What He Thought — A poem by Heather McHugh

Giordano Bruno at Campo dei Fiori
Giordano Bruno at Campo dei Fior

I remember walking through Campo dei Fiori, a lovely piazza near Piazza Navona in Rome, Italy.  That was in 1976. And I remember Ettore Ferrari’s dramatic statue representing Giordano Bruno, facing the Vatican.  The statue placed in the spot where Bruno was burned at the stake by the church, for his heretical writings on Heliocentrism – the idea that earth was not the center of the universe, but rotated round the sun. (Read more: Honoring a Heretic Whom Vatican ‘Regrets’ Burning at the NY Times)

And today, driving home, listening to NPR, I heard poet Heather McHugh read her poem, What He Thought, which features Campo dei Fiori and Bruno. What an amazing thing to be tooling along the road, and suddenly find myself in tears at the simple powerful beauty of McHugh’s words. Her poem sneaks up on me and provides a deeper understanding of Bruno and his courage to speak truth to power.

The image in the poem, of the iron mask, will stay with me for some time…

Here are the spoken and written forms of McHugh’s poem What He Thought.  To hear Heather McHugh read her poem, click on play (the triangular button).

[audio:http://travelsketchwrite.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/What_He_Thought.mp3|titles=What He Thought|artists=Heather McHugh]

What He Thought

by Heather McHugh

for Fabbio Doplicher

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the mayor, mulled
a couple matters over (what does it mean
flat drink asked someone, what does it mean
cheap date?). Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts:
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib—and there was one

administrator (the conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was the most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed. Our last few days in Rome
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn’t read Italian, either, so I put the book
back into the wardrobe’s dark. We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
“What’s poetry?”
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?” Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think—”The truth
is both, it’s both,” I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest to say. What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statute represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which is to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government, but rather is
poured in waves through all things. All things
move. “If God is not the soul itself, He is
the soul of the soul of the world.” Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which

he could not speak. That’s
how they burned him. That is how
he died: without a word, in front
of everyone.
And poetry—
(we’d all
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.

Source: Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 (Wesleyan University Press, 1994)

Heather McHugh, “What He Thought”, from Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968-1993 © 1994 by Heather McHugh and reprinted by permission of Wesleyan University Press. www.wesleyan.edu/wespress

One thought on “What He Thought — A poem by Heather McHugh

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