Chapter Nine


I should be gone from here, but seeming wait
for one to tell me how her life was cast
from things that hold their candle flush to mine.

I hear the steps and turn. A nun with pock-
marked face, a stooping body, and with eyes
I still remember, stares at me.

'So now
look away, my gran pittore,
although I kept you foremost in my prayers?'

I could not speak, but in my tears I felt
her light touch on my sleeve and on my hand.
I found her smiling as composure righted
and looking at me with an anxious kindness.

'Have years been good to you, my gran pittore,
filled out your purposes as you once said?'

Prosperous, my little lady, blest
with wealth and standing. My sons are well, and one
inherits something of my workman's gifts
For that much thanks. The rest I do not know.
The promise of a high spring morning, the birds
that lighten with their singing, wind with fragrance —
these I have not felt from that sad morning
of finding that far lodging house was bare.

You cannot know what pains waylaid me, what
stabbing penances I underwent.
I was
more lucid afterwards, but God
stopped growing in me and my trust was stilled.

Where did you go, my little lady, why,
by all the saints, not leave or send a message?

'Pride and misery. I was afflicted,
with worse than pestilence, whose pain is short,
that left these pockmarks and this wasted frame.
For months I wondered why His grace should test
so small a helpless creature, tell my mother
that all she cherished in her heart was spent:
no more to walk in sunshine where the wind
could whisper to me as my suitors should.

At length, not speedily, with long relapses,
I came to care for others, and with God's grace
became as they are now and gained my peace.'

Here, in this poor world of waste and shadow,
withdrawn to penitence and candle ends?

'I do not know, my gran pittore, what
to say to give you comfort or explain
God's purposes, the which I reach
but dimly, on occasions, never sure.
I sew and sing, and former learning serves

to help my sisters in their daily steps
along that testing journey all must take
to where in majesty our Lord awaits.

50. But there are duties, surely? Your poor mother
was entitled to have word of you.

'She had that news and duly helped me,
seeing I was lodged and in the care of nuns.

In truth, whatever you had kept me from:
licentiousness and pride in my high bearing,
the boast of men and bestial tastes, that
at last she recognized was also God's,
and in my suffering had made His sign.'

It cannot be that for my squeamishness
some paragon of life and gentle bearing,
the best that Venice breeds for ducal courts,
could be so punished and denied the joy
of wealth and lovers and established life.

What is the testimony of a hundred crafts
that crowd the quays and bustling shops,
which offer powders, jewels and sumptuous cloths
as simple blessing on entitlement?
For else we have but anxious, little lives,
undone by thoughts and details, tedious worries,
and know no greater majesty of life
but trials and courtrooms to a further place.

In choirs we know of but may scarcely hear —
too far and faint the music of those spheres —
all turn to praise Him, and our bodies here
flare out as shadows of that final place.
Recessed the mirrors of this tinsel world
of what is beautiful in His great sight.
Our catechisms, schooling, long retreat
through things ungraspable but still believed
are aspects only of those distant shores
whose revelation is in sense unthought.

'So many are the claims and muddling thoughts —
as you must know and well, my gran pittore —
that what we choose must be as hearts
in spotless charity and long reflection
so lead us. Otherwise the world is passing
endlessly in suppositions, mirrored dreams.
In love we fashion images and form
a picture of our souls which heart can hear
as breathing testimonies, carried song
long after what was offered passes on.
Not in pomps and sumptuous spectacles
has God His glory but in simple hearts.'

But He, my little lady, does not ask
we close the hand that feeds us, turn away
from those high promises to Noah made
millenniums out of mind. The stamp of beauty,
which we must surely see if we will look,
no doubt is flickering, at times obscured,
100. but made renaissant as the sun will rise
and flood each morning with its radiant light,
dispel all errors and revoke our sins.
We live in faith and earnestness, and pledge
a fuller consciousness to know our gifts.
Not in abnegation, but in life
God pours His talents out and says believe.

