The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

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.

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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 ranges from the prototypical greatness achieved by an explorer or scientist to the ordinary drama of falling in love, or the extraordinary drama of falling over a waterfall, to let the reader know the speaker does not take his musing completely seriously. Rather, the poem—and the poet—seem pointedly self-aware. The reader cannot help but infer a kind of self-sardonic, American-poet-in-Europe-on-a-fellowship tone in this early section of the poem. The fact that the speaker feels “comfortable there” in the piazza with Rafaella and trusts her advice, “a woman who, with the ball of her exquisite thumb,/ Carefully flared rouge along the white cheekbones/ Of the most beautiful women in the world,” casts Rafaella in both a dominant and frivolous role.

In an interview, St. John talked about Rafaella as a strong woman, an “activating character,” and the speaker in the poem as passive. The speaker in this poem is tentative and lacks the presence of Rafaella, who travels in circles of “famous, even notorious” designers, and who bring “tears to the eyes/ Of contessas, movie stars, and diplomats’ wives.” Fashion that brings tears to the eyes is either unutterably beautiful, or St. John is not so subtly mocking the whole industry of which Rafaella is a part.

The second half of the poem fully explores the sensuality that is introduced with lines about Rafaella: “A friend who’d/ Often rub the opal on her finger so slowly// It made your mouth water.” The speaker in the poem is tantalized by Rafaella telling him “what it would be like/ To feel her tongue addressing [his] ear.” The scene then shifts from the café to Rafaella’s bedroom, where the speaker views a small tattoo just above her hip bone, by moonlight. He then runs his finger along her collarbone, circles the tattoo—the “shy angel”—while the stars shift “in their rack of black complexities above.” The poem ends with an image of Rafaella’s hair falling on the speaker’s shoulder “To some whole other level of the breath.” This sonorous but ambiguous phrase suggests Rafaella is indeed powerful, at least as powerful as life-giving breath; yet breath is fleeting and must be repeated.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 442

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 clothing as ornament or a kind of armor against nakedness.

The speaker thinks about Rafaella’s observation as he listens to “the owls marking the distances” as they hunt in the night sky. This image, coupled as it is with “geometries/ Of the dark,” is a striking one. This marking or measuring imagery continues as the speaker traces the “delicate winged ridge of her/ Collarbone, running the harp length of [her] ribs.” It should come as no surprise that Rafaella’s tattoo is on her hip, ornamental rather than protective, a dove or an angel, and that her ribs form a harp. Here St. John offers the possibility that Rafaella is a transcendent, spiritual being, or that she offers the speaker a vehicle for the transcendence he seeks.

The final lines of the poem complete the vision of her lyrical beauty and power as her hair falls “in coils,// Like the frayed silk of some ancient tapestry,/ Like the spun cocoons of the Orient—/ Like a fragile ladder.” These rich, luxurious images also hold a suggestion of ancient wisdom and of the means, albeit a fragile means, of reaching “a whole other level of the breath,” of consciousness. These images, occurring as they do at the poem’s end, leave the reader a final perception of Rafaella as both a strong and ethereal beauty, capable of assisting the speaker in reaching the meaningful life he says he seeks in the opening lines.

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Themes