Pompeii ’87–’01–’17

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:: FALL 2018 TRAVEL WRITING CONTEST WINNER ::

Corroboration of memory, scavi, recorded voices, oxidized green warrior gods, raining pumice, diesel-fume sunrises, the Twin Towers, guard dogs, toppled plinths, priapus figures, bulrushes, loss of innocence
& the Bay of Naples.


Pompeii is about a forty-five minute train ride from Naples’ central station. At moments, I feel like I’m on the subway on an outdoor stretch of track in New York, nearing Coney Island or Far Rockaway, though there are no bulrushes, no ivy, no faded early twentieth-century ghost ads for shoes or tires on the sides of brick buildings. There are pines and palms, clothes flapping on lines, vines spangled with saucer-sized fuchsia or yellow flowers. The occasional lemon tree reaches over the crumbling stone wall that separates the rattling train from the backs of houses.

Mount Vesuvius looms up suddenly, framed and quartered by the dirty window. I realize I am holding my breath, as though a living creature has just appeared alongside the train and is staring down into it. Vesuvius’ peak is snow-covered, and appears from here to be sheared almost flat by time and past eruptions. Enormous clouds cast slow-moving black shadows on the mountain’s gradual, undramatic slope, which angles down at just thirty degrees or so to the land around it. Much of this is covered in low, sprawling, ancient city.


Pomegranates grow amidst ragged thorny vines, and here and there perfect human and animal forms emerge, carved and painted, from stone walls, fountains, altars.


Though I have trouble saying for sure when I first visited Pompeii, I have a vivid memory of that earliest approach, through a phalanx of vendors selling statuettes of Roman gods—six-inch Mercurys and foot-tall Venuses, terra cotta priapus figures—and tourist books and postcards with the oversaturated colors of old photographs. In this memory, there are also net bags of oranges hanging under canvas awnings and flat sandals with long, thin leather laces for sale, though I suspect these elements have migrated into this remembrance from other times and places. The heat was real, though, and the dusty, desert-y colors. The sunlight was so bright it seemed to peel some part of me away so that I felt raw and new and as though I belonged, somehow, to this place that is a cleft in time.

Compass Rose
It is estimated that twelve to fifteen thousand people lived in the city of Pompeii, near the Bay of Naples, in 79 AD. Its streets were lined with shops and bars, houses and bathhouses. Mosaics advertised the different varieties of fish for sale or warned intruders about the presence of guard dogs. Brightly painted murals depicted gods, edibles and, in the local brothel, sexual services available to its male clientele.

Many of Pompeii’s residents would have experienced the earthquakes in the early sixties. In the summer of 79, a few tremors had shaken the area. The volcano had been dormant for centuries, though, and no one seems to have imagined that those tremors were the prelude to what came around noon on August 24, when a crescendo of small explosions led suddenly to Vesuvius’ tall, distinctive cone being blown clean off by the gases under pressure within it. As boiling lava poured down into the city, a twenty-kilometer-high mushroom cloud swelled up into the sky, raining ash and pumice and blocking out the sun so that it was dark as night.

Compass Rose
Recently, almost as if stumbling across an earth-covered twig and, on impulse, removing it gently from its bed of dust to discover it is human bone, my friend Jill and I unpacked the memory of our first trip to—or through—Pompeii. This happened spontaneously, as we were setting the table for dinner on one of my visits to Montreal, where we both grew up. Neither of us intended to reminisce and neither knew, until we were partway into the conversation, that we needed the other to confirm that this was the memory of something we really did.

It was so long ago that, without corroboration, it is just the vapor of dreams: a self I know existed, as distinct from me as if she were my own twenty-year-old daughter, in a brown leather jacket, sleeping on the metal floor of the conductor’s car, exhausted by the overnight train ride, lulled by its rhythmic clacking. In this dream that really happened, young Jill, eternal Jill, chats in Italian with the conductor. (What was his name? Giovanni? Giaccomo? He had a goatee and sunglasses, remember?) One or both of them rouses me to glimpse Vesuvius and the spread-out modern city of Pompeii at its base: concrete, graffiti’ed, sprouting cypress and palm trees. And there, the scavi, or excavation site, where centuries of earth have been peeled away to reveal the lineaments of the much older city: its stretches of stone walls and foundations, its grid of cobblestone and packed dirt streets, its temples, statues and fluted columns disappearing behind us as the train curves along the bay, heading into a faded pink diesel-fume sunrise.

