Venus on a bus.
A Botticelli
rising from
the sea of faces.

Venus on a bus.
Spun-gold hair
falls in waves
around her shoulders.

Venus on a bus.
Tired commuters,
strap-hanging, are
mute in veneration.

Venus on a bus.
Teenagers adore her
from a distance,
ungainly cupids.

Venus on a bus.
Eager for her smile,
one stands and
offers her his seat.

Venus on a bus.
Ignoring his offered
cockleshell, she
rings the bell.

Venus on a bus.
She alights; her
worshippers sigh:
reality returns.

 

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Who knows where poetry comes from?  In this case I can date the germinal idea pretty exactly: late May, 1982.  I was in Italy – Florence, to be precise – and I had just stumbled from the Uffizi Gallery, stunned.

I’ve known Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ all my life, and even if you think you don’t know it, you do:

A definition of depilated Beauty: The Birth of...

The Birth of Venus. Sandro Botticelli. (1486)
Source: Wikipedia

When I say I’ve known it all my life I mean I don’t know exactly when I first saw a print of it, but I doubt that I was more than 3.  Dad had many fine art books and I was allowed to “read” them, with suitable guidance as to turning pages carefully and not scribbling in them.

And that’s how I “knew” the painting: as a large colour print in a folio-sized art book.  Beautiful.  But that was the only way I knew it: a print around 180mm X 280mm (7″ X  11″ or thereabouts).

The Uffizi changed that.  I had no idea of the glory, the detail, the delicacy or the sheer scale of the work.

It’s a big painting: 172.5 cm × 278.5 cm (67.9 in × 109.6 in).  When I walked into the chamber it struck me dumb.  I don’t know if this is still the case but in 1982 you could stand within a metre or so of the painting.  Nothing between you and Botticelli’s genius except a velvet rope on brass stanchions, with a bored armed guard to one side.

I literally spent an hour in front of that one painting, until eventually my brother dragged me away.  We toured the rest of the gallery, but The Birth of Venus is all that really stays with me – not so much the actual image since I have almost no capacity for visual memory, but the impact it made upon me.

And later, outside the gallery, sitting in a street-side caffé I happened to glance up at a passing bus.  And there she was: Botticelli’s Venus amongst the other passengers.  Just another Florentine girl, stepped from a 15th C. painting and made 20th C. flesh.

That’s where this poem comes from, that unknown girl glimpsed for a moment and then gone.