A capuchin—long acquaintance with the dead
  Has left him taciturn—stands guard
At gate and stairhead. Silent, he awaits
  The coin we drop into his dish, and then
Withdraws to contemplation—though his eye
  Glides with a marvellous economy sideways
Towards the stair, in silent intimation
  You may now descend. We do—and end up
In a corridor with no end in view: dead
  Line the perspective left and right
Costumed for resurrection. The guidebook had not lied
  Or tidied the sight away—and yet
Eight thousand said, unseen, could scarcely mean
  The silence throughout this city of the dead,
Street on street of it calling into question
  That solidity the embalmer would counterfeit.
Mob-cap, cape, lace, stole and cowl,
  Frocked children still at play
In the Elysian fields of yesterday
  Greet each morning with a morning face
Put on a century ago. Why are we here?—
  Following this procession, bier on bier
(The windowed dead, within), and those
  Upright and about to go, but caught
Forever in their parting pose, as though
  They might have died out walking. Some
Face us from the wall, like damaged portraits;
  Some, whose clothing has kept its gloss,
Glow down across the years at us
  Why are you here? And why, indeed,
For the sunlight through a lunette overhead
  Brightens along a sinuous bole of palm:
Leaves catch and flare it into staring green
  Where a twine of tendril sways inside
Between the bars. Light from that sky
  Comes burning off the bay
Vibrant with Africa; in public gardens
  Tenses against the butterflies’ descent
The stamens of red hibiscus. Dead
  Dressed for the promenade they did not take,
Are leaning to that light: it is the sun
  Must judge them, for the sin
Of vanity sits lightly on them: it is the desire
  To feel its warmth against the skin
Has set them afoot once more in this parade
  Of epaulette, cockade and crinoline. We are here
Where no northern measure can undo
  So single-minded a lure—if once a year
The house of the dead stood open
  And these, dwelling beneath its roof,
Were shown the world’s great wonders,
  They would marvel beyond every other thing
At the sun. Today, the dead
  Look out from their dark at us
And keep their counsel. The capuchin
  Has gone off guard, to be replaced
By a brother sentry whose mind is elsewhere—
  Averted from this populace whose conversion
Was nominal after all. His book
  Holds fast his eyes from us. His disregard
Abolishes us as we pass beyond the door.
 
 
                                                           Palermo

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