Last Letter from Florence

A recent incident recalls the fears
Your letters have expressed: that seven years
In this art-laden place might rob me of
Whatever you once thought that you could love:
The flat I rent lies halfway up a via
Around a bend from Piazza Signoria.
A few noons back, having as usual rushed
Across the square, it came to me I’d just
Ignored the David—not the first such lapse.
The streets grow more unneighborly. Perhaps
I’m learning how to hold myself aloof:
He’s not the only man without a roof.

Wasn’t he sprung five centuries ago
From marble jail by Michelangelo?
And still the well-known figure stands around
Like youthful talent waiting to be found.
I too would like to find him, but the trouble’s
To tell the real one from his countless doubles.
Without moving a muscle, suddenly
He’s at the Palace where he used to be,
But surely at the famed Piazzale too
I’ve seen him stretched to get his piece of view,
And isn’t that him ‘neath the little dome
Where all line up and pay to find him home?
It seems that everywhere one turns he looms
In shops and alleys, restaurants and tombs,
And lilliputian legions on display
For Gullivers to hire and lead away.

The True King surely rests in none of these,
Though like an up-to-date Diogenes
He searches through the short-lived spotlit night
For that one tourist who can get him right.

No day goes by that, busied with survival,
I don’t snub David like some kind of rival.
Sometimes I nod: (“I saw David again.”
“How did he look?” “A bit the worse for rain.”)
At last, my dreams betraying with a kiss,
Overexposure wreaks its nemesis.
Unsettled to the depths, I rise in haste
To daytime fantasies where stones play chaste
And legend clothes the onset of a man:
As monumental, ageless Peter Pan,
As the Commandant, slouching on to claim
The invitation that will spoil Juan’s game,
As gleaming beauty, stalking through the street
In search of someone he seems sure he’ll meet:
The severed head, perhaps, of some old boast
To bury and so lay its owner’s ghost.
The sanitized imagination spins
As many roles as copies—but none wins.
Our David has been standing in the ring,
Braving all comers, stripped down to a sling,
Ready for his Goliath fate to knock
Its way out of some even tougher rock.
A lesser champ would have long since retired
Upon the forfeit purse, deadlines expired.
But David and his maker linger yet
Within the timeless moment when they met,
The form forever grasped within the stone,
The mallet poised to make the wonder known.
Now there’s one David who was beautiful!
But he has never been accessible.
Another that which then the sculptor brought
To light as chip by chip he cleared his thought.
O to revisit that first nakedness
So quickly aged and wizened by the stress
Of idle talk when round the burghers came
To stare and weave their winding sheet of fame!

In fact the work of art is never done,
As days undo the dreams long nights have spun,
And ever once again through endless toil
True form seems lighted but for men to spoil,
As if they hated that which proved them blind,
Preferring blocks to Davids of the mind.

Philosophy suggests we touch the real
Where action springs, compelled by what we feel,
As in those hands I seem to clutch a hope
That some somewhere can shape where mine but grope,
Or arms extend to feed or clothe or warm
Those we should cherish since they share his form.

And now my years in Florence near a close
When we must face whatever loss now shows.
Please heed the warning issued in this letter:
The place has changed me—maybe for the better.
And if I’ve mended any of my flaws
David has been the most efficient cause.
For when I came I thought I knew my ends
And how to reach them. Knowledge, wealth and friends
Have withered into means to what his eyes
Forever gaze upon, the utmost prize.

I’m bringing back less luggage than I took,
Having discarded sureness book by book.
I’ve only change of habits to declare,
For you—and all—one gift as light as air:
No effigy with form so crudely blurred
A fig-leaf shame would be the lie preferred;
Instead a vision just beyond my reach,
An end the balance of my life may teach,
Like David’s look, fixed on a distant quest,
The ever-changing light that shows us best.



Lionel Willis was born in Toronto in 1932. He has been a mosaic designer, portrait painter, watercolorist, biological illustrator, field entomologist and professor of English Literature as well as a poet. His verse has appeared in A Miscellany of Prints and Poems, The Canadian Forum,  Candelabrum Poetry Magazine, Descant, Dream International Quarterly, Harp Strings Poetry Journal, Hrafnhoh, Iambs & Trochees, Light, Romantics Quarterly, The Classical Outlook, The Society of Classical Poets, The Deronda Review,  The Eclectic Muse, The Fiddlehead, The Formalist, The Lyric, The Road Not Taken, Troubadour and White Wall Review, and in two books, The Dreamstone and Other Rhymes (The Plowman, 2003) and Heartscape, a Book of Bucolic Verse (EIDOLON, 2019).  

