View of Toledo

View of Toledo by El Greco, 1600

View of Toledo

After cheese and peppers and broccoli and bread,

my eyes go back to Toledo, restive, stark, and heart-fed,

one of eleven of El Greco's paintings at my feet,

where out of a cerulean mist, just where the moon

should be, the sky sucks on a burning candle,

a century of disillusion and disbelief clogging

the hole it vacuums sloppily into, all the avarice

and sloth, all the charity and gloom there is.

No terribilita, no dolorous skulls of olive-black,

but rather teeny, friendly Giacometti girls

who skinny-dip, will-o'-the-wisp, peopling

the pelagic, ice-green fields of whiskey bush.

Nowhere near dawn, the river gushes waters

blowhard up to Puente Alcantara and the Alcazar,

the alimentary canals of a breathing, upsurged earth.

Virgin of the Good Milk

Twenty years ago, when I was twenty-one and first in love,

I sat and drew your face a thousand times,

trying to dictate the softness of carnelian--

the opacity of eyes--the possibility of an office

in delusion. Here is a wreath of hands around a child,

my youngest brother, the lap I never had so blue

or sheen or supple, robes, flat enough and undulous

that dying ermine clung in the creases, the brushstrokes

bodies floating, as if in abstract expressionist collage,

like the Beckmann I sit before as I draw you now.

We'd met in Santiago once, I thought, but here

it's St. Anne's voice, and the sure, male posturing of Joseph

that brings alive the scarlets and the mustard seed,

the oleander smell four hundred years still melted

into honey. The virgin's breasts, so full and veined

and pink, nonplussed, lead life to this child of mine,

to the whole planet's household with its latticed clouds

which sit in some god's machine for the Dioscuri.

But the theater is inside of me: the painting

quietly releases it, releases it through the good milk.


On Demarol, I came across the Laocoon,

so unMichaelangelesque it cracked into shards

in front of me, the sky-blues washing tears

from every bourgeois revolution thwarted.

A mass of fears and puce, only the horse

comes clean--she pertly canters into town,

be it Troy, New York or Toledo, Ohio,

a city so burnished by hellish mother-of-pearl

it's any Appalachian smelt town dying.

Wooden, full of Greeks, the saffron mare

triumphs over tyranny--the mess that's left

and foregrounded is Laocoon and his sons

wrestling with vipers for their shit talk

at the gods, who look more like flames than

man or woman, with certain relish in their eyes.

The father cradles a snake while one son dies,

and the other, plying serpent like an armature

or harp, transmogrifies to bitumen or ash.

And the gods burn upwards towards the city

and the maelstrom clouds--just backdrop

now for this sad and sorry station of the cross.

An Unknown Man

This portrait celebrates the physicality of earth,

seen through the eyes of a mystic, a wanderer come home,

a man no less like me than you my reader are.

A retrato mundial, a theater for the Pyrric mind,

paper-thin his lips that barely part

announce a shifting syllable, amor.

For it is love in the olive eyes, set in softest palettes

of plaster, sockets sunk but full of the dark-to-light

which presses the beam of soul along and through

the egg-whites gazing out, his long, inelegant

broken nose some half-assured ascendancy

of Bourbons or barrel-making artisans,

slumped into ax-hewn chairs sot full of port.

Most suppliant of flowers--an umber ilex

hidden in cottonwood bosks of Madrid, Vallodolid,

the chestnut, tousled hair that's pocketed

by the same, grey-white hairs that fall

on my arms as I both write and look.

The lilt of eyebrows--from Crete, or Muscovite

harks back upon an impish wooing of the dark,

to the nine-year-old in each of us who cries

Why? cramped in a corner, weeping on a doll.

The inquisition in his stare is all benevolence,

all that church and state of Denmark smother.

It's lust, one last love for brother, friend, or lover.

His bullock shoulders, ewe's neck, are left unmodeled,

the signature in black-on-tar in Greek so flat

that the head thrusts out--a pistil of the most sexual

of plants--across the picture plane to me, hiding

what's ill in unsaid folds of an unarticulated room,

to my face and lips, as I both say and write this.

