Savonarola (Reformist)

I.

 

Before me

in the stern piazza

flames crackle to high heaven

freeing the myrtles of briar,

the firs of thorn, 

fluent in the wagging tongues of fire.

Penitents arrive in doleful

parade, miscreants to a man, 

astray prodigals returned. 

Compunction in their eyes,

guilt guides each and every hand. 

Many hands make light work,

and the Lord favours those who work

for the sin of loveliness.

None hold back, none show

reluctance in offering up

their cherished anathemas  

for fiery termination: 

I see silk ties, a gold watch, cufflinks,

a pair of Armani sunglasses,

bought-and-sold college diplomas

shrivelling to cinders in heat,

a prelate’s reliquary,

title-deeds to home and workplace,

 

a bevy of smartphones and chargers,  

a Samsung flatscreen

and amphorae of scented liquid

cracking in unison,

their licentious reek clouding the air.

Vats of pitch freely flow,

wind stirs the flame to holocaust,

a priest’s cassock shrivels,

ash to designer ash, waxen idol melting.

Twitter accounts are deleted

for all time while Narcissus

snaps his selfie-stick in two.

I’m glad to see his Virgin Atlantic

tickets from Los Angeles

to Firenze smoulder alongside

a UFC season pass, junk bonds

drafted in the investor’s hand. 

 

I see manuscripts, inked,

autographed, irreplaceable,

rich vellum pages open

to the sky, crumble to dust.

I see hard drives laden with kiddie porn,

hours of illegally-downloaded distraction,

the links, the codes,

the full hi-def spectacle

that diverts men from God.  

I know that contracts

between former Irish Water

head honchos were slashed

and burned in the overnight round-up.

The merchant, the pimp

and the alderman’s wife watch

their livelihoods wane in the waxing glow.

Their icons are photoshopped,

their hymns auto-tuned,

and their oil-on-canvas Madonna

cups her fake tits as she adds

a fresh layer of bleach to her pasty hair. 

Know this: I am as good as my hated word.

The antichrist works in ways

as mysterious as the Lord. 

 

II.

 

Lastly, I see a painter drop

his unframed masterpiece onto a bed

of puttering coal, unable to weep

or rejoice at its lagoon blue

and persuasive green thaw

the oils’ noxious perfume

licking the night air,

the stray hairs of a wig

still knotted in a comb’s teeth

fizzling to their end

and a stack of playing cards,

the joker first, then the ace,

then jack, queen, and royal flush,

a Milanese codex, allegedly the last

of its kind, but in fact a clever forgery,

and a marble bust of Diana:

ornaments that once would have

held pride of place

in a cardinal’s loggia, in vogue

as private villas,

fine as florins, coins to mint or melt

all laid bare to the radiance of God’s will,

all fair game for a pyre’s banquet, 

all cremated in holy succession

of ash and steel. 

None of it can be repaired or replaced.

 

Shrouded by the olive-branch girls

dancing in gowns of sackcloth,

ecstatic in their contrition,

the bonfire roars its sermon,

smoke its natural apostle.  

I had hoped its flames

would be higher, more pungent,

and to hear the sparks

dance in holy debate.

Yet, it is wondrous as a miracle, 

a pillar of sin, visionary

and oil-soaked, offering up in smoke

the fat of their repentance

to ever burn, and to never go out.

 

The city is hushed,

my flock stand clay-footed,

too grovelling to look away.

Some weep or kneel

to the ground. 

Rain does not fall

or douse the miracle;

the Arno slithers under the bridge

of Ponte Vecchio.

I see where I might one day

meet my own white-hot demise,

faith incarnate

in the glowing tongues

that speak of light. 

 

III.

 

I remember every word

the Medicean croaked

in my ear on his deathbed

sweaty and feverish,

offering thirst

as a wake-up call to Firenze. 

Truly, that crimson river

was sweet for him to drink,

sweeter than wine

or the Gospel’s assurance.

There’s new blood on the mountain,

he said, squeezed

from the rose’s thorny heart

to be sprinkled over pagan brows.

The city is a hospital

without surgeons, without remedy

 

I was never of this world;

therefore I would cure her.

