Monday, June 14, 2010



In Masaccio’s Expulsion
from the Garden,
how benign the angel seems,
like a good civil servant
he is merely enforcing
the rules. I remember
these faces from Fine Arts 13.
I was young enough then
to think that the loss of innocence
was just about Sex.
Now I see Eve covering
her breasts with her hands
and I know it is not to hide them
but only to keep them
from all she must know
is to follow from Abel
on one, Cain on the other.

            ~ Linda Pastan

Here is another poem inspired by the same fresco. We need to see more of the chapel to understand Graham’s reference to the world outside Eden. This image includes some of the surrounding frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. Masaccio's work dates back to 1425. 


Is this really the failure
  of silence,
or eternity, where these two 
        suffer entrance
into the picture 

a man and a woman 
        so hollowed
by grief they cover
        their eyes
in order not to see
        the inexhaustible grammar

before them – labor, judgment, 
        saints and peddlers –
the daylight hopelessly even
        upon them
and our eyes. But this too
        is a garden

I'd say, with its architecture 
        of grief, 
its dark and light
        in the folds
of clothing, and oranges,
       for sale

among the shadows  
        of oranges.  All round them,
        on the way down
        toward us,
woods thicken.  And perhaps
        it is a flaw

on the wall of this church, or age,  
        or merely the restlessness
of the brilliant
        young painter
the large blue bird
        seen flying too low

just where the trees  
        clot. I
want to say to them
        who have crossed
into this terrifying 
        usefulness – symbols,

balancing shapes in 
        a composition,
mother and father,
        hired hands –
I want to say to them,
        Take your faces

out of your hands 
        look at that bird,
the gift of
        the paint –
I've seen it often

in my life, 
         a Sharp-Shinned Hawk,
tearing into the woods
        for which it's 
too big, abandoning
                 the open

prairie in which 
                   it is free and easily
eloquent. Watch
        where it will not 
veer but follows
        the stain

of woods, 
        a long blue arc
breaking itself
        through the wet
black ribs
        of those trees,

seeking a narrower 
        place.  Always
I find the feathers
        afterward. . . .
Perhaps you know
        why it turns in

this way 
        and will not stop?
In the foreground
        almost life-size
the saints hawk their wares,
        and the women

and merchants.  They too 
        are traveling
a space too small
        to fit in,
calling out names
        or prices

or proof of faith. 
        Whatever they are,
it beats
        up through the woods
of their bodies,
        almost a light, up

through their fingertips, 
        their eyes.
There isn't a price
        (that floats up
through their miraculous 

and lingers above them 
        in the gold air)
that won't live forever.

      ~ Jorie Graham


Some readers will prefer Pastan’s more accessible poem; others will be dazzled by Jorie Graham’s unexpected, electrifying language (especially in the first half of the poem). I know that it’s Graham’s poem I will be returning to again and again, though I greatly appreciate Pastan’s wisdom. I will be returning to Graham’s dramatic tension and mystery.

I especially love the second stanza:

a man and a woman
    so hollowed 
by grief they cover
    their eyes
in order not to see
    the inexhaustible grammar

before them -- labor, judgment, 


Graham's poem could end:

I want to say to them,
    Take your faces

out of your hands,
   look at the bird,
the gift of 
      the paint --

but the poem flows on as though by itself, and that too is a mystery that compels me to read it to the end, and ponder the price we keep on paying for any significant choice. 

As for the fresco, I find it mesmerizing. I identify with Eve. It wasn’t that I was exiled. I exiled myself because I too wanted to know (“to see the world”) and to be as the gods (those who lived in the West). Like Eve, I yearned for a “larger life.”

Until I gained a broader perspective, reality seemed a travesty of that yearning. The sense of loss was overwhelming. Yet I had to admit that California was certainly “also a garden,” as Jorie Graham puts it, in an almost desperate attempt to put a positive slant on the Expulsion.  

Graham protests too much, and this spoils the second part of the poem. The bird entering a space too small for him is an unconvincing role model. But I agree that those exiles and immigrants who remain pathologically blind to the world around them (though I understand the dissonance that comes with having a different world inside you) deprive themselves of a chance for happiness. It’s a more complex happiness than the easier, warmer, more natural happiness of those who remain settled in their homeland and their culture, but one can work through to contentment (I speak as one who once thought that could never happen, at least not in my case; that a “happy immigrant” was like a “gay corpse”).

