Part II. Petra Protector, 1538

Part II. Petra Protector, 1538



Weeks, the roads rumble1
out under feet passing
on Pozzuoli soil, streets
A gentle roll of the heel, a new
pleat in the pasture
All but one stroll openly,
pleasants, possessed in routine
except for
a Girl of fourteen who
twirls her keys between
counting cycles of scanty

Girl who, since
Summer’s heat hit
has heard sounds of sulfur
fussing in the breeze—
signs for Petra
daughter of duty to a Priest, of
polished pebbles and
Roman fleets
of Kosmos’ prophecy

Sees: the sinking sod, the
sea, its shakes
neighbors and strangers cast their
eyes on the day’s mundane traits
enjoying jaunts along
trails and shoreline,
beryl blue skies up high— so
who cares! for tremors, this tumult
is nowhere

Until five terra feet rise one ‘eve
docked sea of Pozzuoli made to retreat
some other twelve hundred feet2
by leave of the shore where
startled fish flop, their
scales scintillating in the sky’s sheen
stranded, gills gaping on
sands at the mercy of
passerby’s who pick and push over free grabs
perhaps a gift from God?
to make up for their homes’
falling foundations, floors gone
akimbo to aching Flegrei fields

Fortune has it
today is the Feast of
St. Michael the Archangel,3 so here’s…
a benediction of mineral water!
cold rush gushing up cracks of split soil
soon to sizzle in
sulfur dioxide fizzles
boiling down brackish paths where later
molten rock blasts
out the ‘hideous abyss’ of
fissure cracks and tectonic mass4

a Doctor of Napoli, Pietro
looks on from the neighbor city
eyes wide as his Earth exploding, says
like ‘thunder’ this boom—
a cough of
‘fire, stones, and an ashy mud’5
spiraling up in fingerlike strokes
of fume, a
tower like Babel to reach the
‘very vault of Heaven’
some peril of penance this is, when
smoke plumes go ‘darker than darkness—’
what Sin!

Repent, says
our Earth— or
see me consume the way you consume me
feel lightning strokes and
thunder turns
cinder cones rising high as a
‘crossbow shot can carry’ before
filtering back over town,
your night’s slow blanket return6

plants trees leaves knocked
down where
finches sparrows seagulls splay
in muddy ash to ‘die, or
let themselves be taken
prisoner by the hand of
man’ alive7
picked up off the open mouth of
ground, gathered
up in shaking hands so
who wish, too, for a
protector’s hands to
cloak them in some

Pozzuoli’s Petra knows the way—
sane with saved sack of
bread for breakfast and
salted meat for Kosmos or kids
she gathers donkey and
libations and cloaks;
hurries up to the port where
poor folks resign to
prayer and abandon
their homes

Flee from death, shouts
Petra, restrained:
This is no God’s punishment, no
season of sulfuric rain—
It is simply the way
our Earth must change
into crests anew and
lands emergent, of
boys girls bush birds dogs and bed sent
to lands unseen
to live one’s dues, for
this Planet yet

Peoples stranded stare at Petra
perplexed, unmoved
some gather their girls and
boys, disapprove of
this heretic calling for conscience
Yet slowly few perk their
cast eyes to the sky and say,
this Girl of words and stonecold
must be right— this Earth still turns and
we still have verve to
trek through turns, either toward
Death or
‘least, Dignity unburned

Petra, our Girl
leads the way, leaves
Kosmos behind, says:
Friend, protect the birds and men
who stay! and
you, too, my sun boy—
bark blessed at all who say
this Earth is giving
us a new way to think:

Tragic, yes but
glorious; bigger than men’s brains or
prospects of power gain or
petty human games—
I am Petra first of Earth,
as people oft forget, too,
they descend from happenstance, from
lands echo over space, from
this Planet’s divine place
Kosmos careens
down to the street, emboldened
by Petra’s speech
he barks for bullies’ reform, for
boys to turn for their mothers and sisters, for
Awareness of the masses to say,
I am Small among the ruin;
I am but a part of what’s else—
for townspersons balk
away from their homes, finally,
away from what’s known
onto whatever’s more
in Naples