The mannered brushstroke, an Elizabethan will

to mottled dark of fifty varnishes, quells

whatever torment of emotions lays beneath,

with welcome, familiarity, and easy bliss:

this is the face, known to us all, that we must kiss.

Assumption of Mary

A chorus of angels and apostles surround the sinewy coils of her robes.

Toccata in Fugue starts up in the coffee shop's back parlor.

Eyes rolled back, epileptic, utterly clean, the woman--

poet, seamstress, hagiographer herself--gives in

to the cooing of an all-white rock dove, while

ephemeral, Puck-like putti shore her up

towards the clamorous cirro-cumulus clouds

of an immanent thunderstorm, a typhoon that

Jonah founders in, lost at sea, while near

Gethsemane, after an agony in the garden,

roses and lilies garlanded, the tomb unlocks,

Moses, Elijah, Enoch, and Christ are there

to see her step up into third heaven's gate,

where her soul can be returned to flesh,

where two suns are likely to collide,

where all the shifting planes of earth are rocked

by torrential rains. Mas alto! Mas alto!

the painter cries as he daubs at her vermilion,

millions of azure tips that stoke flames

above her rising form, and she ascends, like

Faust as he calls to Helen, above the darkness

of the submarine world of the Mothers, this mother

smells like cinnabar and clove as she flees

from an ordinary death and a pale white horse.

Above Jerusalem, the Siebengebirge, the hillsides

of the Catskills, she rides on, air and fire relenting.

Adoration of the Shepherds

Cedars of Lebanon, Levantine hills, coursing me

through childhood, here adorn the stucco barnyard

outside Bethlehem. Kings in their own right,

the herders bring gifts of grape, cornstalk,

sunflowers. An ox lies down to figure an O

between the swaddling clothes and Joseph.

Certainly, no music. All is still.

Under the babe and muzzle of the ox

a lamb lies awkwardly, four feet

drawn together in an X, unforeshortened,

as often poems are made to fit

a certain gap or lapse inside the poet.

At my own child’s birth there were shepherds

to watch by night, but in the downpour

you could hear outside St. Vincent’s,

the moon is numb, illumination come

when she is born. In the painting, dry thunder

cracks, a single oak receives the bolt.

Prefiguring an outstretched hand of the father,

a creature like a flame, a harrier or an onager

raises his limbs to the stricken tree. At the center

of this spinning whorl of paint is an eerie white,

translucent, forgiving, issuing from the manger

where the child is squirming, all gesticulation,

a swash of bone meal white is paste for tiny thighs,

feet, and fingers, and just a bristle hair of black

around the mouth reveals the burgeoning of joy.

Descent of the Holy Ghost

Under fingers of flame, the virgin Mary, apostles Paul, Mark,

and Matthew, St. Anne and St. Joseph sit in amazement

as the heavens open up in the central foyer

of my basilica, on the edge of any continent,

on the westernmost slope of Mt. Athos,

on the dovecot islands of the Hebrides,

as a wounded phalarope with thistle in its beak

appears with a wing on fire, the dire and deathly

image of an afterlife, of birchwoods

closeting a wolverine, a plethora of dolls,

of children beating on a fox with clubs,

a Degas horse that pirouettes--roiling,

shark-infested waters of Boston Harbor,

a shot-put Greek who sweats profusely,

Indian corn snakes in a pickle jar,

a speaking in tongues--the word is Adonais--

the meadows swell with Durer’s rabbits,

heads thrown over, the witnesses will break

their backs, breasts, ankles, fingers,

and shins, the ear, the eye, the scalp,

the scolding yellowthroat, a rattle

of cicadas, the bonebreak cry of hawks,

Montparnasse, Thomas Mann,

crystal chandeliers, histories of clover,

Sumo wrestling angels, Arabian nights,

wunderkammern aus Prague, a thick

dark mist intoned with arias, with cargo planes,

hosannas, Amsterdam's best sex, one last glance

at the candlelight: flames above their heads

are pinwheels shooting at the stars, the moon,

a perfect agent for the ghosts in Mare Imbrium,

the maudlin terror of a swollen and humiliated pride.