The emptiness of suburbia and the stress of huge commutes are still a part of my life, but I realize that living in another place would bring other problems. That’s how reality tends to be everywhere: nothing is all good or all bad. My real homeland is the country of the mind. 



There is much to be said about both poems. Pastan's style is more in keeping with the way I write, very much in the vernacular , simple direct and clear and startling at the conclusion. Graham's is much more complex and makes demands on the reader, delves more deeply into all aspects of the painting. Her  poem doesn't just present what we know of the painting but makes us want to know more and even more. Will take many readings. I esp like the woods images but see no woods in the painting or bird??? or oranges- is she just imagining some of this? I'm confused but delighted anyway.


Jorie grew up and traveled in Italy and no doubt got to see the entire fresco-covered chapel -- and somewhere there must be a bird, and oranges for sale. I agree that this poem invites many re-readings. Pastan addresses one feature of the fresco in particular: Eve is covering her breasts.   This small and banal-seeming detail blossoms into an unexpected commentary on the rest of the human history that's yet to unfold, indicated simply by the names of Cain and Abel. 


As always, I enjoyed the art, poems and comments. I found Linda's poem easy to access and Jori's will require several readings and more contemplation. I agree with the point where you thought the poem could end and I felt that it went on longer than it needed to. I am impressed with the fact that the sword is the one spot of black in the fresco and it stands out with vengeance. The expression of the angel doesn't look angry but the sword is piercing and war-like. The way the figures are covering themselves seems to be something more than either poem has addressed. It may be fear or shame or grief. Could it be a primal self-consciousness as they are naked and exposed to an angel who has suddenly appeared? I don't think that either poem has captured the emotion of the scene. Perhaps I am being too critical.


I particularly agree with the statement: "I don't think that either poem has captured the emotion of the scene." The fresco is simply startling in its emotional expressiveness. I think Pastan comes closer to entering Eve's mind, but neither poem does full justice to the extraordinary painting. I admit the task would be very difficult. 
It's interesting that the couple are presented naked. Going by Genesis, they should at this point be clothed in animal skin outfits created for them by God as the first fashion designer. But nakedness connotes vulnerability and feeling "exposed," as you observe. I also love your having pointed out the dramatic blackness of the sword.

I wonder if perhaps there is simply too much in this poem, and yet not enough. Do we really care enough about the sharp-shinned hawk? It's the drama of the couple that I want to stay with. I like the turn the poem makes with "take your faces out of your hands, look . . . " -- but what follows is not enticing enough. 


  1. Loved the first poem. The comment about the breasts, and the loss of innocence. Thank you again!

  2. Thank you for commenting, Danusha. Btw, Danuta happens to be my favorite Polish name (it's actually Lithuanian).

    I think Pastan's poem is spoken from a mature woman's viewpoint, and is emotionally more satisfying. Jorie's poem is more intellectual.

  3. This is a great post! (All your posts are great.) My sensibity clearly comes down on the side of the Pastan poem, though I'm not always a fan of her work. In this case, the poet has stepped aside and let the grand tragedy unfold on its own--as does Massacio. I find Graham's work highly mannered and self-conscious, she's trying to hard. She herself can't stifle the urge to step into the picture. Just in the first 12 lines, for example, her use of that art-historical term, "picture plane," Trying to make some sort of grand statement about art, but it only comes down to the suffering artist, or herself And then that second stanza, which is pretty good and certainly moving--but what to make of that "inexhaustible grammar." Sounds good, but what does it mean? In this case, I think she's so enamoured of the phrase that she fails to realize that she might, in fact, mean the exact opposite. Naming, after all, is a grand limitation. Sadly, I do think that this is probably the most intersting work of Graham and that her later work (the last 15 years or so) is simply more mannerism. KEEP THIS UP PLEASE.

  4. Thank you, dear Prince Myshkin. I agree that Jorie's second volume, "Erosion," is her best work -- in spite of mannerisms. There are a few great poems in "The End of Beauty," but already there she is well on her way to becoming unreadable, alas.
    I've seen this time and again: a great first or second volume, and then the poet goes downhill. Is it because of fame? A friend of mine exclaimed, "I'd love to be destroyed by fame!" -- but I think it's a terrible fate.