Compass Rose
It must, then, have been just after Jill’s thirty-six birthday in early September that we approached Pompeii by way of the wall of merchandise; fifteen years after we first passed the city on the train; 1,922 years and two and a half weeks after the eruption that buried the city; approximately 250 years after it was rediscovered by an engineer; 138 years after an Italian archaeologist took charge of the excavation. It was he who realized that if one poured plaster into the oddly shaped holes rutting the hardened lava, one could produce lifelike casts, down to folds in clothing, studs on dog collars, closed eyelids, open mouths.

Thirty hours later, we were in Tuscany at a friend’s home, watching the Twin Towers collapse on television, over and over again. Initially, I was unable to believe I was watching the news, or whatever it is called when a real-world event tears through the fabric of the everyday; instantly, it seemed, my brain fabricated a buffer to protect me. I had heard by now that planes had flown into the World Trade Center while we were on the Italian autoroute, driving north—but what I believed, as I saw dense white clouds billow out of the upper floors of one of the towers before it dropped like the felled water buffalo in Apocalypse Now, was that I was watching some version of the History Channel, meant to help a contemporary viewer understand what the eruption of Vesuvius must have been like for residents of Pompeii.


The sunlight was so bright it seemed to peel some part of me away so that I felt raw and new and as though I belonged, somehow, to this place that is a cleft in time.


I knew I was seeing something that had really happened to my home city, but I could not make myself believe it. Then I began to get the recorded voices of operators telling me they could not connect me to friends. Then I spoke to my mother, safely tucked away in Canada, and I knew by her voice that it was true. Later I began to get emails about the ash and the sirens, the ambulances barreling up and down the empty avenues, the barricades and blood drives, the flowers, notes and photos woven into chain link fences.

Compass Rose

It is an overcast day in January, sixteen years since that last quiet, heat-slowed visit; ten years since Pompeii was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site; seven years since the stone House of the Gladiators collapsed in on itself and caused various politicians and journalists to declare the Italian government unfit to protect a world treasure. Unexpectedly, I have come during the last days of a rare art exhibition. Later I will learn it was the dying wish of the Polish-French artist to exhibit his body of work in Pompeii; before his death in 2014, he selected which thirty monumental bronze torsos, faces and limbless figures would make up the display.

At first, I have mixed feelings about these contemporary works in this landscape. There is no disputing their power, the beauty of their classical proportions, the majesty of the oxidized green warrior god in the distance, on a pedestal amidst toppled plinths and carved capitals half buried in grass. His arms end above the elbows, his muscular legs below the knees. He stands with his back to me, staring out at the city nestled in the bowl of dark snow-capped mountains.

The figures grow on me. I try to tilt my head at exactly the same angle as the huge, mask-like fragment of a woman’s face for a selfie. Four hours later, when I am hungry and tired and rain-soaked, I will feel a wave of warm familiarity when I see the prone form of Blue Icarus, his wings dug into the mud. At thirty or forty feet long, he dwarfs the tourists with their colorful umbrellas; even lying on his side, armless and footless, it is clear he is built on the scale of the colossal columns that surround him.


Recently, almost as if stumbling across an earth-covered twig and, on impulse, removing it gently from its bed of dust to discover it is human bone, my friend Jill and I unpacked the memory of our first trip to—or through—Pompeii.


I travel up and down the stone streets, in and out of the remains of houses and temples, through archways and amphitheatres. Pomegranates grow amidst ragged thorny vines, and here and there perfect human and animal forms emerge, carved and painted, from stone walls, fountains, altars. The sky grows unnaturally dark, though in the distance there is an eerie golden light burning through the banks of grey cloud above the mountains.

It is not just the world’s history but my own that is layered into this place. I remember, that day when I was thirty-five, being so grateful for the wide brim of my canvas hat, the protective shadow it cast over my face, and for the cold, sweet soft drink we bought at the snack shop. I remember trying to angle myself so I could take a picture of the Cave Canem mosaic without the reflection of my body appearing in the thick sheet of protective glass over it. I do not remember thinking we were innocent then, and yet some part of me takes for granted that, the following day, our innocence came to an end.


Stacey Engels is a playwright and writer of creative non-fiction. She teaches writing and literature courses at Lehman College-City University of New York.

Lead image: Gary Todd/Flickr

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