Part Four

 

And now there comes to me the Schiavoni,
when all my years are needed not to show
how changed she looks, where that high sweeping air
is sunk to petulance and bloated skin,
though eyes still blaze at me.

How hard the stone
is here, how comfortless the cold steps down
to corridors and bare refectory tables.

'I am accustomed to confining walls,
to silences that reach to echoing steps,
where daylight at the window bars and waits
for evening's fading and the flight of bats.

This is my world now, Caliari, and even
clothes that were my solace have that look
of princes' emissaries, who urge to please,
but in the end say nothing but regret.
How strange the swelled effrontery of breast,
the pageantry of bodies and their satined grace
should shrink at length to this poor wheezing breath.

See here, this withered hand your lips have kissed
a
thousand times in rapture now beset
by folds, loose veins and liver-spots.
'

My lady.

'I am not your lady but a Magdalena,
a sister of reputation fallen on white charity,
who stoops her body down by altar steps
and calls most fervently that God's high grace
will give her ending in a contrite heart.'

May God so grant it with His abundant blessings
that those who seek Him here may have their rest.

'Amen to that. I see you have not lost
your gift for courtesy and fashioned phrase.
What is it you come for in this far
retreat of incense weavings and of smoke?'


I came at your request, against my own
good judgement, as the Reverend Mother urged.

'The commission, Caliari, where is that?'

I think much lost upon the way.

                                       'Ten years
and nothing? Not a sketch? You, Caliari,
we'll send for sorrow then: you are so slow.'

So many orders came, at times from those
abroad with
embassies we can't refuse.

'That all Venice knows, those highnesses
who want for allegories their painted women,
half-clothed and vapid, mouthing pious thoughts.
Who sat for those gross trumperies?'

None
but memory as always, my dear Antonia.

'No current favourites, little things that hang
on partial promises and tricked-out words?'

I've seen all women as our Saviour made them,
from bold ten soldi sluts who sit astride
50. and flaunt, or would do, gratis, what they have
in rubied breasts and thick-encumbered genders
to merchant wives with breeding who would hold
a pose for ever if good Venice saw them
their arbiters of fashion, as well of course
as regal folk, celebrities as you were,
in whose dress a single jewel, just one
of dozens, paid my workshop for a month.

'Always the same, Caliari: ever
the small man totting up the
risk and cost.'

God has shown me many kindnesses.
I come, as you know well, from unroofed works
that face the Adige as it winds across
San Paolo's watery fields, the Campo Marzo
is not much counted as Verona's finest.
My schoolmates were its ragamuffins, sons
of labourers and artisans, the same to be
in turn.

Good men and honest but unwashed.
Not for them to walk the Anastasia
or present credentials at the Scaligeri,
or climb the marble steps of Ragione:

At these I pass as a most prosperous man:
worthy don Paolo, take a glass with us, sit
and tell us how the Doge and Council spread
their laden fleets across the Adriatic,
or what the Valois King of France has said
to you of celebrations, Palladio's arch,
the courtesans who crowd the packed Rialto
and from its banks or boats made embassies
you were consulted on. All this was unexpected,
against the odds, in one who came from modest,
indeed impoverished, small circumstance.

'Who left that path, and quietly climbing, turned
as ever to prevailing winds.'

No doubt
there's truth in that, but, also, who can show
his handiwork but as his betters pay?

'Where are those stratagems of hint and tell
with which you tricked out palaces in paint?'

The world of learning has its great commanders:
my conquests echo in a rounder space.

'Do they, Caliari, and you're not
the man who peeps about when guests are gone?
Did nothing ever shake that soul, if soul
you have, but canvasses and pigment's cost?

Why should you show this vale of tears with drench
of colour when it is a vain illusion?
Why mock with trumperies our earnest souls?'

I came, my Lady, to enquire your health,
ask pardon of offences, make my peace.

'Too late, my friend. Fulfill the contract.'

That now,
100. is neither possible nor for the best.

If I have gathered in commissions, won
a living and some honour, gained the trust
of Doge and merchant, I have much to think
on nonetheless, and so I tell Carletto,
son and workman in my place.

'Yes,
I've seen those ill-constructed things. How dark
they look, so heavy, daubed and dull. What can
you teach of dancing on such awkward steps
?'

It's true I paint the evening shadows which
have truth in outline, and were always there.
My time is fining out, and things around
now look at me reproachfully. They say:
you understand us, do you, Paolo, you
who took on matters as most painters do,
for purse and flattery and not the heart's
fresh-minted coinage? In truth I did and always
knew how bitterly came back to stay
the stratagems that caused a thousand faults.

