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,
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.
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,
in the glowing tongues
that speak of light.
I remember every word
the Medicean croaked
in my ear on his deathbed
sweaty and feverish,
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.
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!
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
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