The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

David St. John’s “Last Night with Rafaella” consists of twenty-six “stanzas” varying in length from a single line to nine lines, a classic free-verse or open-form poem. As is typical with this form of poem, there is no fixed or predominant meter, rather a sweeping musical cadence that is the hallmark of a long, open lyric.

In 1984, St. John received the Prix de Rome Fellowship in literature, awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and spent a year in Rome, where he began work on “Last Night with Rafaella.” The poem is a recollection of an evening the speaker in the poem spent in long conversation with Rafaella, a makeup artist in the world of high fashion. Rafaella is “a sophisticated,/ Well-traveled woman, so impossible/ To shock,” while the speaker wants to talk about “changing [his] life,” “The spiritual life,” and his own “Long disenchantment with the ordinary world.”

Roughly, the first half of the poem takes place in one of the “outside tables” of the café “Rosati” in the “Piazza del Popolo.” Here the speaker muses about “Doing something meaningful—perhaps/ Exploring a continent or discovering a vaccine,” while Rafaella strokes the back of his wrist. The other “meaningful” activities the speaker considers are “Falling in love or over the white falls/ Of a dramatic South American river!—”

The spectrum of meaningful activities purposefully...

(The entire section is 595 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The speaker in “Last Night with Rafaella” is charmed by her; he rhapsodizes about her sensual gestures (slowly rubbing an opal on her finger until she makes his “mouth water”). As the two lie in bed together, St. John includes a rather obvious sexual image— “wind knocking at those stiff/ Umbrella pines along her garden’s edge.” Most of his references to Rafaella are beautiful, subtle, and lyrical, however. He describes the ball of her thumb as “exquisite,” the small tattoo “just above her hip bone” as a “dove in flight or an angel with its/ Head tucked beneath its wing.”

When Rafaella speaks in the poem, she makes a strikingly beautiful, deceptively simple observation:

Do you know how to tell a model?In fashion, they wear tattoos like singular beadsAlong their hips, but artists’ modelsWear them like badges against the daily nakedness,

She goes on to give the example of Celestine, who “has above one nipple that/ Minute yellow bee and above/ The other an elaborate, cupped poppy.” The two similes Rafaella utters, tattoos like “singular beads” or “badges,” serve to distinguish the two types of models—and perhaps the two types of women—who wear their tattoos or...

(The entire section is 442 words.)