James McCormick


(Pope Urban VIII orders all birds in the Vatican Gardens strangled)
July 1630

"Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini."

From the ceiling, sundown fingers the corona of Tassi's mural
Then feels along the armillary sphere—Ram, Bull, Twins—to here:
Crab. And in the cooling gardens, they begin their nightcalls:

Talky swallows from under the curled eves, sharp-noted thrushes; later,
Nightingale; at daybreak, raucous peacocks, cheeky wrens
Whose God-watched falling, though tiny, is subject to the stars: Their

Progress, regress have foresaid each Cardinal's death, and even
The Pope's own horoscope is cast plain as an astrolabe's rete.
The earth can't be moved. But the same isn't true of heaven:

The heretic Dominican sealed a papal chamber, draped it in white
Silk and sprinkled rose vinegar on the floor. Against the malign
Influences of Mars and Saturn, he brought distilled liquors. He lit

Incense of myrtle and laurel, played soft music for benign
Jupiter and Venus. And the arc of the moon's eclipse veered
North, sparing Rome. Thus it seemed possible to realign

Disaster, recurve fate's chord. Not so. Pasquino has already jeered
Bees, the Curia balks, and the Vatican susurrates with Hapsburg spies'
Conspiracies. Even the birds are unnerved, on guard.

They mistrust sleep. The apartment has grown dark, sky bruise
Blue between the shudders' slats. Outside, above the stone pines, bats
And nightjars will screech, feed into this night of the dies caniculares:

Not even a weak, soaked breeze from the Quirinal to relieve the disquiet,
Bird-mad hours, until, at the wakeful horizon, mute
Sirius will descend, a hand making for morning's hot throat.