John Ruff: "Isabel's View"




Having never understood a word

of Henry James or been abroad,

what was I to make of her,

the old French teacher? 

I’d be poring over box scores

in The Daily American

as we inched along the Tiber,

each plane tree out the window

just another plane tree.

Mademoiselle Leach rode

behind me, behind her Il Tiempo

with Marianne, Saint Fastidious,

virgin, martyr, and opera snob.

Miss Leach had a laugh

like Falstaff’s mother,

she’d wheeze and “oh my dear”

her humorless friend with

the greatest indulgence

which I also never understood.


Isabel was her name, so right for her,

so nineteenth century.  It came to me

one night like the last passenger

off the night train from Brussels. 

She had me up to her flat once—

a lovely birdcage atop a palazzo

with a princess downstairs

who owned a Velasquez.

I was lugging up a package

and we’d stop at each landing

for Isabel to catch her breath.

Seven flights—the number

sticks with me, an ordeal

out of Hesiod or Dante.

How many Stations of the Cross

are there?  We did seven.


She took me onto her terrace. 

Below us loomed the Pantheon

in a honeycomb of streets,

and domes floated the horizon

like cumulous clouds. 

She named them with affection,

careful in her pronunciation,

as if I were a school boy and

she was teaching me my prayers

and maybe she was. 

She showed me where I lived

and how to get there

as the Roman pigeon flies

dome to dome, Sant’ Agostino

to Sant’ Agnese to Chiesa Nuova

“New Church,” she translated,

smiling.  “New” as in sixteenth

century, she explained. “They don’t

get old,” she said, “like we do.”


She pointed to the bridge

by the Castel Sant’ Angelo

where angels by Bernini hold

the instruments of Christ’s

torture against the sky—

“The most beautiful bridge

in Rome,” she said, and I agreed.

That’s when I saw it—something

in her eyes, like when the wind

frays a cloud and you see,

suddenly, the pinprick of a star,

its light faint, so far away

and ancient. “So now you know,”

she said.  As if suddenly I’d found

her out, looked behind a curtain

and seen a lover, a secret life,

the reason she lived alone

and never married. There was

no denying the blunt fact

of the stairs, her knees turning

to chalk, her heart a leaky faucet

no one could fix. How much longer

could she make that climb, 

and then what?  We left

that question sitting there,

an untouched cup still

full to the brim.



John Ruff teaches English at Valparaiso University, and he is poetry editor of The Cresset.