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The Bridge Poetry Series highlights an esteemed literary tradition: poetry inspired by art. This series establishes a unique opportunity for Wisconsin poets to write and read ekphrastic poems. In the second century AD, ekphrasis (description) was a rhetorical exercise of creating mental images with words, and it frequently began with a description of artworks.
The program was launched in spring 2012 by Madison poets Katrin Talbot, Sara Parrell, Susan Elbe, and Jesse Lee Kercheval in collaboration with the Chazen Museum of Art. Twice yearly, in conjunction with a spring and fall exhibition, about a dozen poets visit the exhibition, write poems, and then take part in a group reading at the Chazen. The series intends to build bridges between art forms and among poets all over Wisconsin and celebrate diversity of style, affiliation, age, and ethnicity.
The second Bridge Poetry Series reading was November 1, 2012. Poets wrote in response to Offering of the Angels: Paintings and Tapestries from the Uffizi Gallery. Their poems are published here. Enjoy.
Uffizi Gallery Exhibit, Chazen Museum, 2012
The bread on the table becomes the table.
The dishes depart. The goblets
leave their wine mid-air, in orbit
around the boy asleep beside Christ, after Christ
has become two stripped sticks
propped on a hill,
has become a word, has become a word
for that word, until his name
might as well be Ambulance
* * *
The wrong kind of saving is still saving.
You take out your camera
on the dark riverbank, after the bridge
has grown too tired to stand,
while the barges capsize in the tumult,
while the headlights blink out
two by two underwater.
Or you announce to a room full of strangers:
once, you sat in a hospital beside your father
until he was a gallon of breath
inching unseen toward the ventilation,
until he was a sheet, was a stain
in the shape of himself
the nurses took away.
* * *
The body on the table becomes the table.
You’re still the boy asleep at dinner
until you wake as a prophet in an empty room
where the painting you’re a part of has begun to fade.
And the doctors have some papers for you to sign.
And the papers want to know why you just stood there
while the townspeople drowned.
And the townspeople, and your father, they want to know—
will it be the way you say it will: mostly fire
and a hurt that won’t stop?
* * *
What you know is what you dreamed.
You imagine a Graceland
where the televisions play
side by side, as if speaking
to one another; as if someone
still lives there.
Or a mansion in Massachusetts
where Dickinson’s dress
dangles, a ghost boxed in glass.
* * *
You try to remember.
You can’t remember.
The body on the table that becomes the table
might still be a body somewhere
in a high-tech crematorium
that burns so clean it doesn’t cough
the white smoke of the Vatican that means
“he is among us,” or the black smoke
that means “we don’t know,”
but vapor—colorless—meaning something
you can’t name. Meaning some
kind of saving.
You will go your way among dim shapes,
Sappho says of the twelve minutes trailing death.
The breath having been lost to, lungs
transparent now, additional as the rafting body
of a janthina snail at sea. By-the-wind sailor,
shadow of the hook on the door. All weekend
I write with my fingernail on my forearm,
watching the letters rise to the surface, stay.
This, my new parlor trick, is still dazzling.
But I have nothing good to say on my body—
only the name they gave me, only its three initials
italic and wandering: in the lock of the C
a man who bows for the priest’s wet palm
to his forehead. Listen for blessing; it stems out
like a jungle leaf uncurling from his mouth…
In an hour, my body is blank again, palimpsest—
all the mistaking of a signature for meaning
has been erased. I don’t want to look at these angels
numbered along the walls of the quiet museum.
Their bassinet dressings, goldleaf, a pyx
challenged only by how many squadrons
of light march out from it into the mille-feuille-
dragged clouds. The thousand ridiculous sheets
are a thousand ridiculous sheets. I want an angel
who would die like me. Here, among the others, black
and white as an old show, I find an x-ray of the same
mother and child, who have always had nothing
to reveal to me—only that they were, in a sense,
people. And not like me, but with stories
that have—so far—lasted forever. Inside the infant
is a sketch of an infant, and inside my skin
is the next landscape of skin. I will do my
forgetting and everyone, in turn, will forget
about me. Pentimenti, accidental paint, a face
retouched on purpose. Where is the non-permanent
thing in this gallery of all permanent things?