Piety in my spine, piety reddening my heart, 

the Lamb bled the last of its godly ewer

into a throat of flame

which cooled at its touch.

If every man was truly his own leader,

would the world not burn from the inside out?

The dignity of my office

was to let men know they can never

truly govern themselves.

Had any of you known me,

you would have hated me;

but its my work you’ll remember and follow.  

And so, during that festival

 

of fattening delights, my sermons

plucked salvation from thin air, 

hot Dominican words grilling every ear.

The beads rattled uselessly

in their hands as they huddled in the pews

of the thunder-strafed Duomo. 

The price of sin is a bloodied back, I spewed

from the pulpit, a sudden whip-bite into flesh

From my icy cell of stone and salvation

I heard their operatic errors

howled, day and night, at the sky. 

I saw faith spill and overflow once again, 

the prophet’s unsoiled wisdom

trumpeted by the palazzo bell’s brass toll.

 

IV.

 

Sinners, saints and sceptics,

please come closer. 

If you are worthy, you’ve no reason

to fear me or my words.

Now, lend me your ear.

I’ll tell you a secret about the Almighty.

Are you listening? Good.

He heralds His coming

with a whisper, never a roar,

yet all of you shall hear it as clearly

as the vespers bell.

I am the beacon He sent ahead of Him,

whom you grope for in the dark. 

I have rebuilt Firenze in the image

He intended for her. 

Brothers in Christ,

there is still lava in my throat.

I, a dour reformist,

love the vexation of sparks.

Listen now, for the echo

of mine own laughter.

Lord, let my right hand clutch the city’s yoke.

Let me tame her like a tigress.

Make me the scourge

of her satins and silk.

May this be the last fire to burn her,

her sins airy and grave

alike consigned to its heat!

 

IV.

 

If I’m a good saviour

then I’m an even better scapegoat

for people in need of villains.

My followers will convert

themselves to traitors someday soon.

I know this, feel it in my bones.

Murder or martyrdom; that is my choice. 

I tax the rich of their vanity,

and they call me saint;

I do the same of the poor

and become the very antichrist 

I warned them against.

For that, they’ll banish my name

from the history books and from among

the reliefs and statues lining

these cobblestone streets,

but never from their memories.

As long as I draw breath,

I’ll measure the magnitude

of their deceit.

They prefer their radicals safely dead

and their followers alive.

 

So damn them all, and me

along with them - give me the pelt

of meteors over mercy always!

Let me taste damnation, savour it fully!

I’ll walk through their flames

lightly as a bird, for my soul

is flammable as tinder.

What vanities would they cast at my feet now?

To hell with their furs and masks  

which saw only the inside

of a banquet hall of drooling oversexed

self-appointed pontiffs.

Easy for them to call me fanatic, magician,

fool of iron, a madman growing fat

on the sacrifice of prodigals.

I weave mist from the saints’ polluted blood,

slain between the temple and the altar! 

Did any of them ever once listen

to my hymnal roar?

 

Note: I've always found the 15th-century Dominican friar and preacher Girolamo Savonarola to be an especially compelling figure. A contemporary of Machiavelli, Lorenzo de Medici, the Borgia family and the painter Botticelli (upon whom he had an especially transformative effect), he bore witness to one of the most turbulent eras in the history of the Florentine republic. His apocalyptic sermons, which denounced the corrupt decadence of both the Church and State and advocated political, social and spiritual reform, won him many followers and enemies in virtually equal measure. His eventual ascendance to power as Florence's Grand Maestro, following the death of Lorenzo and the invasion of Tuscany by Charles VIII of France, was cut short by his increasing fanaticism, puritanical measures of reform, and his refusal to comply with an excommunication order issued by the Pope. In May 1498, he was finally arrested  by the papal authorities and hung in the Piazza del Signoria, in the very spot where he'd once held his notorious 'bonfire of the vanities', a mass burning of luxury items, works of art and anything else he deemed to be sinful. Equal parts a political revolutionary, visionary, fanatic and martyr, Savonarola inspired this poem, which I wrote in June 2016 and which was later included in 'The Gladstone Readings' anthology, edited by Peter O' Neill and published by Famous Seamus:   https://www.amazon.co.uk/Gladstone-Readings-Peter-ONeill/dp/095568577X