Poem of the Week | August 14, 2017

This week, we are excited to feature a new poem by Max Freeman. Freeman divides his time between writing poems and making films with his friend Margaret Singer. He holds a master’s degree in English literature from Harvard University. His poems have appeared in The Yale Review, The Common, Poetry International, and other journals. His short films have been featured at TriQuarterly, Document Journal, and The Paris Review.

Freeman was a finalist for the 2016 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. Enter here!

Confession to the Night Officers


It was to show me Giotto’s bell tower,
It resembles those little pastries
You love, he said, pink and lime and white,


That he brought me to the cathedral
On the day the recently installed bell
Was to be rung for the very first time.


Why did the little baker choose me,
And why did he insist we go alone,
Early, before the holiday crowds


Gathered below to hear the bell sing out
As its great tongue, he stuck out his tongue,
Strikes its rim for the very first time?


His exact words, there in the bakery
Thronged with boys, were: The knowledge I want
To impart isn’t suited to your friends.


The outside’s nice to look at, he said,
But the inside isn’t very sweet;
Almost everything he says relates back


To his trade somehow, and he talked that day
Without interruption as he led me
Up the stone steps to the grand top floor.


You know he’s a big man and as he talked,
Breathless from excitement or the climb up,
I wanted him to remove his stained shirt


And press his body against mine. If he sensed
What I wanted he gave no sign of it,
Focused as he was on the famous dome


About which he knows so much it must be
A pet passion. How singular it is,
How the builder made it over decades


With no example; no one, he told me,
Had ever rivaled his ambition.
He knew a thousand technical details


I can’t remember about the outer
And the inner domes—it’s two domes, really,
Shaped like eggs, and here the little baker


Expertly pretended to crack two eggs,
Which is how he was able to build it
With no scaffolding and no buttresses,


In his words an unprecedented feat,
And even the builder wasn’t certain
His plan would work, so he undertook it


In stages, because when one is baking
From a recipe no one has tried
Before, there’s no guarantee of success—


Only experience will teach whether
Each step is the right one. I was certain
All this talk was just his clumsy way


Of soliciting sex, but the truth is
He considers himself a builder
Like Brunelleschi. He used this moment


To explain his method for making pies
With beef tongue, his personal recipe,
One he perfected by imagining


In his mind every necessary thing
And then proceeding in such a way that
He could respond to his materials.


First, he said, I massage the cow’s tongue,
It’s big as an arm and gray as a worm;
I knead the tough meat hard, it requires


The length of my forearm and the leveraged weight
Of my body, then I boil it briefly
In water and salt to loosen the skin


Which I slice from the spongy red meat
Underneath. When it’s finished it looks
Like the flayed penis of a giant.


He says the dome’s supreme excellence
Is that it tells you nothing about the builder
Except that he made it. While he talked like this


He positioned me in a deep window
So that I could see the people below
But they couldn’t see him. He slid my pants


To the floor. I didn’t see his penis
But I felt it rubbing against my hole.
I won’t describe for you what he did then


Except to say that I thought he was in
Control until I heard him moan
And I turned and saw the look on his face


And then I knew that I had the power,
Or to be exact we shared it. I’m here
In person because he told me


He had destroyed one of those boxes
You place in churches for accusations
Of sodomy, when no one was looking,


He broke it open and burned its contents.
After I let him use me he said
That when he was a boy just like myself


He happened to see a sodomite
Stripped naked and transported on an ass
To the city wall near Santa Croce.


He joined the parade, mesmerized
By the sight of the naked boy and pricked
With guilt, as if it were somehow his fault.


While the crowd laughed the scared boy was punished
In that part of his body where he’d sinned,
A red hot iron shoved between his thighs,


If you’ve seen Donatello’s David
You know the feathers brush him obscenely
Right where his two legs meet, and here he made


A sizzling sound like meat frying in a pan,
His big sweaty face twisted in horror,
And then, he told me, for good measure,


They castrated the boy, who was 15.
He couldn’t understand how a penis
Could be imagined to do more damage


To the boy’s anus than scalding iron
Or how his private pleasure harmed
Florence more than this evil spectacle.


I don’t know whether this story was meant
To warn me of how you might punish me
Or how you’d punish him, but I do know


That although you have been charged by the state
With rooting out this terrible vice
Because of which omnipotent God


Who died for us on the holy cross
Is angry with our city and sends plagues,
I also know that it’s your practice


To show mercy to people who confess,
Especially if they are young men,
So I came to you in person to beg


Mercy for myself and the baker too.


Author’s Note:

I’ve been itching to write a poem like “Confession to the Night Officers” ever since I spent a semester at the Villa I Tatti in Florence. I quickly took a liking to I Tatti’s erudite head librarian, Michael Rocke, but it was from others at the library that I learned he’s a historian and the author of Forbidden Friendships, a meticulous account of the prosecution of sodomy in Renaissance Florence. I read the book immediately.

In 1432 the city I was living in had become so notorious for gay sex that a special commission was established with the sole purpose of policing it. During the 70 years of the Night Officers’ existence, some 15,000 men and boys were implicated in sodomy and 2,400 were convicted. The commission also produced a vast archive of court records, which Rocke calls “one of the richest sources in premodern Europe for the reconstruction of homosexual experience.”

Two historical figures from Forbidden Friendships make their way into my poem: Jacopo d’Andrea, referred to as the little baker, who “denounced himself at least five times” for sodomizing 24 adolescents, including an infraction committed in the Giotto’s campanile on the same day the great bell was installed in 1473; and Giovanni di Giovanni, a 15-year-old boy who was castrated before a crowd in 1365.

Finally, it may be relevant to note that two of the famous makers mentioned in the poem, Brunelleschi and Donatello, were confirmed bachelors and lifelong friends, about whom Vasari wrote: “the two conceived such great love for each other, each because of the other’s talents, that neither seemed to know how to live without the other.”