Sometimes I think I can watch for the yellow
whispering. Yes, I am jealous of the gods.
I would steal their fire. I would carry it in one
long, olamic lap around the city. Brightness
for an infinite moment. Then the lonely
punishment, darkness starting from my hands.
after the painting by Fabrizio Boschi (1594–1597)
I do not need to be told, old man,
how he humbled thee, and suffered
thee to hunger, how we are forced
to gratitude through famine
and pain. Forty years of loss –
my woman’s lot – and I know Man
doth not live by bread alone. I cast
my eyes down, clutching
this vacancy like a humble pewter
bowl holds its emptiness,
its doubt. I cannot believe in this
manna from heaven – I am
a mouth full of tamarisk, of dust,
God’s word mere silver lichen.
The heart stutters and stops.
Death is a shawl we stretch our limbs
beneath. Sunken ribs, no heart
or lungs to swell and contract,
nothing to break the quiet.
– Sand fans the emptied sky –
How much I would give for relief,
for love restored, for a gift that
comes before it is too late.
By every word that proceedeth out
of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.
Tooth-white, this rain of old age.
How much I desire my hair
to whiten, not with labor, but with
the flowering drift of promise.
To hear manna fall
not in silence but in ash-song –
God’s words woven into hymn,
gentling me like a mother’s hand
skimming her daughter’s head.
To lower my bowl, scoop up
hope and then, greedy, to lift the hem
of my dress to cradle and catch
whatever else I might have missed.
In portrait after portrait of Adam and Eve, you recognize their eyes of animal midnight. Intimately. You recognize the straw dog of the snake strung up in the night of their trees like a nefarious cigar. You recognize that in all of our trees, a temptation of treason. In all of our trees, a blackout city, capable if uncoiled of the brightest evasions, the brightest collusions, the brightest of effusions to reach up for again and again. But there is a deficit of language in their immaculate mouths, a vast unemployment in their immaculate feet. Their knees have never known the cold of the bathroom floor in December. They’ve never been up nights with each other, stomach sick, head sick, heart sick, butt sick, never had to quilt over and broth-feed and placidly bathe the shivering isles of fidelity, loyalty, anxiety, never had to douse the doubt that is the collateral of depression, the doubt that is the congenital defect of our sorrowing mansions, never woke in the morning to find your cloudless suncult of a friend had died in her sleep, never had to find a blanket, a box, the right strength of hands to sift through the irredeemable cold of what’s left for what’s never coming back. Adam and Eve, the apple unbit, have never had to admit to themselves that, while all the renaissance paintings they are in are beautiful, there is a squalling arctic whiteness to them that is terrifying, a privilege in the plumpness of their white angel babies that is terrifying. So many fat white babies clouding the sky. Gull-winged babies and goldfinch babies, babies stalling the stormclouds with calm-white dove-like wings. They are the announcers, the messengers, the stayers-of-hands. Adam and Eve never have to un-coin their eyes to this imbalance, the inequity and ingenuity, the ignorance and incessant beauty. In the land of no mothers and fathers, leaving the apple unbit is the only sin. Some choices are the frayed ends of two wires arcing reddest electricities between their raw, uncoiled fingers. Some choices are rolling blackouts. Some choices are not choices at all. To wake in the dark of the woods and realize we have been created at all is to realize we have not always been, that we will not always be. We are not born to stake a claim, but to claim a stake in each other, to burn alive if needed in the pure resurrection of our simultaneous decay.
Chazen Art Museum, August 23, 2012
Jesus flies from frame to frame. Here
he's an infant with an ancient face.
And here he's already risen, or hasn't been born,
or hovers in Limbo
with hordes of the half-lost below him.