'Belief is one thing, faith another. Think,
my gran pittore how those steps in thought
of line or colour conjured out on walls,
each composition checked or mended as
some royal patron wanted, church or abbey,
are but an issue from that well of faith
the guilds have drafted, at best a thing spun out
of hopes much pondered on in earnest hours.

You have walked, my father, far beyond
what earthly promises provided for,
have mixed with Doge and princes, laughed and shut
the ear as I did to a larger truth.

If I were dead and truly gone, why then
no search or message for me, prayers or candles?
The capital you spent, which is our Lord's,
was turned to other uses: you in friends
and high prosperity confused the way.

But think of my poor mother. Her commission,
for which she sold her jewels, you put aside,
ignored and painted on — when God made soul
bleed out to darkness and the glowing skin
retreat in some infected, loathsome thing.'

So is the father is humbled by the child,
and all he said in courtly remonstrance
has come to hurt him, and make sport of truth
that lives in actions only, not our words.

'Both words and actions make our path to God,
though it is hard for us, as for my mother.
Along her way of service and reflection
she takes her last and backward-tracing steps.
Be with her, my gran pittore, take her hand
and with your smiling courtesy pace out
to that last promontory we call the earth.'

I will, my lady, that those days of joy
be long remembered when you were conceived.

'My gran pittore, it is time to leave me.
I will take you to the entrance of that farther
world I have renounced, and send you on.
Your soul hangs on this instant, as will too
my mother's and my own. From here you will
precede me to that sure and heavenly place
and I will pray for all those steps you take.

It's time to go now. I will show you out.'

150. I went, an old man tottering through the gardens
of flowering marjoram and empty vine.
Before me rose the blazing river, a fire
of stillness and of shining white, in which
God's hidden purposes were staunched with mine.

How different now my bustling city seemed.
Each hour of travelling put a further year
upon my recollections and the tears.

I looked out on this world of ours, the play
of water, the boatmen calling, wealth and colour,
that shaft of sunlight falling where my work
held up its transcript, briefly, and was gone.

I thought of shadows in the stone at noon,
that walk beneath our steps while we have breath.
I thought of bats at evening and the cool
cascades of leaves that show the unimportance
of all our stratagems and life's ambitions
that go the same to old-compacted ground
above the poles of wood that lift this firmament
to shout and spectacle.

How dark the water
seems as sun flares out and falls on past
the wharves and palaces, how cold the wind
now off the far lagoon that crimps the surface.
We come to land. The boatman helps me out.
I take the streets to San Sebastiano,
those walls I worked on in those summer evenings.
I step inside and can inspect again
the reverences I've seen a thousand
times but not from this sharp reckoning.

How hard the stone is here, how shadowy
from noon, as I have often noted, walking
in my red silk slippers, one with pageantries
of painted fabric on these walls. Outside
the sky is thin and ever changing; our faith
shuts doors against the day. Such is the faith
of martyrs, is impregnable — as donna
Anna told me, and I now have sense
to kneel and light a candle, sensing a weighted
knowledge in the heart of things. I think
of all the canvases, the lives that gutter
slowly, smokily in this dim air.

I never painted better. In these walls
I breathe my fullest confidence in life.
How false that was. The sun at zenith passes
and we from gaudy flowers fade as grass.

I am as one now rested in God's work,
who painted miracles, and was blessed
with friends and family throughout his life,
with commissions and honours and with a name
well known in this great city. The sunlight shifts
200. and sparkles on the water. Lord Redeemer,
speak to us and turn what is unfashionable
and unfathomable, murky, mixed
with sin, to sunlit clarity that we
from endless torment come to your pure sight.

Carletto bears my name, and Gabriele,
the first most gifted, and will take my place
within that fragile world of great appearing.
To both descendants I bequeath a land
companionable and ripening, fields criss-crossed
with willows and with poplar, fields that look
beyond the littorals that braid our lives
with silver osiers trembling in the wind.
The things we build, high towers and colonnades
and cupolas, great domes of learning: these
as shouts of citizens we take to God
in dreams and conjurations. So it was
and doubtless ever will be. In these walls
of flare and spectacle I bow my head.


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