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Roman Economics

by Kevin Prufer

God came out of the sky with his little golden fingers
                                                                                                                   and the Romans
never knew it. Sleep, sleep now, he said
                                                                       his magic watch on a chain,
I will count to ten,
                                             but the Romans didn’t hear him,
engrossed in their commerce and public baths, wrapped in their togas
with the purple hems.


A bird reclined on the Arch of Titus, and the people said, A sign!
A bird lay on its back and died on Trajan’s Column,
                                                                                                                   and they said,
It will be bad for us on the Danube.
                                                                                The tribes will paint their faces
with all our ground up taxes.
                                                                      And God just waved his watch
above their heads, said, Sleep, sleep,
                                                                                     said, Lo, a Day will come
when you look into the Watch Spring and know your Time is past—


which the Romans never minded.
Commerce was a pastime and the downfall
                                                                                               of the citizenry,
who lolled in the lovely gardens at the Forum’s center.
                                                                                                                        The senator slept
in a glorious golden box on the shoulders of eleven healthy slaves.
The emperor napped in his ivory bed and scrolls.


The watch chain slipped over the city like lightning and God said, Rain!
The Romans,lacking umbrellas, ducked into the many shops.
                                                                                                                             God said, Hear me!
God said, Look! Said, Lend me your Ears! And the storm accosted the paving
like coinage.
                                   The live bird rose from the Arch of Titus
and the dead one slept in a puddle.
                                                                                The watch ticked on its chain,
but who could read it? Not the Romans, who loved the luke-warm air
of the tepidarium,
                                             who sank, one by one, into the lovely baths.


Kevin Prufer’s newest books are Fallen from a Chariot (Carnegie Mellon, 2005) and The Finger Bone (Carnegie Mellon, 2002). He edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing and has poems in the 2002 and 2004 Pushcart Prize anthologies, Best American Poetry 2003, Boston Review, Verse, New England Review, and Ploughshares. He lives in rural Missouri. (4/2004)

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