Rich-hued and bountiful seems every day
when colours ache upon my palsied hands.
I walked in coming here along the small
canals, and thought me back to that young man
I was in stopping, and in going back
and forward, thinking of you, how to win you,
who were above me as the summer clouds.

The which I never told, how for months
your image hung against my thought, pressed up
against me, filled my waking and my sleep.

What liberties I took with it, extending
myself imagined into every part:
a heaven of having and of rough delighting,
till after, when the dawn light found me spent
and comfortless, what fasts and promises
and penance I'd have to make
, confessions
that holy fathers even tired of me.

I scoured the taverns and the gaming houses,
and came to senses slowly, abused and staggering,
with head down, lying in the street: a thing
to pity at, though none there knew me. In women
purchased I would blear the features, make
them smouldering where they were but plain, a fire
of thrown magnificence in tawny hair,
and from the haunches and the heavy breasts
made out a rule to weigh all women by.

I blush to tell you even sombre eyes,
the hint of green, the silvery greys, all
I paint and am most famous for, began
in your rejection, mocking laugh, a mouth
that spat at me, a muscled form I sensed
150. had power to hold me and invade the heart.

'Fine words, my Veronese, and as cheap
as things you painted in the Levi's feast.'

Unavoidable and most unfortunate:
but not a single day in fact has passed,
at work, at recreation, talk with friends,
attending to the Doge, to friars and clients,
at my betrothal words, at hearing priests
recount the blessings and the penalties
that marriage brings us to — even then,
within the thickness of my body, thoughts
were only truant and returned to you.


'Much, much too late. Why is it now
you make the declaration, not that time
I had so many others, each with name
and ready purses? Is that my fault? Our lives
depend on whom we can enchant with looks
and sultry promises and further nights
.
I told
you rich patrician's sons would wait
on me and fight for favours. Did you think
that I who had the greatest of past Doge's sons
wear out their stockings on my polished floors,
to follow me with hangdog glances, such
as when we beat them hard will come back puzzled,
would give all up to be a tradesman's wife?
The best of Venice sought me and desired
to be the arm on which I left the court.'

The which would not be mine. How could it? True,
I am a popular and thriving man,
whose makes his passage out of nimble thoughts,
not fawning on but not forgetting, sowing
rank with courtesies the more remarkable
because so apt. To you, my lady, moving
as a ship of state, high laden, pennants
flying, all lesser craft must dip their flags.

I have seen you come as summer to a room
and draw the fragrance out of winter's leaves,
bright things that
smoke upon imaginings,
and thrust an image into consciousness
of long defences, shaded battlements
and slow surrender.

I have seen see you dance
with women, laughing, lead them on to snatch
at men they should not notice, turn and look
a wild Bacchante with their passions flushed.

Who can deal with that but gentlemen
who keep themselves in bearing, where their name
can look but idly on
a crowd, and know
whatever they may do, or do not do,
their prospects answer for. For me, I am
more conscious of my status, and my place
200. as nature's looker-on to be as that
but note exactly how they move and smile.

'That is not the issue, Caliari.
You had my waking and my
company
far more than others who had flung apartments,
jewels and ducat nights on what was passing.
You I entertained in my long hours
of reading, playing at the lute or cards,
when I was larger than my thoughts, and saw
the silvered waters of the far lagoon
crimson with sunset as the ragged clouds
brought on the thankfulness of gondoliers
who no more shouted fares but sat
as lapping
waters splash upon the steps and lift
their boats upon the element. That hour
of grace and recollection,
heartfelt ease
before we slip on bodices and silken
underclothes and such extravagances
as parties shall demand: in these I was
in service to you and much more myself.'

For me as well they were enchanted hours,
my dear Antonia. I still see

that shower of benefice as though the sun
had thrown its mintage into shuttered bars.
I felt our souls were moving as I took
the lute and hung upon your
unclothed body
sleeping, a hand thrown out, or on the breast,
its palm turned up and open to the last
rich benedictions of the light, the rays
of that perpetual pageantry burned on,
and hoping as the heart was full, we need
but hear that music in our further natures.

'You spurned me, Caliari. That long year
we lived
together as the city starved,
I sold my jewels, gave up apartments, dressed
but modestly, becomingly, the while
your importunings searched for friar and priest,
that time you lowered rates as all around

the Council deliberated and Doge nodded,
nothing to happen but that galleys went
out more hungrily and came back empty,
no bread or foodstuffs but such things our patrons
sent in by back roads silently at night.
We both by gifts survived: I bore your child,
and asked for nothing but a recognition.

 

Now rewritten and published as a free ebook by Ocaso Press