Tuesday, 01 September 2009



Caravaggio Dying

Potto Ercole, July 1610, aged 36 


It goes. The fever leaves me. Even thirst
Is merciful and goes. My clumsy tongue
No longer bursts my lips. I’ve lost my anger.
It left, and left me empty. I greet smiling
My new-found death.

                        Oh true, I might have died
A little sooner. At Naples last October
A dagger missed. So now the fever strikes.
It doesn’t matter. Arrest, loss of goods,
Which met me here in Porto Ercole,
The Pope’s pardon that I came in hope of,
And the Grand Master’s enmity I ran from,
Are like the flea-stricken bed.
I cannot budge for them. No-one supposed,
Not even I, I’d live to be much older.

What’s left? What I have painted, scattered in
Rome’s palaces and churches, Naples, Malta –
Some of my latest, done in Sicily,
Already gnawed by salt air, candlesmoke.
Perhaps they’ll be forgotten. All will rot
Sooner or later, just as bodies rot.
My images visit me. As children come
To watch a father’s deathbed, they are with me.

My own head. Seen in mirrors. Cleanly axed.
By the frame’s edge. Then. in my pictures painted:
Young, wigged with snakes and screaming – staring
Made for a prince to stare at. Leering image
To freeze the great and mighty in their places.
Later, my own head for Goliath’s painted.
Held in the tender hand of a young David,
Beard drenched with sweat, cheeks sunk, eyes flutter
     open –
So I have looked, stumbling from a shared bed,
Humbled by the boy’s easy, lewd surrender. 

My vices. Framed on walls. A naked urchin,
Mocking my namesake Michelangelo,
Sprawled on a cloth and insolently caressing
A ram, my lustful symbol. I got credit
For new invention, painting this St John –
At least my Baptist speaks of wilderness
(St John, St John, into what wilds you drove me,
Cursed me as Neptune did the wise Ulysses). 

Another boy, one plumed with borrowed wings
A Roman, offering wares. Giustiniani
Who bought it from me said he liked it best
Of all his pictures. ‘Sir, a noble liking!’
Was what I told him. ‘Lie in my soiled bed.
You know love-making makes me sweat in rivers.
Press your nose down upon that crumpled sheet
The boy bestrides. I think you’ll smell sweat still.’
But still he bought it. Now this keyhole shows him
My conquest of Amore Vincitore 

Still other images. Enough to show
It was not only boys and women called me
Out into taverns, brothels, Roman alleys.
A fortnight’s painting paid for a month’s brawling;
Sometimes amidst the brawling was a picture.
I wore a sword and used it. All my natures
Unleashed in turn, and then in turn depicted.

Three card-players. Two cheat, and one is cheated –
Ail three myself. The Saviour calling Matthew.
I’m Matthew hearing the voice, drawn out of doors,
And I’m the indifferent watchers. One dark theme
Often returned to. See it my Judith,
Her stern brows set, her sharp blade cleaving through
The sinewy neck. The dark blood, jetting out,
Stains Holofernes’ pillow. His face twisting ... 

I saw that face I’d painted, as my knife
With an oiled smoothness gently, gently glided
Into the soft flesh of Ranuccio’s groin.
Ranuccio whom I killed. I think that we
Quarrelled for a dark purpose. As I killed him
I suddenly felt a long release and sweetness
I’d never had with either boy or woman.
I’d have felt the same with his knife sheathed in me. 

St John. St john. It was Ranuccio
made you my patron, and you led me far
To bring me here. Such lonely wilderness.
A heavy punishment for a sly picture. 

To Naples, first, escaping. then to Malta,
Summoned by the Grand Master of your Order.
I was a knight, too, when I did this portrait.
A Knight of Grace. I scapegrace. Do saints laugh?
I could have sworn I heard your naked laughter.
You owe me something for your altarpiece
There in Valetta. theme: your decollation.
Payment: a golden collar and two slave-boys.
A high, blank wall; an eager shining platter.
You, prison-worn, being butchered.
I did not mock you then. Forgive me for it. 

And then I fell from grace. De Wigancourt
Put all his holy bravos on my back.
And so to Sicily. From house to house
Shadowed and hunted. Sheltered for my genius.
Great pictures for small, churches. Lazarus
Raised and not raised. I neither lived nor died. 

Then this last voyage here. Arrest. Mistaken.
The thieving captain gone with all my baggage.
The blank sea-mirror held to my black anger.
A fever caught me. On this July day
They’ll bundle me underground in an hour or two,
Or I’ll be swollen like a corpse from Tiber. 

How does it feel, this change? As I imagined.
I raise my arms as Paul does in my picture
Painted nine years past for the Cerasi chapel –
Lying on his back, cast doen by revelation,
Hands clenched, soul clenched. The vision
And sight quite gone. The, brute world that has thrown
Waits, like my horse, till I resume my journey.


This site was last updated 01-09-2009