Poem of the Week | January 29, 2008

This week’s poem is “Inferno” by Robert Thomas.  It is previously unpublished.  Robert Thomas’ first book, Door to Door, was selected by Yusef Komunyakaa as winner of the Poets Out Loud Prize and published by Fordham University Press in 2002.  His second book, Dragging the Lake, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in 2006. Thomas’ new manuscript, The Baker’s Daughter, is a book-length sequence of poems, a dramatic dialogue, set in the Italian Renaissance. He has received a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his poem “Quarter Past Blue” appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology. He lives with his wife and cats in South San Francisco.

“As a California native, my original intention was to write about place, the history and environment of California, focusing on the great artist Richard Diebenkorn. Perhaps I should not have been surprised that what resulted was a book-length sequence about the artist Raphael in 16th Century Italy. In “Inferno” Raphael addresses Margherita, of whom we know almost nothing except that she was a baker’s daughter (even that is not certain), the model for several paintings, and Raphael’s lover. The sequence is a dialogue in which the couple argue about their relationship, the meaning of art, and the existence of God.”

Inferno

What would you and your God-pie have
me do, bella? Leo will excommunicate me
if I marry you, or at the very least dismiss
 
my entourage, my sweet boys forever ready
to grind my pigments, no matter at what
godless hour inspiration comes with her
 
glib tongue. I’ve insulted il papa enough
with yet another excuse for putting off
my wedding with Maria. It must wait
 
for the excavation of Nero’s villa. It must
wait for Magellan’s return from the Spice
Islands. He’s not dumb, cara. He needs me
 
to join my forces with his sun-dried niece.
You know his power as well as anyone,
surely. Surely. But I’ve got a surprise
 
I was saving for Pentecost, the better
to give the tongues of fire something
to talk about. Don’t worry, no diamond:
 
such a hard stone, don’t you think? Now
look at your likeness. Even the cardinals
are permitted only sapphire on their hands.
 
How their guts will knot when they behold
a ruby adorning the baker’s daughter. But
only on a slab of art, the fools will mutter,
even the color an illusion! For this illusion,
iron was submerged in sulfuric acid,
cinnabar imported from China and
 
peachwood from San Salvador
in plague ships. Resin-encrusted
clusters of insect shells stripped
 
from Roman oaks like rough scabs,
then boiled, crushed like sweet red
berries. I pointed them out to you,
 
remember? On one of our evening
walks in the hills. Out of creatures
like this, I said, I will mix the colors
 
angels wear in God-pierced ears.
Once I wanted to paint an inferno
without one visible flame, just fear
 
reflected in a hundred faces. Fear:
it’s no mystery. It’s the pupil of an eye
opening a fraction wider, just the same
 
as desire, the same quiet, the same flush.

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