the
my hair soaked from the steam
and it was cold!
—even in August with the
wind gusting up unstopped by trees.
I thought I’d die, be blown
over or trip or freeze,
the rest of the group gone.
Right on the spot where the day before
I’d made my meal with a shepherd friend
On my return next day he said how
after an explosion
the rocks on which we’d sat together
were blown into the air
and a mouth opened
letting out a flood of fire that
rushing down with the rapidity of water
hardly gave him time to get away. It was a
more dangerous because
closer to towns, the lava rising
too fast for its feeder system,
rushing like water but up, gurgling
—you can hear it from the surface—
the emerging lava red of course
but with stones of a paler red to swim thereon
big as an ordinary table.
It’s said that standing on the mountain
during an eruption
is like standing on a living being
with circulating blood, blood that could tip
the planet over.
Every volcano has its own voice.
Some are operatic.
no singing talent whatsoever.
While a number of inhabitants were watching
the progress of the lava,
the front of the stream was
suddenly blown out
by an explosion as of gunpowder
and in an instant
red-hot masses were hurled
in every direction and a cloud of vapor
Thirty-six were killed on the spot
and twenty survived
but a few hours.
The lava undermined a hill
covered with cornfields,
carried the whole thing forward
a considerable distance,
with a vineyard seen at another point
just floating by.
I thought I’d suffocate, be left
freezing, and wet
from the blanket of steam—
When the lava streams approached Catania
in 1669, the Senate
accompanied by the Bishop and all the clergy,
secular and regular,
went in procession out of the city
to Monte di Santa Sofia
with all their relics and erected an altar
in view of the burning mountain and
using the exorcisms accustomed upon such
all which time the mountain
ceased not as before
with excessive roaring to throw up
its smoak and flames with extraordinary violence
and an abundance of great
stones thrown up.
When the lava reached the city walls it
rose to the top—60 feet!—
then fell like a waterfall down the other side.
By spring the lava reached the sea.
They tried diverting it, built new walls.
Pappalardo of Catania took fifty men
having provided them with skins for protection from the heat
and used crowbars to make
an opening in the lava.
They pierced the solid outer crust and a rivulet
of the molten interior
immediately gushed out
flowing in the direction of Paternò
whereupon 500 men of that town
took up arms against Pappalardo and his men,
against the lava,
which did not altogether stop for four months
and two years after it had ceased to flow
it was found to be red hot
beneath the surface, and eight years after the eruption
quantities of steam escaped
after a shower of rain.
ELIZABETH ARNOLD is the author of four books of poems: The Reef (University of Chicago Press, 1999), Civilization (Flood Editions, 2006), Effacement (Flood Editions, 2010), and Life (Flood Editions, 2014 – forthcoming). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Nation, Paris Review, Slate, Conjunctions, and Kenyon Review. Her awards include an Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship and a Whiting Writer’s Award, as well as fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, and the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown. She is on the MFA faculty at the University of Maryland and lives outside Washington, D.C.
Read more work by Elizabeth Arnold:
Three poems in B O D Y
Three poems in Poetry
Four poems in Slate
Poem in Plume