The gallery goers can never quite catch
the spirit in flight. It tends to blur
at the edge of human vision. Millions
of rods and cones in the retina,
and still by the time we focus
it's tucked back under these strokes
of post-Renaissance paint.
By the time we turn it's limp on the cross.
Crowned in the air. Cultural artifact.
Money in the bank.
Maybe once? I saw the pigment slightly tremble.
It's the rods, right? that scan the periphery
for motion, while the cones go for the meat
of the matter, suckers for the obvious.
All I know about looking at art
is that it takes a lot of movement
to keep a painting still. Like watching
the beat of a hummingbird's wings.
You know it's happening, but all you see
is iridescence poised, posed at the lip
of some flower of this world.
All you see is the lovely hover.
The flight itself dissolves, reassembles always
one crucial instance quicker than the eye.
What I feel is the implication of wing beats
in these paintings, this town, this night.
Or maybe it's just the rush and buzz
of the complimentary wine I feel
as we browse madonnas and mangers
and martyrs nearly 400 years
after the last drop of paint dried.
As we stand in our glamorous shoes,
and muted layers, garments
so miraculously soft
the children who spun them
might as well have been the angels
in these paintings, just as anonymous
and poorly paid.
All I know is that it's the whirling
that composes the fixed, right?
Some everlasting motion
that steadies the temporal.
But it's strange, the face that strikes me most
tonight is not an angel’s, nor the Lord's,
nor God's tired-ahead-of-time face
as he triggers the pulse in Adam.
It's a face in a painting by Giovanni Martinelli.
“Ecce Homo”—Behold the man, is the title.
It's only hours before the crucifixion.
Pilate presents the beaten Lord to the rabble,
duly agitated. Jesus stands, unsteady,
already crowned with thorns.
They always like to rough-up gods
a few crucial centuries
before they stamp them on the coins.
But it's this young woman with an infant in her arms,
who gets much of the light in the painting
as Jesus looks down from the balcony.
Elsewhere in the museum—there's a pregnant virgin
in a flame-red party dress. There's baby John
and baby Jesus. Flakes of manna falling
from the blue vault of heaven.
Behold the Man—is the title, but it's the woman
we mostly behold. Ecce Femina?
She seems familiar, though likely she's a model
picked up cheap from the streets of Florence
back in a cruel time, as all times are,
to hold the future in her face.
It’s a long way from then until this night.
It's partly that time we've come here to feel.
And these ancient strokes of paint
time seems to faintly animate.
What is it about the nameless dead
that won't quite fully fall down?
Why be haunted by the ghost of this girl
looking up at the man they've tried their best
to beat the god out of?
Is she offering her infant? Holding the child up
for some last ditch blessing? And which way
would such a blessing flow?
Sometimes I still think the lie of art is not.
Sometimes I think a spirit moves
in the particulars of a painting
like they say the molecules move
to give the illusion of solid walls, floor,
the physical bodies in this gallery.
For me, the least dead thing in the room
is the stroke of light in this girl's face
that won't go out, or how young
old art can seem, or how far the painter
saw beyond what he intended.
Sadness inhabits this canvas, incurable,
except for the woman's face, caught right
at the brink of—adoration? That's the word,
I think. But not for this man, or god. I mean
adoration is the god. Not the one adored.
Not the man beheld. I mean beholding
is the god, the brief embrace of now,
blur at the edge of the retina's reach
out where the cones can't see, but the rods
sense faint unearthly motion.
It's the implication of wings, like waves
that catch and let go, like the bristles
of Martinelli's brush caught
and lifted and left these strokes of light
on a woman and child, and therefore magnified
the darkness, and therefore the intervening years.
It's the looking, not the icon observed.
What is truth? Pilate asked Jesus
just before the scene in this painting.
The rabble was already assembled,
ready for blood. For all I know,
I might have been among them.
