Notes on the Old Masters

Abraham and Isaac; after Rembrandt

Piero’s Constantine

O drowsy attendant, you kept sleep

at bay, tenderly young, seated in a chair –

unwary, but composed in a posture

of patience.

How could you, wakeful, not see the angel

descend to lick your master’s ear with silvery tongue –

to part, with ceremonial grandeur,

his tent –

as if that were his heart –

capacious to change the world,

to fling his dream far and wide –

momentous conviction; entrance triumphant;

perilous turning.

Leonardo’s Apprenticeship

The mountain, threshold of prohibition and nothing less,

yields underfoot to rubble, a wry but not sarcastic

offering to arms and legs of climbers here and there,

ascending – or too rapidly the reverse.

From afar, virginal majesty appears in a cloud and royal crown

of light – but do not expect the visitor to be announced

in the first person. The angels seem uneasy, apprehensive,

shifting from one illumined knee to the other, not quite

willing to direct their formidable eyes to the sight of water

sliding over bony shoulders, superfluous nipples, and on down

to a bashful remnant of once glorious and reeking fur,

already well aware of fire and its aftermath:

infinitesimal charcoal marking the powdery rise and fall

of every material dimension open to young fingers and breath,

ambitious to evoke, even by chance, the smile that welcomes death.

Pandemonium: Hieronymus Bosch

One would have preferred a fang,

or a bloody eye. Forget the forked tail.

That would be too comfortable.

Definite measurement, meters

or feet, twice repeated or more.

Absent: the painter’s hand.

Multiple; some variation:

the lower edge of panel two (or three)

seems to recede in space,

disclosing a dark margin.

The left (sinister!) edge

may be viewed as “hairy” –

where masking tape was removed

when the paint was wet.

Gray: lovely in softness,

all gentle and perfectly tasteful;

gray painted on gray at the end,

as the philosopher says:

abode of shades,

where the embrace

is less than fugitive.

A scarred face leveled

across the somber field,

carefully drawn to fill

space softly incised.


recollection of

tongue and throat

dispersed into

the calm linear plane.

The fixed eye travels,

knowing; alone.

Study in Black and White: Rembrandt

Lines, engraved or brushed in ivory black,

do not mark the horizon, but could have,

as memory or convention,

from some points of view:

spiny, indecisive, branching

without direction;

shallow cuts through the white field,

proceeding through more delicate

verticals descending, then vanishing;

neither boundary nor open invitation,

but the conditions of possibility of both,

as were other skewed descents or ascents,

or orthogonal bolts to the beyond,

some broken, some punctuated by a drop,

tentative cuts angling in delicate degrees away

into the white field.

Lines must all intersect,

at least in one universe;

in others they travel,

each on its own course,

whether broken or true,

to mark or to fade.

Crossing may be illusory or real,

depending on the universe:

a figure in a white field,

at work.

Red Ochre: All Unknown

A multitude of hands

in succession, superimposed,

fingers multiplied, radiant,

lifted like a veil, stretched like a skin,

across the wall, the face of rock:

blind groping, desperate measurement,

the panic of enclosure.

Or perhaps recognition – not without irony –

a wave to the bone beneath the veil;

or a solemn encounter,

the ceremonious finger imprinting the seal,

a pledge to return in equal recompense

every grain taken.

Earth was prepared:

scraped from the rock,

broken, ground,

to bring out the hue;

hematite, cinnabar from precious Sinope

or the red flood of the Menjo, rushing like a vein;

rich earth conveyed under seal and guard

to drench the walls of reclusive rooms,

theatres of mystery;

or common dust of no value

mixed with spittle,

applied to blind eyes.

Red ochre sifted over the dead:

blood’s return to the seed of dust,

to the marriageable minerals – mercury and sulfur:

severed in the Black Work, united in the Red –

irrepressible vermilion!

Your passage through the elements

is marked by a stroke, a banner unfurled

on the page, the skin, across the wall –

a red mark jubilant

yet recalling the wound – a cut, a spatter,

origin and end of the spear cast

made known by the imprint of hands,

the stain of each mark made known

in the mutilation of fingers:

a promise of return from blood to dust to red earth

builds the spattered wall

or the wooden frame stretched with skin: