For Bill Berkson
Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c.1500. Oil on oak panels, 87 x 153 inches. Museo del Prado, Madrid.
Asked to write about a beloved work of art is excruciating, like a red-hot iron sizzling on the small of a young woman's back one late August night in a pop-up branding-and-crucifixion rave I attended a decade ago in New Orleans. The hot iron burnt the Egyptian symbol for Ankh into her flesh. The sickening smell of burning flesh, the nearly-passed-out languid long-haired girl lovingly caressed by her girlfriend to soothe whatever pain whatever she was on didn't cover, have stayed with me as a story I have told over and over until hurt. It even became a scene in one of my novels. Likewise, subjecting art to words is violent and embarrassing. On the other hand, one can argue, art stays art and words stay words. Neither are guilty of anything at first, except for expressing some disquiet in the face of spectacles like cannibalism and branding.
But, there was a time, for example, in the 1950s when the painters were drunk and didn't say much. The writers, who were mostly stoned, did and could write what the painters couldn't. A first language speaking about art, an ur-language, a mid-century Chaldean, came out of this collaboration. Frank O'Hara could tell you what Jackson Pollock did. Bill Berkson wrote poetry for his friends, the painters. The bar had no borders.
It is a pleasure then to think of another kind of intimacy where pictures and words remember their common roots and discuss their occupations in a civilized agora, where, I imagine, dear Bill Berkson holds forth. This agora is democratic if you can take it, but it's the same agora where the creatures of Hieronymus Bosch unfold their activities. Saint Peter is walking in water with an angel on his head, using his staff to make progress. An armadillo has entered a displeased swordfish from behind causing it to shove his nose into a megaphone like Majakovski addressing the masses. On top of them sits a vessel filled with sailors or warriors pointing their oars or swords in the general direction of a double-winged saurus flying with a fish in his mouth followed by a flock of baby sauri. Most upsettingly delightful though is a tree piercing a kind-looking whale through the chin while a human using the whale's open mouth as a stage holds forth. Happily, we can't hear. I won't go into other details, anyone can observe them, but these activities continue to this day and are the general drift of art and poetry from the cave to afternoons at the Cedar Bar to the present. We observe the joining of incompatibles, even the applications of hot iron to stoned flesh, but we would prefer not to. Bill saw all the art, read all the books, and knew everybody. So, when he spoke the circle was intimate and warm. It wasn't loud but it took endurance to go the distance. I like to think of Hieronymus Bosch's drama under Bill Berkson's direction or better, to think what one finds in his great books are the minutes of these meetings.
ANDREI CODRESCU's last poetry collection is The Art of Forgetting (2016).