Skip to content

Next Reading

Join me for my next reading Saturday April 23 at 2 pm, Hamilton Twp. NJ public library.

Buon Compleanno (Happy Birthday), al Papa

March 7, 2010


Rome – April 16, 2009

What cake for the Pope’s birthday?
Does he order one with a cannoli filling
from Randazzo’s, the Italian Bakery
that John Basilone frequented
in Raritan, New Jersey?
Almonds nestled in the real whipped cream
and a layer of chocolate as well?

From where do the candles come?
One convent in the world selected
from 1,500 applicants to mold them?
Or does his Consigliere run out to the
Euro store, that afternoon?

Pity poor Antonio, the altar boy
selected to light the 82 stalks
with one of those candle lighters,
in the shape of a shepherd’s hook.
Antonio complained to his Mamma
he did not want to do it.
What if he dripped the wax upon the whipped cream
as it dripped one day upon the altar cloth?

Since I was in Rome,
a gift for the Pope, appropriate.

I thought about getting him a “Bottiglia”
until watching one morning
truck after truck
of Fed Ex deliveries pass a Swiss Guard’s gate.
Could they really receive so much every day
at the Vatican?
“No”, the guard remarked.
“These are just the bottles sent by
all the world’s monasteries –
their best liquore, brandies and gropa,
the wines – and the champagne
from the nuns who manage Chateauneuf-du-Pape
the ‘New Castel of the Pope’ in Avignon.
All gifts – for the birthday of a Pope.”

Something unique then.
Something no one else would think to send.

I told my wife I selected an Alice Cooper CD.

“You are right!”, she said.
“no one else would send the Pope
that, for his birthday.
But don’t you think Peter, Paul and Mary,
might be more apropos?”

That evening il Papa
loaded my gift onto his IPOD
retired to his apartment
recited the evening Angelus.
His preghiera complete
he slipped behind a bookcase
down a spiral stair case
used to escape invading armies
by the predecessors of the Chair –
exited in the greenery of the Vatican gardens.

100 yards away
he entered a gardener’s shack
there hidden by Vincenzo, a childhood friend,
a clean pair of gardening clothes,
a distinctive, but non-ostentatious
brown, European cap.

The Pope removed
all the accoutrements of his office
except the golden crucifix tucked inside his shirt
and the “Ring”
which sealed his appointment and every paper,
that – he wrapped in a bandage,
a gardener’s clipping accident.

Through a 300 year old gate
in the prison wall
a solitary walk to a Cappuccino Bar
5 blocks away.
There during the Open Mic Poetry Reading
he read a poesia about an old German man
who carried a leather satchel
a strap over his back.
Within the bag – the burdens of the entire world.

The next morning
the nun who washes the Pope’s white robes
looked down at the mud stained hem.
When he sneaks out, she thought,
he would be doing her a big favor
if he would change into his gardening clothes
in his bedroom, before he left.

Ray Brown


Michelangelo – Paint My House

February 23, 2010

Sistine Chapel – Rome

I would like to get Michelangelo to paint my house.

I would enjoy seeing him in those baggy white painter’s pants,
white cap with the elongated brim,
work boots with their laces untied,
oversized tongue flapping as he walked.

I think he’d enjoy it.
Sort of comic relief from laying on his back
painting for the Pope.
At least he would get to spend the day standing.
I wonder what he will think of rollers
rather than his fine paintbrushes and rags.

I can see him now, painting little Red Devils
with pitchforks and long pointed tails
each with Pope Julius’ face,
at places you would not expect to find them.
How will I protect against the hordes who would travel
just to find “Waldo” where he sketched them
in the niches of my home.

I could print tour directories
numbering the locations:

under the rain spout drainpipe
inside the garage between the two overhead doors
in back of the TV where the cable meets the wall
above my cat’s litter box
near the hole in the baseboard that the mouse uses,
next to a painted miniature Swiss Guard,
to scare the cat away,
in back of the headboard where I sleep, but not near my wife,
by the bookstand where my family bible is located
finally flat-square-dead-center of my son’s bedroom door.

I can see it now,
pick up the toilet lid.
There staring at you from under the top an angelic cherub.
Daring you to unzip.

I’d come home from work at the office at noon each day
sit with him under the oak tree on the front lawn.
He would have one of those black metallic lunch pails.
Inside, a piece of fine provolone, a hunk of Italian bread
and a bottle of red wine from Umbria.

Yes, I’d have a lot of fun,
if I could get Michelangelo to paint my house.

Ray Brown

Rabbits in Rome on Easter

February 15, 2010

Bus Stop – Near the Spanish Steps – Rome

I saw two rabbits in Rome
on Easter Sunday morning.
At 12:15 am while trying to find
the bus to Piazza Navona from the Spanish Steps.

in a box top from a case of Beck’s beer
in a withered bed of lettuce
mother and children
on the doorstep of a closed pharmacia
near a guitar
and a guitarist Americano
squatted next to a plastic bowl of Euros
earned by callous fingertips.

Do rabbits mind delivering Easter eggs?
Why do the rabbits deliver chicken eggs
rather than the Easter chickens
who first created them?

As beautiful as Rome is,
I would not want to be a rabbit
in a bed of withered lettuce
in the cardboard box top
on Easter Sunday morning.

Ray Brown

Trevi Fountain

February 6, 2010

It’s 3 AM.
My wife is sound asleep.
I dress surreptitiously.
Pulling on my socks in a dark Roman hotel room.

I ease the door open
make my way
down the winding concrete staircase
four stories,
my hotel without an elevator.

