05.14.2007

Capriccio with Obelisk   (Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle )

We followed the pictures
and the pictures followed us

the way religion follows a soul
and tries to contain it.

Did the one who suffered
come into a place

where a thing belonged neither
to Caesar nor the Sanhedrin?

Not the physical object itself
but what it gave off

or what it meant to us,
and why therefore

someone owned it.
Was there, in that martyred life,

some surcease, some pause?
And earlier, did Socrates

admire the hemlock-filled cup?
Why did we stand

before the firestorm in Tiepolo,
seeing it burst over worked-in horses,

chariots and reins     clouds scattered —
no, shattered — by light from the sun?

How did others’ immense suffering
tutor us — those blinding rays

that streamed as background
to the picture’s paraphernalia,

illuminating our blessings?
Was it knowledge of an illusion?

Those who made art
in the death camps, only to die

— what did they leave us?
So much were we given:

the obelisk in the faux garden,
an amusement, a painter’s

whim of juxtaposition?
We were being given artifice

and asked to embrace it.
Thus, the life-sized swan-clock

in the glass case carried
implications of destiny,

but was also a joke,
its hammered plates “afloat”

on watery ribbons of silvered metal.
A key was turned, sound

came out as from an organ
and the space was “filled

with Mechanism beating Time
with its beak to musical chimes…”

The whole shimmered
and all clapped hands at the ingenuity.

And nearby, Goya’s Interior of a Prison
lay somber and flat,

a series of increasingly diminished arches,
light darkening as the eye followed curves

back to where Time had stopped beating,
to where Time was not.

And so the images followed us
with their baggage and hope.

The graven became sacred,
became as a shelter

— the man on the cross
and the jew in the pit —

these were given as ours to contain us
in paradise and in dungeons.

Michael Heller (© 2007)