Michael White
Cobblestones at night with beam of light running across them.
Photo by Ray Fragapane

We moored at dusk. The gangway clanked & swayed 
                 beneath my weight, Vesuvius a blue 

ghost at my back as I walked into Naples
                 on the seawall. Threads of laughter floated

toward me from a gathering below
                 the great, black towers of Castel Nuovo. 

Soon I saw a platinum blonde, in heels 
                 & stockings, standing at the center of

a throng of my shipmates, some of them clutching twenties. 
                 This was April 1975.

I woke the next day in a state of terror. 
                 Slowly, I remembered swallowing

a four-way windowpane I’d bought in front 
                 of the USO. Bad trip, I thought. So this

is what it feels like. Snakes coiling beneath 
                 my skin. But this was only the beginning.


Often, in AA, we talk about 
                 a line we’ve crossed, a point of no return,

but in my case, it wasn’t quite that clear.
                 In April 1975, I’d head 

for the Piazza del Municipio 
                 almost every evening; idle over

tables full of rosaries & switchblades;
                 breathe the air of oranges, fish stalls, angels

frozen on their pedestals against
                 a solferino sky. I don’t know why

I’d wander, wine-drunk, through the crumbling slums
                 that scale the slopes of the Vomero. I

remember, one night, clambering up a staircase 
                 alley barely wider than my shoulders.

All around me, I could hear the rustling 
                 sound of running water. Suddenly, 

a wave of rats swarmed down on me, cascading 
                 like a waterfall of shadows through 

the shadows. I remember turning, slipping, 
                 plunging in one motion straight into 

a trash heap; & then leaping up & running,
                 flying downhill over the cobblestones

until I reached the lights of Via Toledo. 
                 There I stopped, & I shook myself, as if 

my sleeves were full of rats, as if my veins 
                 were full of rats. I lit a cigarette—

its bright-orange ember glowing in each shop
                 I passed on my way toward my ship—& by 

the time a hammered sheen had spread across 
                 the black glass of the harbor, we were gone.

Michael White’s poetry collections are The Island, from Copper Canyon Press; Palma Cathedral, winner of the Colorado Prize; Re-entry, winner of the Vassar Miller Prize; and Vermeer in Hell, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Editors Prize, published by Persea Books. His memoir, Travels in Vermeer, also published by Persea Books, was longlisted for a National Book Award. His work has appeared in the Paris Review, New Republic, and Best American Poetry. White served in the U.S. Navy from 1974 to 1978.