I run through the alleyways
now vacant except for the cats and I
a solitary dog
which obviously does not have the energy
to chase any of us.

Through Piazza Navona –
its fountain still flows
but the artistic energy sleeps.
Early morning hours
reserved for street sweepers
who bundle debris
for the artists who scour the dumps
in the daylight hours
to retrieve pieces to create murals.

In the narrow cobblestone street
that leads to the rotund Pantheon
I hesitate in front of the la gelateria,
wishing it was still open,
the rainbow colors
glistening in the display case, distract me.

As I approached the Trevi Fountain
I relax, hope I hear them,
the wading boots stirring the pool ever so faintly,
the constant churning water
cascading from the aqueduct’s ending
in the background.

Antonio Bevilacqua, a civil worker of Rome
bent over with a large scoop
drainage holes drilled in the pan
harvesting the day’s worth of international coins.
“Bouna Fortuna”, answered or not, by the fountain.

I sit on the marbled ledge at the pool’s edge
pull a bottle of grappa from a paper bag
and two quaint cheap shot glasses
purchased just for this occasion
with Romulus and Remus painted on the face
suckling the wolf.

Antonio understood without saying
my intent, why there were two glasses.
His waders pushed against the water
to join me at the fountain’s edge
“Boun Giorno”‘s exchanged,
then multilingual casual banter
interspersing Italian and English.

“Tell me Antonio – “,I asked.
“Are you tempted ever,
to keep some of the money for yourself”?

Ray Brown

Piazza Navona

February 2, 2010

Each town needs a Piazza
at least a village green that exudes life
with poets, dancing and music
children studying mimes
feeding pigeons on the walks
restaurants with outdoor tables, Italian wines
happy faces
dozens of roses being offered to beautiful ladies.

flowing waters
people strolling,
accordions and guitars,
a few shops with marvelous
but unduly expensive antiques
that whisk the mind to ages long ago.

Lovers strolling arm in arm
waiters with white shirts
red napkins draped over their arms
the word “grazie” echoing down small alleys.

and Gelato…
the evening moon silhouetted
against the tops of 600 year old buildings

Then, after the clock strikes 12
quiet and silence
only the flowing waters of the fountains
interrupting the still air
a place you can walk alone
reflect on the day just passed
and the next day’s taste of life’s essence
in Piazza Navona.

Ray Brown


January 18, 2010

Monteforte, Italy

Only now, too late,
Can I understand my father’s heart
as he spoke of moving back to Italy
to retire.

A plot of land,
black soil so fine you can turn it with your hands,
kneel on in comfort, pray the Morning Angelus.
Grow tomatoes and peppers
three times as large as American cousins.
Tend trees that make lemons the size of squash
prune vines rooted in volcanic soil
nourishing the grapes of fine wine
crushed in tubs by the feet of Mediterranean children.

Sit each day in the morning sun,
with other men of the earth
talk about the land
– reminisce of his father and grandfather.

He told me that when he was 17,
my grandfather, an immigrant,
promised they would return together.
I never took this vision seriously,
heard only the voices of modern convenience
toilets with seats
clothes dryers instead of lines
and TV, how could one live without cable?
Now at age 90,
he cannot see the screen
barely hears the words –
but still gardens and grows his tomatoes and zucchini
makes wine with the grapes of New York State.
He, a child of America’s depression and of hard work,
needs the land – not to be one of the landed.

At 60, only now I understand.
Regret, now I did not encourage him.

In the end, his Italian blood
both called him home, and kept him in America,
If he were not Italian
he would have gone –
would need no encouragement.
But la famigila – his children –
would still be here in America,
he – their patriarch,
they – would “need him.”
He was rooted in America
with seed dried in the Italian sun.

Modern Americans
take pride in distance and independence,
signs of success.
Florida in the winter without the grandchildren.
Not he.
It will take another generation
to breed la famigila from our blood
then another 50 years before a great-great-grandchild
lost, astray, in a world of gadgets
will find heart again –
make the Sunday dinners that called us home after Church,
not knowing from where the instincts sprang.

My father …
they will not know him,
but the longing in his soul
will fertilize the gardens they tend
and flavor the wine they bottle.

Ray Brown

Sancta Sanctorum

July 26, 2009

The Emperor Constantine’s mother, St. Helena
had Pontius Pilate’s steps
brought to Rome in the year 326 AD
a documented version of archaeological theft. 

Now reinstalled across the Piazza
from Sans Giovanni in Laterano,
the church of popes. 

No human foot may touch
– the 28 white marble risers
  – the Scala Santa
wooden boards installed above,
grooves worn deep by pilgrims
who ascend on their knees in silent prayer
struggling to follow the path of Christ
to acknowledge the human travail of the Diety’s
trip to mortal condemnation. 

At the top, the Chapel of the Holy of Holies,
    – the Sancta Sanctorum
where only the Pope may enter to pray… 

Tell me, if only the Pope may enter….
does he take a squirt bottle of Windex with him
and clean the fingerprints off the inside
of the bullet proof glass?
Or is there a nun, who enters quietly
at 3 AM to clean,
when the doors to the Chapel of St. Lawrence are shuttered,
the calm darkness of the night has fallen over the city
pilgrims and the clerics resting
having completed their reflection
on their day and on their God…..? 

If a sister does visit to clean,
what does God say to her
when she asks him to pick up his feet?

Ray Brown

Photos of the Scala Sancta, the Sancta Sanctorum, and the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, are posted on the Ray Brown Facebook Fan Page.