Paint us, they said, the world as it is. No more
of your children’s games and peasant weddings.
He painted Procession to Calvary, Saul
blasted by glory on the way to Damascus.
At home, now, transposing Holy Land to his own
familiar yellows, he did Adoration of the Kings
in snow. He was good at snow. Go on
they said. He did Flight into Egypt,
a Census at Bethlehem, branchy veins
down a red hound’s legs.
Not one was satisfied. He made smoke
like dry ice lift over a busted chandelier
in debris just that shade of dun
we see night after night on TV
in a totally annihilated village.
There are bodies in there you can’t see,
he said. Forty disabled kids
with their mothers. And a Beirut reporter.
That’s more like it, they said. We want
the world we live in. He painted Slaughter
of the Innocents (putting them too in snow)
and three hundred thousand refugees
in a red and black landscape.
Not hell, but it could have been.
From a plasma screen
he painted a boy of twelve – his mouth
that black bone shape like the howl in the mask
of Tragedy – plastered crimson
head to toe, standing over
his mother’s living torso;
her arms taken off by bomb-blast
on the way to Damascus.
He conjured the home of the Caliphs
in flames like orange lilies – thrown
by an emperor whose religion
was founded on mercy –
and a game-show host from Nebraska,
upset the President of Iraq didn’t get
that Israel had a right to defend itself.
(By now the boy’s mother had died.)
He started a new thing, skeletons
knifing a king,
another side-saddle on a grey horse
in the shafts of a broke-wheeled caboose
laden with bodies; a lone corpse
floating, swelled belly upwards,
downriver, dogs gnawing the face
of a toddler: plus three-headed Cerberus,
one head searching for fleas, one head
asleep, the third keeping watch
on a black bird making its nest
in red jasmine. They praised
the painstaking draughtsmanship
in his torn men dying on wheels,
failed rebels stuck on poles
in cassis-coloured sky
and black plumes on a high thin horizon
from cities on fire: including
I may say Nazareth. And Bethlehem
where the emperor’s pin-up,
a.k.a. the Prince of Peace, was born.
He said that’s what I’ve seen. Yes,
they said, that’s what we wanted.
The Triumph of Death
This poem connects Pieter Bruegel’s painting THE TRIUMPH OF DEATH and TV coverage of the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It comes from my new collection, Learning to Make an Oud in Nazareth, whose poems address the Middle East and search for common ground through images of harmony and creativity. I started the book during the Israeli siege, Easter 2002,. of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem.Bruegel is an exemplary artist-as-witness. Contemporaries called him “Peter the Funny One” because he painted children’s games, but he also saw the start of revolt in the Netherlands against Spanish occupation, and the savage response of the occupiers; and he reflected that violence in his Biblical paintings. The “Emperor” here is George Bush but could be anyone protecting the unjust abuse of power. .