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13 Responses

  1. C.B. Anderson

    This, Lionel, is a truly remarkable poem. The diction and the rhymes are superb, and there is so much insight into important philo- and theo-sophical issues, that I will likely have to read it sixty times before I’ve digested it fully. Passages such as “brought / To light as chip by chip he cleared his thought” are absolutely brilliant, and there are many such instances here. It’s apparent that you have learned a lot and forgotten little in your nine decades.

  2. Allegra Silberstein

    What a magnificent poem. I, too, will read it again more slowly to appreciate all you are saying with such style and rhythm.

    • lionel

      Thank you, Allegra. May your appreciation grow with the speed spelled out in your name.

  3. Peter Lillios

    I must confess that the technique was so masterful, I was distracted at first from the meaning. (But that is a fault of mine as a reader and not yours as a poet.) Happily, this can be rectified by many repeat readings, each of which I expect to be a joy!

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is an amazing piece of work, fully sustained in its substance and verbal force — one hundred lines of solid poetry, without a bit of wasted space or filler.

    And all of its intricate meaning is tied in with the statue of David, winding as a motif in and out of the lines, and guiding the reader like Ariadne’s thread through a maze of complex thoughts, allusions, and reflections. This is truly top-notch traditional poetry, the fruit of a man’s decades of literary practice.

    • Lionel Willis

      Thank you, Joe. You might remember accepting the piece , helping with some of the punctuation and then losing Iambs and Trochees in one fell swoop! I despaired of ever placing the poem again because of its length. How lucky I feel to have found the Society which has changed all that. Once again I needed help with a fudged couplet and Evan gave it. Thank you. Thanks to all including those whose poems are so caught up in American extremism I have trouble reading them. I look ahead with hope.

  5. Geoffrey S.

    This is a lovely, fully-realized poem. Tone maintained throughout its long length. Measured, not jingly and pouncy. Worthy of rereading. Has something to say. Original. Thoughtful. Mature subject matter. Stunningly good. I read a poem like this and think, let’s see a free-verser do that!

    • Lionel Willis

      Thank you, Geoffrey. Free verse is prose printed to look like verse (following Jerremy Bentham’s dismissing definition of poetry, perhaps.) I seldom see published coherent prose that even attempts a theme like Michelangelo’s David. Let’s rejoice that the Society can help to rectify the sad decline of almost all literature!

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Lionel, this breathtaking work of art has excited and inspired me. Not only has it intrigued me with its delightful imagery and philosophy I just love the exquisite thread of humor woven like golden gossamer throughout. Like others, I believe this thought-provoking poem benefits from multiple reads to appreciate the finer details. Wonderful!

    • lionel willis

      Thank you, Susan. Coming from so accomplished a poet as yourself makes your comment particularly valuable. I was very impressed by your speed of response to the plight of Julian Assange earlier this year, and totally agreed with your insight into the world-wide scale of his bravery. I wish I still had the energy to react so fully and beautifully to present and urgent occasions. Alas, I must be content to struggle on with intimate responses to my heart.

      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Lionel, thank you very much for your kind words, and long may you struggle on with intimate responses to your heart… the results are splendid and to every poetry lover’s benefit.

  7. Monika Cooper

    Like others who commented, I will plan to keep reading and thinking about this mysterious discourse on great art and true kingship. The coupling of accessible beauty and obscurity here is compelling.

  8. BDW

    as per Buceli da Werse

    Here is a briefer nod to a visit to Florence of a decade and a half ago.

    “Everything about Florence seems to be colored
    with a mild violet, like diluted wine.”
    —Henry James

    Upon the Arno River banks it sits,
    the city of Firenze, magical
    and sparkling in the evening’s gleaming glitz,
    as if it came out of a fairy tale:
    the giant, jewelled Brunelleschi Dome,
    the nearby camponile Giotto touched,
    the Ponte Vecchio, gold in the gloam,
    and the Uffizi gallery, where hutched
    such treasures are, so much: Correggio,
    Uccelo, Caravaggio, Rembrandt,
    Da Vinci, Titian, Michaelangelo,
    with Fra Filippo Lippi, Raphael,
    and Tintoretto, Botticelli, too,
    a place for paint, a palace with a view!


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