Friday, March 9, 2018

Figure Studies and Académies (Six Centuries)

Martin Schongauer
St Sebastian
ca. 1480-90
Minneapolis Institute of Art

Living Among the Dead

          There is another world,
                but it is in this one.

                                 Paul Eluard

First there were those who died
before I was born.
It was as if they had just left
and their shadows would
slip out after them
under the door so recently closed
the air in its path was still
swirling to rest.
Some of the furniture came from them,
I was told, and one day
I opened two chests
of drawers to learn what the dead kept.

But it was when I learned to read
that I began always
to live among the dead.
I remember Rapunzel,
the improved animals
in the Just-So Stories, and a flock
of birds that saved themselves
from a hunter by flying in place
in the shape of a tree,
their wings imitating the whisk
of wind in the leaves.

My sons and I are like some wine
the dead have already bottled.
They wish us well, but there is nothing
they can do for us.
Sebastian cries in  his sleep,
I bring him into my bed,
talk to him, rub his back.
To help his sons live easily
among the dead is a father's great work.
Now Sebastian drifts, soon he'll sleep.
We can almost hear the dead
breathing. They sound like water
under a ship at sea.

To love the dead is easy.
They are final, perfect.
But to love a child
is sometimes to fail at love
while the dead look on
with their abstract sorrow.

To love a child is to turn
away from the patient dead.
It is to sleep carefully
in case he cries.

Later, when my sons are grown
among their own dead, I can
dive easily into sleep and loll
among the coral of my dreams
growing on themselves
until at the end
I almost never dream of anyone,
except my sons,
who is still alive.

– William Matthews (1979)

Paul Musurus
Turkish Porter
ca. 1855-65
British Museum

Pieter Dupont
A Navvy
ca. 1890-1911
British Museum

attributed to Il Sodoma
Nude man holding jug and cup
before 1549
British Museum

attributed to Il Sodoma
Figure of Adam as old man
ca. 1518
drawing (fresco study)
British Museum

from Calmly We Walk through This April's Day

Avid its rush, that reeling blaze!
Where is my father and Eleanor?
Not where are they now, dead seven years,
But what they were then?
                                        No more? No more?
From Nineteen-Fourteen to the present day,
Bert Spira and Rhoda consume, consume
Not where they are now (where are they now?)
But what they were then, both beautiful;

Each minute bursts in the burning room,
The great globe reels in the solar fire,
Spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all thing flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
The smallest color of the smallest day:
Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.

– Delmore Schwartz (1938)

James Havard Thomas
Irrigators, Southern Italy
ca. 1899-1906
Tate Gallery

Henry Tonks
Male nude asleep
before 1936
coloured chalks
British Museum

after Willem van Tetrode
Man with two scourges
ca. 1550-1600
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

after Willem van Tetrode
Man with two scourges
ca. 1550-1600
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


What if it were possible to vanquish
All this shame with a wash of varnish
Instead of wishing the stain would vanish?

What if you gave it a glossy finish?
What if there were a way to burnish
All this foolishness, all the anguish?

What if you gave yourself leave to ravish
All these ravages with famished relish?
What if this were your way to flourish?

What if the self you love to punish –
Knavish, peevish, wolfish, sheepish –
Were all slicked up in something lavish?

Why so squeamish? Why make a fetish
Out of everything you must relinquish?
Why not embellish what you can't abolish?

What would be left if you couldn't brandish
All the slavishness you've failed to banish?
What would you be without this gibberish?

What if the true worth of the varnish
Were to replenish your resolve to vanquish
Every vain wish before you vanish?

– David Barber (2013)

Jacob Willemz de Vos
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Louis Fabritius Dubourg
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Louis Fabritius Dubourg
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Louis Fabritius Dubourg
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Louis Fabritius Dubourg
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Poems from the archives of Poetry (Chicago)