Originally read: February 22, 2013
More information about the Poet: Ron Smith
When I first read this poem, I wanted to look more into it because I have a bias towards ekphrastic works, and I wanted to see how the poet utilizes the work of Carvaggio for this poem. However, after rereading and rereading this poem -- the more and more I'm creating narrative of this poem, probably unjustified.
The poem makes sense to me with this conceit: there are two men looking at art at the Carvaggio Room (actually room filled with Carvaggio art [note note metaphorical]). The younger man is uncultured and doesn't like the art; however, the way older man is trying to look past how uncultured the younger man but stills desires him (yes, desires), but in order to escape those desires he turns to art -- which in turn fails and the old mans lusts at the end for both (art and the young man).
So why do read this into the poem? Implication.
First stanza: The speaker already creates a separation between the "you" who dislikes the artwork in a juvenile manor, "yuck" and "Bacchus, my ass" Typically, these responses come from someone who either a) knows art too much and wants to act like a child about it or b) doesn't know art and acts like a child. In either case the "you" takes a superficial stance in the poem which contrasts the speaker who corrects the "you" with "Caravaggio" I think this is the painting they were looking at:
"Self-portrait as the Sick Bacchus"
Also in the first stanza the speaker sets up his authority over the art, but not over the "you" The contrast continues with the description of this painting:
"David and Goliath"
So the speaker describes this painting through the characters. Goliath being killed by David who is described as an adolescent (not killing young, but youthful) killer which is contrasted with "delicately disgusted / by what we know, what they knew." The contrasts builds up. First, young and old, and now the knowledge of what the speaker knows about the painting and what "they" (the artist, or maybe the "you") know about the painting. Note also the contrast between male figures (young/old, cultured/not cultured, impotence/sexual vigor) apply on the outskirts with each painting.
With the exception of this painting that's being described next:
"Madonna and Child with Saint Anne"
Here, I wish I knew my biblical references better so I could be a bit more accurate and defending my point; however, the focus of the painting are:
1) The cold observation of the Madonna
2) Sympathy for the snake
3) The body of the youth
1) The speaker describes the Madonna more through physical necessary action. The Madonna's task is only to ,"bare foot / on a serpent's neck, leaning, looking, /demonstrating a mildly unpleasant task." That wasn't a clear quote for the last sentence The Madonna is teaching the "young boy" to step on a snake (the comparison of the young figures in the paintings alludes to the "you"; meanwhile, every other figure alludes to the speaker).
2) "the writhing snake already / calligraphy of defeat" the sympathy comes from the single word "already" as though the speaker predicts or manufactures his interpretation of the snake; furthermore, this image (snakes -- or rather non-human stuff) will come up further in the poem.
3) "And below his slung and guiding spearpoint penis / is the child's foot on her foot," So with these lines there obviously a focus on the body, but the adjective is interesting. "Spearpoint" has biblical references as well as torturous physical references (that in turn, become metaphors). Jesus and other martyrs dying by spearpoint (in particular, someone checking if Jesus was dead by piercing him with a spear through his sides) -- in any case a destructive connotation.
And after the description, the "you" speaks up and notices the "gold wires!" Now, the speaker could've said they were halos to correct the "you," but at this point, I think the speaker is tired with dealing with someone so young, so impotent, so uncultured.
The speaker further commentates on the painting in another perspective -- that the women have halos but the boy (and subsequently the snake) does not go deeper with this perspective rather than to say that the "mortally naked boy." Obvious, limited, boy.
The shift in art is in two parts. Here's the direct contrast:
"St Jerome Writing"
"John the Baptist"
Note: Caravaggio painted multiple versions of both St Jerome and John the Baptist throughout his entire career. The ones I chose, I think, would be the ones that the speaker would reference. Also note that I don't know where the Caravaggio room is located or which museum these two are in -- this matters, or doesn't. I'm not too sure yet.
Anyway, if you follow my conceit, the speaker is the old man writing -- the scholarly productive one "eyes close to the page" -- the speaker trying to focus on being cultured, above his needs for the other "you."
Then there's the description of John the Baptist. I'll just quote it all:
" [...] Baptist's unmuscled body.
langurous, the body
of a catamite, candid eyes
aimed right at you. I mean Caravaggio"
So a couple things. I like the tone in these lines as though the speaker is getting lost in the body and has to correct himself outright in the poem. Here, I feel, I understand where I, as a reader, is located -- in the middle of the speaker's conscious and subconscious. Words like "languorous" (dreamy) and "catamite" (boy kept for homosexual purposes) pop up. Usually, I don't like words telling me how to read a poem -- but these words definitely pointed me to a greater understanding of the poem on another, yet maybe wrong (but oh so right), level.
The positioning of the painting contrasts the scene as well. The painting of John the Baptist is directly across from the "sickening boy" painting -- there's a sense that the opposite reaction has occurred. And between the "sickening" and the "languorous" there's Satyr -- which represents sex (in allusive terms), and represents a shift in the poem. I also couldn't find a painting of a Satyr by Caravaggio -- so perhaps the satyr is conjuration of the merge of both John the Baptist and Bacchus
The speaker then takes on the vernacular of the "you" -- "Let's get the hell out of here," and the turn is the last two lines, "a long, slow taste / of your salty flesh." At first I was thinking Cronus eating his childeren (but that's by Goya). Then I saw this painting.
"Boy Bitten By Lizard"
If the last lines do refer to this painting, then the speaker (I compared him to a snake) takes on a small but motivated part in the sequence. Instead of being stepped on, he (the lizard) is taking the action and biting the boy (who looks somewhat perplexed on what's going on). If the last lines don't refer to this poem, then the important word in the last lines is "salty" which bring in a more real and different sense than the completely visual and thinking poem that came before it.