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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue


A Dwarf

Mari or Maria Bárbola (a.k.a. Mariabárbola or Mariabárbola Asquin)
is the second figure on the right in
Las Meninas. (‘Bárbola’ is a name
commonly given to small sprays of fruit and flowers, modeled from
clay and painted in bright colors, found on the frames of mirrors,
trinket boxes etc.) Bárbola, an Austrian, arrived at the Spanish court
in 1651, five years before Velázquez painted her, and stayed there as
Enana de la reina for half a century, at which point her position,
thought to be ‘old-fashioned,’ was abolished. The post of court fool
was also discontinued. She returned to Austria to die.

The poets who first tried to find words for Velázquez,
Creatures of the high Baroque, courtiers, metaphysicals,
Came up with the idea of a distance built into
The way he painted. Perhaps distance for them
Inevitably meant disillusion. (‘One half of the world
Is laughing at the other, and both are fools.’)
They thought, for example, that as one looked
At the rustle of shadow on Mari Bárbola’s face
One saw that the face, the flesh, the whole achondroplastic
Reality of the woman was not there in the information given to the eye.
They wanted their words to be used with a similar acknowledgment
Of limits.

But at the same time these poets knew that the distance, the coolness,
The immaterial (unfamiliar) materiality of Velázquez’s technique was
What made his dwarves come close. It was a strange kind of closeness,
Since the point of Velázquez’s way of painting
Was that from now on knowledge depended
On the very idea of interpretation, of mutuality, being canceled
By the brushstroke’s entire exteriority to us –
And to the world we normally inhabit,
The world of other minds.

These days it is said that the hard question
Is how the firing of synapses in a great tangle of fibres
Could possibly have produced the phenomenon called self-consciousness.
The question the poets took Velázquez to be asking
Is every bit as mysterious,
And perhaps it is the same question
Or Velázquez’s version of it – the way the question came up for him
Confronting Mari Bárbola’s self-consciousness –
And the way the question, once put,
Once concentrated in Bárbola’s attention to us, exerts such pressure
On so many of the things we are supposed
To believe, to feel, to be.

The Grave of Susanna Bond

A few steps from the south porch at Thurgarton
Absorbing the afternoon sun
Is a tombstone half sunk in grass,
Close enough to the rotting thatch on the roof
For a broken reed to fall occasionally, underlining
‘Hopes of a Joyfull Resurrection.’

It is the stone’s color that is baffling as you climb the slope.
It is the gray of ash, the gray of cheap paper.  The gray of an ultimate
Beauty treatment, the kind you wonder as you wait
Will it ever peel off?  Then you see that the color really is a mudpack
Spread across the stone, made of something too characterless
To be lichen, too permanent to be dirt.

The gray facial does not rob the three faces on the grave
Of life.  It makes them more
Lively and deadly.  The largest of the three, given a small roof
To keep his curls dry, is a two-year-old
With wings and a bib of feathers.  On either side, pressing
Against the wings, a skull.

The boy is fat faced, well fed, much admired.
 (Being ‘cherubic’ in places where one in three
Babies don’t make it to their first birthday is entirely a positive.)
He seems to be steeling himself a touch reluctantly
For the job in hand, bearing a less fortunate soul up to heaven.
‘Someone has to do it.’

Writing about stones in Thurgarton churchyard
I know I’m walking in a poet’s footsteps.
George Barker, who lived down the road in Itteringham,
And whose poems have quietly disappeared from the anthologies
(I can imagine his ghost’s cold smile),
Composed a great ode here to the memory of his father.

There is even a smeared copy of it
Pinned high on the porch wall. Not easy to read
And no wonder.  It is
About as atheistic a piece of verse as has ever
Been given church-room.  You hear Barker snarling at the Norfolk wind:
‘As I stand by the porch

I believe that no one has heard
Here in Thurgarton church
One single veritable word
Save the unspoken No.’
Cherubs with feathers, you’ll gather,
Were not George’s thing.

And it is not clear they were the mason’s
When he did the Bond family’s bidding.
‘An angel and two skulls.’ I have the feeling
The carver had heard the unspoken No every bit as clearly
As George, and so had his clients, and that the two skulls were meant
To clatter the word for all eternity through their teeth.

In the grand old chapbook of Barker’s poem
That Trigram Press brought out in the 1960s
George did some drawings, the last claiming to be of
The grave of one Elsie Maud Jackson – no angel on her stone, just
A rough heart, a pediment, two flowers (maybe), and
‘She Done What She Could.’

Damned if I can find the stone.  It would be like Barker
To have dreamt it up.  But Elsie is
A fitting consort for the poet, whose own gravestone a few miles off
Is an open book flush with the ground, blank except for the words
‘No Compromise.’  Gotta love him,
Pretentious old bird.

The last time I looked for the book
It had disappeared under a winter’s couch grass.
The angel on the Bonds’ stone is fiercely, mercilessly
Sentient (no grass will ever cover him), partly aided by the mudpack
having flaked off round
The boy’s right cheek, and someone or something
Having scraped out an eyeball and even the start of a tear.

The skulls aren’t there to snarl at the pantomime.
Guidebooks to churchyards say that skulls stand for mortality,
But I don’t see these two as standing for anything much,
And certainly not anything (the unspoken
No etc.) supposed to remind the insouciant living
Of bodies nearby, rotting like thatch.

As if the Bonds needed reminding.
Thurgarton’s angel is alive and well and death
Stares him in the face.  He snuggles
Between the skulls as matter-of-factly as a favorite son
Out walking with mum and dad.
I guess that’s who the skulls are.

Camille Pissarro, <em>The Climbing Path</em>, 1878. Oil on canvas.
Camille Pissarro, The Climbing Path, 1878. Oil on canvas.

Climbing Path

The curtain falls, the show of the world is over.

It would be too easy to call the scene on the curtain
A room, for the coolness of its color, the shivering of everything
In a wind, the greens and yellows turning their undersides
To an energy – even the purple darkness
Clinging to the summit of a cliff – are the outside, the unboundedness, of
Epitomized; and the path up the hill, though
It does not take the ground from under anyone’s feet,
Does lead away, with that promise of happiness
Pissarro half believed in – more than half,
Brush in hand – toward a state in which order and freedom,
The kind summed up by the spec-built cottages,
Flutter out everywhere, evenly, availably… birds hardly bothered
By a morning stroller, wings repeating the plash of a palette knife,
Birch trees rushing to a rendezvous, moss
Meeting the top of a tiled roof and becoming –
The soft grinning skull and the shimmering lake –
A dream of painting, endless painting, never a green too many,

Each unfortunate villa bathed in the light of the universe.


T.J. Clark

T. J. Clark taught art history at Berkeley for many years. His last book was If These Apples Should Fall: Cezanne and the Present, and his next one, just finished, will be Those Passions: On Art and Politics.


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