Janus two-faced god of folds and joints
hinges thresholds and enjambements
who has in his keeping lids locks doors
dawns dusks and all our various
exits and entrances it wasn’t you
but Anastasio the old Salernitan
who handed me the key
the size of a cudgel its epic profile
wore holes in my secondhand raincoat
I then had to sew up with sackcloth
a cold iron tongue that should have turned
the stony earth or sprung the gates of Dis
but opened the vaulted flat that dated back
to the days of Torquato Tasso
in the street named after him.
Someone must be carrying that key
someone this late at night be walking through
the alleys past the Duomo’s
bronze-nailed wooden door
up the worn steps with their rusted railings
stopping to drink from the slender wire that spills
out of the lion face’s open mouth
in the small square awned by palm fronds
before feeling in their pockets for the key.
His brother who owned the key
that opened the flat with its vaulted ceiling
was in jail at Poggioreale Naples
since his lock-up
had been found full of semi-automatics
but Anastasio said his ignorance
was no defence against the law –
ma si che era innocente... ci mancherebbe altro!
He unlocked the iron door to show the flat
blackened by the open brazier
the lacquers and gamboges that Enzo
the furniture restorer used
in the room with the balcony that overlooked
a sunken courtyard and a pomegranate tree
two Alsatians were chained to – a two-headed
Cerberus permanently hoarse
the only neighbours I ever saw
apart from a rat who gnawed at the bedroom door
geckoes suction-fixed to the ceiling
and scorpions who brandished claws
and twitched alembic tails in warning
like guardians of the underworld.
Anastasio gave me a tube of black glue
I never used to trap the rat
and in case I had doubts
the house he reminded me was augurioso
on account of the ex-convent opposite
no matter it was now a brothel
but didn’t say the place would live in me
far longer than I lived in it.
The day he showed me round the flat
he lifted a marble slab in the floor
on a square of darkness and said beneath
there was another slab that opened on
one more square of black and so on down
past centuries of settlement
into the heart of the rock
until… and there he stopped unsure
but here’s the key he said
I hope you’re happy here.
Someone must be carrying the key
I still keep fishing in my pockets for
whose phantom weight
has left me bent or skewed
but maybe I never gave it back
it still turns anticlockwise in the lock
and opens a door as heavy as air
onto the dazzling dark on dark.
Jamie McKendrick, “The Key”, Crocodiles & Obelisks. Faber and Faber: 2007.
Ancient Romans used to build intricate puzzle locks. These were not like our normal door keys. I imagine that the mechanism worked rather not unlike the combinations of modern safe vaults: what was locked was stored safely, could travel many miles and be deciphered by whoever knew the combination of gestures that could render it open again. Apparently, these were small objects, sometimes the size of rings. In my imagination, I figure that the Romans, prone as they were to secrets and mysterious and violent things, would store pretty much anything inside these tiny vaults, but archaeological evidence suggest that they would contain, for the most part, money being sent to distant relatives. I have always wondered how much of that idea about a series of gestures that can render unexpected things open is a good metaphor to think about what poems do to us, even if it might seem at the surface that this is a better description of what literary critics do to poems.
A contributor to this website, João Dionísio, noted that the act of interpreting a poem is an exercise of memory and circulation, the poem that I am about to read shows how poems can also work that way.
“The Key” was published in Jamie McKendrick’s 2007 book Crocodiles & Obelisks. Said key opens the door to a flat in Salerno, hence, it is, unlike the Roman’s puzzle locks, a key that opened what seemed to be a straightforward door, although we are told that it looked like the right key to open the gates of Dis. We could say that “The Key” is about the mythical overtones that the objects we carry with us every day can assume. Through that, it becomes a poem about presences and absences, the passage of time, bodies, jobs, streets, brothers, foreignness, the different dimensions of time, ghosts, pomegranates, techniques to trap rats, and the unexpected things that hide behind doors.
In the first lines, the narrator addresses the Roman god Janus, the two-headed god who presided over doors, entrances and exits and who pointed at once at the present and the past, to tell us that it was not that god who had given him the key to the flat, but Anastasio, an old man from Salerno. The address to Janus rings of the opening lines of Ovid’s Fasti and makes us think about the world of Roman imperial literature. But, of course, the allusion comes to a somewhat comic ending, it is not a god, after all, but just old Anastasio from Salerno who hands the narrator his key. I can’t help but notice that the antiepic chord stricken here nevertheless saturates all the characters that are about to be introduced with mythical colours, as if they belonged to the same immortal line as the Roman gods, which makes sense when one comes to think of it.
There may or may not be an echo of Ovid’s Fasti in the opening lines, but one of the reasons why this is one of the poems I liked the most in 2018 has to do with the fact that all the characters we are introduced to, even if they inhabit a world whose colours are reminiscent of the chiaroscuro of the paintings of Caravaggio and his followers, seem to have that dignity that we find in that pair that features in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philemon and Baucis, who do not ask the gods for immortality, but to be able to carry on with their lives together and to die at the same time, that is to say, “The Key” is also a poem about human dignity and the respect, admiration and empathy people inspire in us, but also the cheerfulness and “down-to-earthness” that comes with it.
Salerno is a city in the region where some of Europe’s older urban settlements can be found, and the ancient Romans believed that it was in a place not far from Salerno, Cumae, that one could descend to the underworld. I don’t think that anyone can live in this region or visit it without being aware that in it the myths of the underworld and everyday life intercept. A number of images in the poem echo this notion, but perhaps none as much as the fact that in the day that Anastasio shows the flat to the narrator, he also lifts a marble slab in the floor and tells him that another slab “opened on/ one more square of black” and another one after that, and then another, probably all the way down to the underworld, bearing witness to centuries of settlement. To somewhat comic effect, Anastasio is cast in a light similar to that of the Sybil. And it is at this point that we realize that “The Key” is a poem about elusive shallowness and depth, the depth we can sense about the ways in which we inhabit time and space, and the ever-ongoing ticking of life, its ever-flowing movement (which is so well captured in the final stanza and that is one of the reasons why the poem is so graceful) for as we are told, someone is probably still carrying the key the narrator keeps fishing his pockets for. The poem ends in dazzling darkness, and thus assumes the form of life. I find it ironic, but also very appropriate, that Jamie McKendrick is the translator into English of Giorgio Bassani’s Behind the Door, a novella about a young man who at a crucial point fails to burst a door open. “The Key” does exactly the opposite of that.
Tatiana Faia is a classicist by training and the author of four books: three collections of poetry and one of short-stories. She lives in Oxford and is one of the editors of Enfermaria 6.