Two Capitals

Poem by J.D. Smith

1. Athens

Life must have smelled more then.

Along with dung and dust,

the urine sluicing through the tanneries

and cheeses going bad in the Agora,

the strigil-scraped and rancid oil

from wrestlers’ backs, like resined wine

and roasting joints of lamb,

would have suffused the air, if not enough

to banish sweat.


Those scents dispersed, what’s left?

Besides orations, plays, ceramics, orations,

some verse, inquiries on

the nature of the Good, presided over by

a temple whose proportions cast

a shadow on the works

of every generation that has followed.


2. District of Columbia

The present’s odor, though

noxious with exhaust,

or polysyllables of nitrogen

that manure far-sprawling fields,

may waft more faintly in comparison,

a benediction or achievement of

refrigerators and the vaccines they can hold,

and sewerage that leads unglamorously

to health, thus widening the canopy of years

beneath which we draw breath,

find entertainment, undertake

perhaps some larger task.

Above the buried genius of the Metro,

one or another borrowed idiom prevails

in castle, column, obelisk,

and an accounting made of wishes more than means

while texts of native wisdom fray

or turn to fossils under glass.

A later age may find, in this, our scent. 

American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2012, Volume 29, Number 2