Wine hums in my head. A woman's heels
click on a staircase. In my pocket,
God climbs from the surfaces of coins.
Truth? According to witnesses,
there was no answer. Except
for the looking that lights her face.
What flies from frame to frame.
What's crucified when nothing is adored.
How the holy in this painting moves
from the woman to the Lord.
Oil on black jasper (also known as touchstone), 46 x 37.2 cm
It's nice not to see Jesus nailed down now and then,
swimming even, vibrant, underwater, navigating
the dark embroidery of an in-between world with
abysmal grace, sun-toned skin pouring across
black stone. In this version of the story, the lamb
He carries in children's books blossoms into a white banner,
Adam and Eve share the same grapevine in embrace,
though art critics still contend which characters compose
the remaining three to be redeemed by Christ's upturned hand:
The Good Thief maybe? John the Baptist? Simeon? Lord knows.
If you don't remember your childhood, that's OK, neither does
the Middle Ages. Religion curates a portrait museum, sin's the art
of framing doorways, and only when you believe everyone is
born broke do mirrors splinter sunlight into scattered shards.
At each gallery entrance, a sign posts NO PHOTOGRAPY.
I stand arms length from the lacquered frame, close enough to
confirm the 1/4" thick black jasper slab cornered with compass
and square. Behind this painting, touchstone once measured
the value of gold during key transactions. The color of the streak
remaining after passing gold over the stone's chalkboard surface
graded the purity of the exchange. The halo around Christ's crown
radiates hundreds of individual hair-thin strands. I like seeing
His hands free, because I believe the version of the story where
Jesus escapes crucifixion entirely and grows old teaching meditation
and energy healing throughout India, which remained his true passion
all along. Helping people, that is. So sure, I'll buy this tangent thread
into Limbo, how else to explain Adam and Eve's fate once
St. Augustine invented Original Sin, than "Christ to the rescue!"
before ascending into heaven lifting everyone up along with.
It's all about raising your vibration, right? Like Jesus,
black jasper has known healing properties: it grounds, protects,
seals the aura against other people's sharpest convictions.
Inches from the touchstone, I hold my palms out and channel
loving light, invite Creation to compose a poem about
the crucifix-shaped door locked inside my childhood.
Everything I've ever learned about the Eucharist comes from
watching History Channel 2.0 or walking through exhibitions
on loan from other countries. I want to bring home this image
before me, confident I'll lose my momentary inspiration,
but photographing any Offering of the Angels installation is
strictly forbidden. So instead for a while I wander around upstairs
and snap shots of Salvador Dali's 1943 The Madonna, the surreal
one towering over man and mountain with a swirl of newborns
schooling around her sky-vaulted body like mouth-brooding fish.
Or when I find myself standing face-to-face with the relaxed smile
of a life-sized seated Thai Buddha, I simply close my eyes,
Gassho, breathe, smile back. Everything I know about loving Christ
comes first from smiling into every mirror. If this story sounds un-
familiar, it's only because you must climb a second flight of stairs
to find it. But leave here knowing that to most inhabiting the 1600's,
Jesus indeed dove headfirst into Limbo, his figure descending
through touchstone, because wherever His body is not painted
is the absence of His light, and my hands before this redemption
worry if they get too close, this fragile scene may fall, even
shatter. I don't know how to pray before another man's story.
Sure, after, browsing the sun-flooded gift shop, I surrender
and bring home the $49.95 full-color exhibit guide, sign the feathery
register receipt, shoulder my way through grand glass doors back
into the shadows of new construction and angels painted as strangers.