Monte Nuovo

Pall of ash settles
some two days later
Kosmos grumbling up
in search of those burned or
worn, when
thereupon the clearing sky
a New Mountain has come to rise,
as prophesized:

near five hundred feet
tall of God’s will or
Petra’s ponderings, there it
fumes quietly still,
sleepy as Solfatara

our Dog trots for a closer look
sees a queue of inquirers
sleuthing up the mountaintop through
plumes of fetid inner Earth fume to
gaze at top, down upon the
mouth— some sixteen hundred feet around
surprised to see a crater
whose gaping hole
‘was not full inside, but empty!’8

might the beast be done
purged of boiling breath
abated, at rest? thinks

But then!
thrilling Sunday stroll turns cold:
half ascended and those others
rather more
Eclipsed to Kosmos’ sight when
a sudden fearsome strike
mass of thick smoke
ecru in the ‘eve
down the slope!9

Erupting mountain
new with rage or purgation’s
pyroclastic flows10
gripping throats; filling holes
sudden suffocated hold
others knocked by stones, some
last to burn in flames
All gone like Petra’s dream of
legs limbs toes lost in Earth
melted out as lava churns
slipping sullen into nothing
Kosmos barking;
running; reeling! for,
Petra could not save these curious
twenty four gone; some11
petrified, found in grayscale; some
gone altogether as dust to next dawn
never found at all
Bare steep side crater
calmed swift after this fill
graceful cone of utter gore
new Spring of looser liquid than
Solfatara’s fangaia pools
baths of Nero12
hot enough to cook eggs and fish anew
or place of pozzuolana:13
volcanic cinders for cement
resistant on repaired roads
a birth of resource, of land at
loss of lives…
Kosmos sighs

He will run to Petra
safe in Napoli
for the work is not over, then:
a new mountain yet means more to
another project, yes
for her to helm

  1. As per Dr. Alwyn Scarth’s Vulcan’s Fury: Man Against the Volcano, the 1538 eruption of Monte Nuovo was preliminarily marked by a series of earthquakes in the weeks leading up to its emergence and eruption.
  2. Scarth writes: “At 6 p.m. on 28 September [1538], the land around Pozzuoli suddenly rose up by about 5m, making the sea retreat some 350m from the shore. The startled fish were stranded on the sands, at the mercy of the inhabitants of Pozzuoli.”
  3. Scarth writes: “The eruption started on the Feast of St Michael the Archangel, Sunday 29 September. The ground cracked open. However, it was not molten lava, but cold water that first gushed forth. Soon the waters became hot and started to bubble with sulphur dioxide gas.”
  4. Scarth writes: “The main fissure cracked open through the village. At 8 p.m. on 29 September, molten rock shot from the “hideous abyss.”
  5. The Neapolitan doctor, Pietro Giacomo Toleto, quoted in Scarth: “the earth had exploded like thunder, and had spat out “fire, stones and an ashy mud.”
  6. Toleto quoted in Scarth: “Some of the rocks thrown out “were bigger than an ox” and clouds of cinders rose “as high as a cross-bow shot can carry” before falling back to earth.”
  7. Toleto quoted in Scarth “Plants and trees were knocked down, or lost their leaves or branches. Birds and many little animals, coated with the muddy ash, “either died, or just let themselves be taken prisoner by the hand of man.”
  8. Scarth: [Francesco] Marchesino was amazed to discover the gaping crater when he reached the summit. The mountain, he declared, “was not full inside, but empty!”
  9. Scarth writes: “Monte Nuovo had one final– and lethal– fling just when many people were taking a thrilling Sunday afternoon stroll up the southern flanks of the new cone.”
  10. Pyroclastic flows contain a high-density mix of hot lava blocks, pumice, ash and volcanic gas. They move at very high speed down volcanic slopes. Most pyroclastic flows consist of two parts: a lower (basal) flow of coarse fragments that moves along the ground, and a turbulent cloud of ash that rises above the basal flow.
  11. Scarth writes: “They say that those who were found dead–and those that were never found at all–numbered about twenty-four.”
  12. In Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei, Observations on the Volcanoes of the Two Sicilies, he writes that a new spring, A spring, called the Baths of Nero emerged from the seaward base of the Monte Nuovo cone. It was reportedly hot enough to cook eggs and fish in.
  13. Pozzoulana or ‘Pozzolan’ is a type of volcanic ash used for mortar or for cement that sets under water
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