St. Joseph and the Child

The city of Sodom behind him is a wolf-trap for the boy,

who, at nine or ten, is leaving his innocence behind.

His protector, maybe now a friend, staff in hand,

has plans to keep the boy from trouble. Help out

at the Lemnos leper colony, take a long day’s walk

to seine for toadfish in the Red Sea's rocks, clean

out goatfolds, spy meadowlarks, hike to where

what is seen can also be eaten. He'll learn the names

of plants, will learn to flock and tack and shear

the sheep, to profit from another’s errant ways,

to proffer bread--perhaps, as well, to walk on water.

An adolescent’s path is fear and truth and tyranny

and torpor, and the muscles lengthen on the calf,

as the voice unlocks its pearls from many larynxes,

begins to sing in parables and pastourelles and lays.

It’s here, along arroyos of the Tagus River,

that the father gathers his will up into a ball

to fling up to the riotous and soothing clouds.

St. Martin and the Beggar

The sky is pond-calm today as clouds catch cobalt

and crush it into stones for the greening earth,

for the shimmering invisible valley

of aqueducts and castles. Each detail unfinished

is the emerald green of the brine-fed moorgrass,

and the three foreground figures are thus magnified.

The beggar of the long, distended finger points

to the shifting underearth as he, sidelong, apes

St. Martin, who's already given his cloak of colibri

to the naked youth whose own lank and

writhing length might rival Apollo. I dizzy

watching. My television’s off: no plot unfolds

but the reactionary hero’s theme of charity.

But my own body, scantily dressed, tired

at the spacious writing desk on a July afternoon,

can rocket up and fly with the equine in the men,

the human in the cold but fiery stallion on the plain.

Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino

The lift of your hands can start a revolution. Holding a book

of Petrarch's poems together with the sacred text of Philip’s court,

all doubt is lifted, I am in love with the look

in your eyes that says, I am here and the world lives on

because of my beauty. In a leather chair, a Trinitarian cross

drags the front of your loins, a blood red silence comes

from a century across the sea, from Lisbon and La Coruna,

the port of call to the New World’s mineral mysteries.

Gold—you have no need of it, but I'll paint you in gold,

just as the painter you sang in sonnets painted you

with a generosity of vision, with kindness in your brow:

your rural preaching must have knocked out St. John

in his cell, to improve upon the word of God, speaking it,

like Lorca, in the language of flowers, in the quick glance

of a pear girl in Andalusia, in the prowess to be found outside

the court, across Extremadura, in the gutters of Madrid.

Vision of St. John

At eighteen, I stood before this painting in the Metropolitan,

not knowing the youth with outstretched arms was me.

The pulsing depths of a moraine-grey sky intrigued me,

and each shadow-self, entirely nude, had cried down

the origins of earth. This was not earth, no horsemen

fleeing--just blood red cloaks, flapping in a west wind.

Marsh of Decay, Marsh of Sleep, these were cavities

and craters of the Moon, with names like Catharina,

Schiller and Billy. The march of progress dimmed,

the burgeoning fright I'd felt in witches' kitchens

graced the quasi-human forms that iterated angst.

Sex on a dirty Mexican sidestreet, kissing, rowing,

more kissing of a girl with one green eye and a blue,

a rape in a tent in a Massachusetts racked with loons,

the Furies here were chasing me--blinding not Orpheus

for what he'd done or not done, out and away from any

kindness kindled in the past. Nudity was a door to reach

for flames, soft breasts and genitalia all but going up

in smoke of sulphur, a boulder crumbling down on deer.

Tintoretto's colors smudged the robes, the robes that

were supposed to be stark white and clean, a sign

of certain resurrection for the ones who slandered God,

made his word mine, outside the Dead Sea droughts.

Sweating, I drop my pencil and faint upon the floor,

the apocalyptic sea of vapors is Byzantium on fire.

Complete abandonment and blackout, but I was gaining

ground, except for the room which whirled around me,

from which these elegant fiery creatures bowed and shrank.

These eleven poems were written at Yaddo Corporation in 1999.