Il Pane degli Angeli
The Bread of the Angels
La fragranza di crosta e mollica
I ricordi s’agitano nell’occhio,
Il Pane degli Angeli
Il patrizio arringa la piazza
Il pane degli angeli = → offering of the angels
Coglie dal cielo il pane
Il Pane degli Angeli
La bustina rossa bianca azzurra
The fragrance of crust and crumb
The memories are troubled in the eye,
The Bread of the Angels
The patrician addresses the crowd
The bread of the angels = → offering of the angels
He gathers from heaven the falling
The Bread of the Angels
The little red white blue packet
Translated from Italian by the author
after Christ in Limbo, painting by Alessandro Turchi,
oil on black jasper, ca.1620
I’d forgotten he spends three days abandoned
by angels, the stone
not yet rolled away, gathering the lost to toss
dice and drink wine
buried in this oil on jasper I see my sister, 1960s
mom in wide-striped
red, white & black slacks, a chambray Ship ‘n Shore
in a cemetery north of Cambridge, her left hand
rice paper over the stone, her right poised with rubbing
wax, ready to revive
the dead, and my flashy sax begging to blow but almost
hidden, its bell
a brassy crown illuminating the hand of Christ
lifted like strong
medicine, like Louie’s music calling her across—
Simeon’s hands outstretch
surrender yes! yes! and Adam’s fingers still
grasp the new
world of a crisp pink apple
before she died she noticed
you only give it ninety percent holding back the other
ten from the furnace
burning our good intentions to silver—she sees
the way we skirt rebel-fire’s
rim, linger in old hotel lobbies smoking
with the lesser
gods, convince ourselves holy is in the middle
the descent to shake us awake
on the edge of hell
the good thief hefts with sweat-drenched
shoulders and shadowed legs—
everyone’s willing to wipe their mouths, everyone’s
willing to follow and let go
shrouds, heat, the what-ifs and the maybe-somedays
flame smolders in the corner, warm
umber we step into
allow ourselves to be harried up and out of this frame
into what’s next
("what if holy is in the middle?" is a line from Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Aziz”)
Alessandro Allori’s The Grieving Madonna with the Symbols of Christ’s Passion
The silk that once brushed his skin
she keeps crushed against her chest;
her gaze, honed as if forever
to cup of thorn,
How flawless her sorrow,
like her skin--smooth
as stones polished
The face is young
as though the grief of motherhood has faded away
as it will be for eternity
a divinity transcending pain.
The flesh outshines veronica’s veil
a foreshadowing perhaps
of the assumption but for now
there is nothing to worry about
no prayers no rosaries no cries of suffering humanity
begging for intercession.
Her face looks down
at the nails
at the cup
at the blood that will be shed
until the end of time.
She was indoors. She wore a red dress
when the tall angel appeared to her
and pointed to a bird hovering at the ceiling.
At the sight, Mary threw up her arms,
took a step backward, almost off balance.
Or she was outdoors where she found
a comfortable nook in the rocks.
An angel, playful, curly-haired,
and as young-looking as she, blushed,
eased a branch of flowers toward her,
gently to coax her out of the shadows,
as aware as she of her power to refuse.
That is why she said yes.
She held the baby up and their cheeks touched.
Or the baby was on her lap, the object of her fond gaze.
Or the baby glanced up from her lap
toward his cousin John who held a thin wooden cross.
She could not look at them, dropped her gaze.
Joseph turned his head outward
his eyes wary or stern. Unapologetic.
Joseph’s beard was grey, or grey grizzled with white,
his oval or square face deeply lined.
Minor differences all, as if Joseph could not
have been a young man with laughing eyes,
who was deeply in love with Mary, spirited Mary, and
who after he said oh, paused, took a deep breath
and told her, I love you. Let’s to Bethlehem and be counted.
They chose to ignore her there at the execution.
Or they saw her grief and helped her tend to his spent body.
She removed the crown of thorns from his head
when he was taken down from the cross.
Some say that even after the resurrection
she could never bring herself to throw it away.
Word spread of the quiet resurrection.
She was among the women, the first to know
and to rejoice. But persecution followed.
Word has it that she found refuge
in a small stone house near Ephesus
where tourist buses now stop and pilgrims
tuck small scraps of paper or colorful cloth
into the chinks of the garden wall.