Notes on the Old Masters
Abraham and Isaac; after Rembrandt
O drowsy attendant, you kept sleep
at bay, tenderly young, seated in a chair –
unwary, but composed in a posture
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;
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.
tongue and throat
the calm linear plane.
The fixed eye travels,
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
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,
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,
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 –
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: