studies from Caravaggio
[the odd-numbered poems first appeared in Plains Poetry Journal]
In the spring or early summer of 1610 Cardinal Ferdinando Gonzaga, soon to succeed to the dukedom of Mantua, arranged absolution for the 1606 murder of Tomassoni, so that Caravaggio could return to Rome. For some reason, perhaps doubt that the pardon was absolute, he sailed to a southern Tuscan enclave under Spanish jurisdiction, rather than going overland or sailing to Civitavecchia, the port of Rome. Upon landing, he was jailed, mistaken for another man, a knight fugitive from justice. When he was released two days later, all his possessions had disappeared, and perhaps he had come down with malaria. He set off along the beach below the Monte Argentario under the blazing summer sun. By the time he reached Porto Ercole, he was sick and raving. He survived a day or two but the fever consumed him, and on July 18, 1610, he died.
))))))))))))) ALFRED MOIR
i VICTORIOUS AMOR 1601-02
This child who bathes fair firm flesh
In studio light dominates not simply Merisi,
Caravaggio, his maker, but here,
In 1986, fresh
As 39 decades past, is neither priss
Nor effete, but simply malest youth triumphant,
Even to the crease of buttocks shadowed at his groin,
The drape of his vulnerable sex
Against the voice
Of catamite's abundance, dimpled smile to loins.
We are caught in such ripe noise,
Crease of the belly, just above the navel,
Accentuation of shadow and the bright warm swell,
Fear in the thighs,
Down to the gentle strength of calf, the ankle's poise,
A chant of soil at press of floor,
And each of us, male enough, returns to the blond
Of this charming little punk,
This lilting whore,
Who teases the armor from OUR thighs, wrests bonds.
Caravaggio gives you wings, mild wench, coquette,
So staged that even their stroke
Against the raised left limb
Would shadow why,
Impotent as the reason you have strained with pomp,
A strut of biceps, flaccid shaft, the hidden arm
That teases tease itself, as if we'd burn to know
What HIDDEN anatomy it fondles, slow,
From back to rump,
Pleasure of winking sodomite, more charm
Than our confused senses would admit, for here
Is your audience, such bearded knights as know no lust
For boys, but WILTING wenches—
And so it wrenches,
To be dry-mouthed at the sight of manhood trussed
And handed to your brazen lilt, your lure,
Your eyes, the light a hand that strokes your flesh,
That touches nipple, fingers, breast,
That fondles Sodom,
Lads who would offer self and yet attest
To more than all our manhood can contain,
All softness, frailty, even the gender
That would yield,
And gather hugeness toward two dimples in a smile,
Strut of a belly, buttock—Priapus, your style.
ii TOWARD PORTO ERCOLE 1610
It's difficult enough—past bearing.
Bitched as a goiter
On a twelve year old. And irony.
They'll have their laughter.
For that business by the grace of good Gonzaga,
Leaking the pus at 34
From a mincing pimp no proper man'd endure,
Of Tomassoni—dear Lord, how gladly
I skewered him!
And fairly sure of Rome,
Tasting the nubile flesh of that great City,
That rules the soul of Christ—
They pull me in for some lame knight
That ate his fill,
Strip me of all but pride
And off on foot,
Weak as a fish and shuddering with fever—
Damned for his vision,
I'd say, blind as a rat
Sad as some harlot's cast-off rag
Toward his maker—
Some soul to dazzle fops with all his welts
Had I hied my way direct.
The thousand in my purse,
I'd given for a taste
Of my Amor, for young Battista, Giovanni,
Twitch of the flesh,
A taste of all that's living.
I copulate with worms—oh God, the living Christ,
iii YOUTH WITH A RAM 1602-03
The skin of this fair youth
Is welded to our sight.
We stroke his coy arch, the lifted knee, calves, feet,
Somehow in shadow,
Lured by a genius probing the eyes' night.
Here he fondles ram, or is it
Our nuzzling face,
Bearded men who would lust for maidens, the fresh
Sweet swell of flesh,
Coy limbs, tangle of cleft and maidenhead.
Here is a boy, a nuzzling ram, YOUR breasts,
The sex drapes vulnerable in the cleft of legs,
Slight but willing to arouse
To fit our purpose.
Light plays upon the lad's lips,
His outward glance,
Curls, a dance of light, a touch, hand or such
At the play of muscles
On the shoulders, there to the ribs,
Belly, navel, dark boyhood sex,
Even a trace of hair,
The stark light limning the poised right thigh,
Bruised or soiled knee,
Tense of muscle at the drawn tissue,
Hovering to shadow a groin's damp darkness,
Musk, shadow cutting
The press that wields that leg against coarse cloth.
We ask for his forgiveness
That would wield our loss.
They would have you, touch, stroke,
Melt, a feminine lilting
In the rage of rough manhood's jest, a punk's quest,
A girl-boy, impudent
And free. They would have thee.
iv TOWARD ERCOLE 1610
It seems I am caught in Giovanni, even that other,
Thrust of his
Puerile legs, the crease of buttocks gracing
Simply stare, bewilderment,
The lust it can't arouse
For all their aching
That would look
To see, and seeing, draw the green silk curtain
From its splendor,
Even the wings I rented giving thrust
To his pale form,
Libido, wink, a talent of the skin,
A trust, a provocation.
Even the nights
We slept with arms entwined, sated from the beast
Against all sanctioned notions,
Read in the canvas
And the oils,
For everyone who watched endured
Such was the statement, bold as my youth,
And Giovanni's twitch,
Amor, but mine alone, Merisi, Caravaggio,
A pederast and yet a knight,
Ram with a youth
And yet a scream,
Italy's greatest talent, widest genius,
Ruffian and punk
That opened up his limbs
And thieves to have his way
And opened up
The fairest boys of Rome, of Venice,
Tolentino, Genoa, Naples,
Malta, Syracuse, Messina, Palermo,
Even this bitch
Of Porto Ercole should I last this heat
And live to taunt them.
Oh yes, they'd eye
My boys, sneaking off somewhere to masturbate
All of them eating taunt in a young man's limbs,
Sucking the seed of
What sight is this?
I seem to see my past rear up a phallus
In the glint of sun.
I'll hurry on.
There is still not enough of Merisi.
Not yet, dear Lord,
You'll have me shrieking Jesus in the end.
v THE LITTLE BACCHUS 1593-94
We see where he has been,
The dark sallow skin,
A thirst of flesh that drinks our eyes
And eats our greed,
This youth who has eaten and has eaten need.
Ivy adorns a head which has known
Satiety, even in the grapes he's taken,
Ripe fruit upon the table,
Glistening, orange-pale and sable.
Where is the face but in an age
Too prematurely aged
From seed where seed was spent? Eyes chant
That he would have us
For the asking, asking only his thighs' rant.
There is death in this boy's skin,
This aged faun
With whiskey breath, disease in each bright
Undulation of the muscled back,
The arm, from sin to harm.
Too young to be this ripe,
As if beneath taut
Flesh burns some small rage of odor, stink,
Decay—and yet he will have
His way. We pause and yet we sink.
The charm is of the aged whore,
So young as to despise
Whore's coming, each increment of subtle death
In each small pore its subtler breath.
Where have you gone, Merisi?
You stare so mortal
From this stasis in a timeless canvas, poised
At paint. No grasping
Makes you less than grasping makes a saint.
As fruit rots even in a cleanly hand
We must demand
That youth is eaten. The painter stares
From some unknown stink
Of his own making. We sense the aching.
The white of his garment, even the
Purple sash, a burst
Of black in grapes upon the table, table itself
The ivy wreath—are caught less
By time's grip than this artist and his fable.
And yet we eat, tasting his musk,
His sweat, the dirt
Upon his chin. Decay will triumph when decay
Is 21. We yearn to taste
This flaunt, to lick the fragrance from his skin.
Bacchus is wilting into death,
A welt upon the flesh,
A canker sweet enough for appetite's wet whetting.
We tongue Merisi
In his youth even now. There is no forgetting.
vi TOWARD ERCOLE 1610
Is it Mario for whom I truly lust?
What lust CAN there be?
There is the brilliant sun,
And where is he?
God's sake, I cannot say
That I was even true, to lads, at least,
For least they were
That flirt! We lay together more than all the rest,
I at 21
And he fifteen,
Mario Minniti, suckling in between,
Parting his legs,
Supine in turn
For him to part, that blazing irregular rut
In all our youth
And all that youth proclaimed,
Rot, a mess of worms, canker in the fruit
I now must suck
For having eaten.
Like fire to my thin boots, the sky an old man's hand
That presses like some Eden,
Some winking hag
In fitful mood, exacting no mean vengeance,
Foul pit of retribution stuffed
The blackest hole
To leak me in, to spew ejaculation, stench,
Canker of Merisi's teeth,
Until their jagged lot was vestige of some smile,
A wrack of grin—
Dear God, the smile's within!
I've quenched all metaphysics of the soul, incinerate
Of book and pen,
A scalpel of the flesh,
That they would take my Cupids in their grip,
Such sluts, Merisi's very spit,
Merisi, who will live
The sword in Satan's ass and skewer God himself,
For boys, old Man, for boys!
vii THE MUSICIANS 1595-96
We have in these four youths, two known,
Were we to trust a scholar—
Mario and Merisi,
The latter, such a tease, he burns from shadow,
Pouting past the broad expanse
Of someone left to chance, a boy who knows
Even the lute's hook
That angles past his book, as one young Cupid
Tunes it. Mario, to our left,
Once lost his wings to the grand restorer,
And yet even the light
Against his chest has tactile lift, a burnished
Lick of the painter's tongue,
Who must have known him young,
As history records it. One can imagine
All four in some large
Complicated tryst, as if that fact insists
From rosebud mouths,
The languid eyes, the painted brows,
Each watching inward copulations
Far more than our frustrations.
A welt of crimson
Weaves in lush undulation past the shoulder
Of the central figure,
Even the hand that cares to strum
That fortunate instrument,
That melody might
Issue forth in time, some sublime parody
Of all our inward achings,
A voice that catches at the throat
Of choice, for we are lost
At sights that quench no heart's fierce surge,
No twitch of loins,
No greed, no ache of love's mute seed.
If such as these are but illusion,
Then grant us, Lord,
Sweet love's confusion! Grant harmony and fire,
Even a lyre's proximity to
This lush youth who eats the light
Only a master might have granted,
And soaks eternal in some
Vernal pitch of aching, soundless awe, the hush
Of such as we, willing
Somehow to join this ancient splendor.
And yet they cheat our indecision.
There is no end to such
Ambition. There is no end, no total break, no halt,
To youth that hides in flecks of paint.
God must endure their patron saint.
viii TOWARD ERCOLE 1610
Mario, Giovanni, Lugio, Merisi—
To eat in turn.
Only so many eat, and those will burn.
Flesh, flash, udder,
Milk of loins,
Buttocks firm as ripened grapes, and yet so young,
There in the sky I see their mouths, tongues,
Suckling a leak of youth, a withheld drip
Till death shall grip,
Shuddering manhood, youth, to ravish
Groin, lip, blood-food rushing north
And fever . . . ?
Where are YOU going,
Age and death? There is more of you that works,
That works a breath.
This runt that earned some hundred scudis
For his best—
The worm that gives him rest! A thousand thousand
Scudis—they'll act possessed.
Ah yes, a multiple of suck, eat soul and stink,
Boil for my Cupids,
For my lads, rasp whine and fever for a wink
Of my mild Christs,
Coupling on their cross, a feast, a fornication.
Give pause, regret the loss,
Ah, let me simply into you, sweet young whoreson bitch
That clamps my brain
That hard I'm lost.
For what IS life? A melt of limbs, a strut of semen?
The sword that gushes?
Half the demon.
Half the lover, child,
That's wrought from paint and steel,
A marriage bed,
Half loins and throat, half squeal.
Here in a blaze that creases
Skin and sense,
I spit at pomp, at greed, at power, circumstance.
The man you'd eat
Will eat your jowls.
Merisi will cease for maggots.
Another will tease
Your pontiffs, princes, cardinals, faggots.
ix BOY BITTEN BY A LIZARD 1596-97
A single rose in a clear glass vase?
What truly bites his hand?
The rosebud mouth has tasted earthly pain
And now tastes death?
Insidious, the lizard's breath.
A blossom haunts his auburn hair,
Black leaves above
A rosebud ear, and then that queer stare
Into remote inward space,
Creases in the youthful face.
What can he see beyond Merisi
And his canvas?
The poised left hand is a fairy's vesture,
The hand that's bit
Feminine too in its gesture,
As if we feel what he has felt,
Poise of the shoulder
Pressed by light, that warm expanse of skin
Nudging against the cheek.
What inward fester does he seek?
It is a tale of a lizard, and yet a boy,
Both bitten by a thirst,
The water which reflects an open window,
Quenching a rose's need,
Boy's blood the lizard's greed.
Perhaps the light tells more than all else,
For there the hand poised,
Half in shadow,
Is flicked by light, a lizard's quick dark tongue,
For light and lizard take him young.
We yearn to kiss those burnished
To taste the years that brought him here to this
Encounter, luxuriance fondling
Some disease, a taste,
An ache, a lust, pollen of a rose,
Some fierce subtle dust,
That we would taste the whole that lizard sips,
A powdered whore
There where the fierce mind grips.
x TOWARD ERCOLE 1610
The blessing is they failed
To see my bent,
In prurient delectation, rooted in some
A stink of all those other lovely scenes,
A Christos aching,
Apostles skewered to some rough-hewn crosses, pauses,
If even one had found me out,
That all this misery in my lonely life
Was not some aberration,
A young man's lust,
His carnal celebration,
The oils somehow untouched, even that brave virility
Wielding his flesh and sword
To pierce a saint,
Some gratification of the artist's instinct,
Adornment for mural,
Even to the tense of belly, thighs,
Rage in an old man's eyes . . . ?
But that WAS my manhood,
That would rake a rabbi, plough a priest, a queen,
Thumb snot at God, the Holy Ghost,
And everything between.
God yes! My Baptists had THEIR twitch
For some nefarious
Appetite or such, that having sucked much would burn
Lick me, God.
I shall not scorn your broad fierce tongue,
The hand of Christ,
His lips that probe the lads I've buggered young.
The man I've willed to be is not the man
This art that's wrought from spew would lever
Magdalene toward sin.
For ass, if half those saints are half the measure,
Those stiffs on me—he'll have my prick
At my own leisure.
He'll have the truth of varnish, Christ,
Inching his way toward
Salivation, probing the cream of every boil I've
Merisi is food, a fool for worms,
Sycophant—I'll live among the peasants I have
Wrought, half Scripture, half its cant.
xi THE MARTYRDOM OF SAINT MATTHEW
There are few figures, even in the tangle,
Matthew, the horrified boy,
And Merisi's pet,
The executioner, perhaps a taste of the latter
In the nearly nude right foreground,
Buttock and loin cloth, a voyeur
At this terrible coupling.
The man with headband and scant-cloth loins
Will have his awful pleasure,
Will impale an old man
With one brief thrust of the sword
Which cuts across his thigh
A streak of shadow, slice against bright flesh,
The torso as powerful in its youth
As the man is old and feeble,
Matthew about to be martyred, not so much
As by youth itself, even the dark nipples,
The fierce intention of the lips,
A boy-man wielding sexuality as much
Strange pleasure in his awesome beauty that would stab,
Cut, skewer even a geriatric saint
To have his way,
The course of youth itself,
A fearful dangerous beauty. We cannot look too
For power exudes from tensed poise of arm,
A lassitude of light against that anger,
Assaulting saint and martyr,
Rending glance itself,
Who would lust for death on such sweet fearful terms,
Thirst of some plunging blade.
xii TOWARD ERCOLE 1610
I'd have the world itself, I'd have
The word, would time
And fate submit
To save me from this obscene arrogant death,
For here in heat its chill assault,
Like twenty inches
Up my spine,
Relieves me of death itself
And licks the rest.
Oh Christ, I am not afraid of your entrails,
Merisi who has eaten Eden,
The very shriek of it,
Wind through hot juice, a clap of bowels.
Merisi has God,
And God has jowls.
You'll taste my loins. You'll lick!
Even mild Christ
Betrays his memory.
I have given his pontiffs image, pagan Saul,
Some wilder sort than tepid tale—
Bold fire and itch,
Even his ladies, Virgin Mother, bitch.
In time I'll grant him Resurrection,
This sun that blinds
This fierce sweet sand, grant hell and insurrection.
You toy, cruel Master, with a man who HUMBLED art,
The better of da Vinci,
As time itself will prove,
And some small tad of luck.
One clear quick ruddy romp, one fierce faint suck!
That other Michael?
Who wielded God to such extent that even beggars
Merisi has swallowed what others resisted.
My boys, my saints, spread for the stroke
Of some strange mercy,
Ercole, where is that City?
A master stumbles here toward maggot,
Cunt-scent and semen,
They'll say some LILTING faggot swallowed dust,
They'll have a laugh, and then the laugh will turn.
We are all of us human.
Sweet Christ, for punks you'd have us BURN and burn.
xiii BACCHUS 1597
The kylix is brimming, red wine precarious
In the pudgy fingers,
As youth poises in tentative equilibrium,
Ready to spill, drain.
We are caught less by his youth than the artist's strain.
Merisi would paint whore, from wig to brows,
Even the feminine pose,
Rose lips, the sleepy eyes, toying the garment
At our insistence, who would lick the stance.
Is this boy the artist or his punk?
The shoulder, biceps,
Are far too manly for the pale of effeminate skin,
For the plump flushed hand
Which has touched us nights we strayed. We begin
At last to know the artist's bent,
Even the rotting fruit
Which mirrors this precarious youth, this eros,
Sensing the sweat in that musk flesh,
Sensing our doubt, kneeling to perceive, devout.
There is the circumstance of willing
To lay a bearded face
Against that white expanse of chest, even where
The skin tugs in to hair
Beneath the arm. We will to circumvent his charm
And taste the guts that flesh has masked,
To burrow in the tangles
Of his inner convolutions, to mesh, to fuse
With all that flesh would use,
With the lazy decadent leaves upon the angles
Of his hair—and yet there is nothing there
Beyond our appetite
And fancy. This boy, this slut, is chancy.
We eat and yet are eaten.
When sluts rule paradise we sense that God is cheating.
We sense that God wills an absence
In the dance of pity,
Pity's writhing. This God has given us just a taste
That burns to touch. We'd have
His swells, his cleft, toward no chance arriving.
xiv TOWARD ERCOLE 1610
What would this slut dare to taste?
Murder? Is that enough?
Warm tug of a boy's spread loins, some old rough
Satyr, forcing me down on it,
Bending me to his own force,
And then, finished,
Wiping his sex of the thighs' spit?
There is hate in this—
That, tasting all,
I'm caught in the small scant musk-hole of a giggling
Demon, milking my brains,
Oh God, I ache to eat the whole of God, to drink
Jehovah, aching in his stink.
I ache to think
That aching will prove to be
The very end
Here on hot sand, bowel twitch, granular venery,
Who made a mockery of ALL convention,
Only by some bitched intention,
To be butchered
For some anonymity, a knight,
For night's sake.
You watch me die, Glutton,
Feast on delirium,
Laugh your belly dry, you rank imperium!
They will abuse themselves some centuries hence,
Your holy men,
Feasting on my little sin,
My trifles, there upon a hook upon a wall,
In their chambers—
More riotously seduced by Giovanni
Than all your Papal dangers.
Whose bright fair loins would conquer knights
And priests with no small subtle wiles,
There are few of us who'd scorn
A punk's wink and you'd exchange hers, nod, relax,
Sink to sleep with rankest strangers.
xv SAINT JOHN THE BAPTIST 1606
This youth would smile at more than Christ,
Certain of some other coming,
He looks not simply inward for some mission,
But beyond time from Merisi's vision.
He is alive. Eyes eat the torso, sultry,
Lax, a laze of flesh that creases
Past the navel.
The legs, the feet, seem all too broad.
Baptist himself seems somewhat odd.
Who would this brooding lad assay to save?
The staff is simply afterthought,
The loin's cloth, the strange ram, the log
Where even the sultry SKIN
Would seem to need cleansing, as if the foot
Were shod with dirt and grime,
Sandal, winged slipper, but simply the road
He's walked, breaking some stranger news of God.
The message seems ambiguous, as if a master
Claimed him for some other vision,
Not Salomé's derision
Or Herod's indecision, rather the plaything
Of a king, washed and scented,
Some other noble's darling, less demented.
Where is that inward stare?
We'd rake him
With our fingers, lifting the rag to seek
What otherwise of which no Baptist'd dare to speak.
Saint John, the ram along your side
Must well attest
To thirst in the beast that eyes your outward
Quest, a shriek, an aching.
The man you herald seems aptly forsaken.
xvi ERCOLE 1610
Here just in time to die—
They find me melting
Like my Cupid, fat as an infant for the slaughter.
The luck is that I had no daughter.
Even now the sun is spinning.
Here, these last few steps
Will get me some small purchase of my Maker.
This oven's ready for the baker.
How kind, they bind me with some cloth,
A bit of ice.
I'm lying down or is it up?
Satan alone has seen me sup.
Where would they have me, in their church?
In this house of prostitution—this priest's a nun.
Here where I'm lying, better brave the sun.
This Merisi whom you try to save
Has loved an infant,
Infant's flesh and feel.
You raise him up, he's buried in the squeal.
The wonder is the life that we are given,
Not that we make it ugly by the living.
We eat the food upon our plate,
By plate and food forgiven.
They scream to look at me, God's fingers,
Like semen from a corpse—
But only the odor lingers.
Here, your hands are rough, be gentle, kind,
You'll hear me scream.
I have lived my disease, fear only my mind.
They act as if my spit's contagious,
There behind their gauze,
As if death itself is ageless,
Some fearful final cause.
They carry me toward the altar of their parish,
There where an artist toiled
To live in oil.
I cannot fear where they will watch me boil.
I cannot fear,
I cannot ache that death is just a breath
Past the last heave, the last lunge.
Jesus, relent! You called me sing, I only sung.
xvii SLEEPING CUPID 1607-08
This sleep is lost on innocence,
A child, an infant
Hooked in the art of sleep, the pale of light
Accentuating repose, hardly of this world.
One wonders at the slumber where he's curled.
One wonders at the cast of skin,
The sallow tints
Suggesting some vile sickness of the flesh,
That Cupid, tasting of the darts he's cast,
Recoils toward obscenity, a leak, some past beyond
His birth, a dalliance
Only the artist
Can suggest in the swell of belly, bloated
For our cerebration, who would feast
On his mute form, an old whore with an infant's charm.
Where have you seen such children,
We live protected lives perhaps.
Where he has suckled only Satan could attest,
Suckling an infant on his manly chest.
The slight gleam of white on dark
Teeth, the plump hand
Curled innocently against his side—nothing
Can hide sheer decadence and rot
Which coil him in an ancient swell, got
Of an ancient curse. WE curse
The artist who has caught
This terror, shrieking from his own in gruesome flight,
Here toward some darker night
Of his own making, some sad awakening.
Curse fate which handed this great
Master such a vision,
That all his genius clings to flesh and fierce
Derision, triumph of the worm, worm's smile,
A terrible scar. We seem and yet we are.
Are trapped in some faint gleam
Of recognition in an
Infant's teeth, some world we've fashioned
In the absence of belief, a grief, an aching.
Dear Lord, forgive the infants that we've taken.
Forgive Merisi, who was haunted
By such scenes
That, come what might, he'd fashion them in oils
For our poor sight, a sadder delectation.
Who died in flight forsaken, sadly mistaken.