View of Toledo
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.