Group Portrait, Delft, Late Sixteenth Century - Poem by Peter Boyle
They opened the dikes five times that year to flood the land.
Cities were torched, the inhabitants bound and gagged,
then forced at lancepoint into the frozen canals.
I was executing yet another portrait of the public trustees of an orphanage
that their bald correctly-laced presences might shine
in remote museums a thousand years hence.
I enjoy the delicate way their hands rest on the title deeds
for these most Christian places
even as the order “No prisoners” passed along both sides
or another cannonade ripped through the munitions factory
burying in rubble the girls’ school for genteel deportment.
Each year the orphanages increased.
The portraits grew heavier and heavier.
The regents must have thought they would lug the weight of them
into the other world.
Nice money if you can get the work
and no one questioned motives:
fidelity to realistic details
right up to the end of the earth.
These stone embankments that look like Venice but they’re not Venice,
here where the dark river finds its terminus,
where the ship’s prow seeks a tomb among the currents.
Every day as I paint,
winter water shivers under the footbridge.
The gaunt trees shelter their starved layer of birds:
at each level they define a new habitation.
I once captured the local birds in a Biblical triptych:
those rounded brutal mouths shaped by the one cry of begging,
stuffing everything visible into their darkening crevasse.
I wanted to paint as bluntly
as words spoken during an avalanche
yet all’s this inevitable smooth,
these muted blues that are the fashion of the age
recording everything precisely as it is:
each official, each battle, the new born child,
the fruits on the table, the windmill on the hillside to the left
at every change of season –
that’s what they wanted and I could do it,
making present to the touch
each thing as it passes into amnesia.
Today at the abandoned Cathedral
the Italian master continues his rehearsals.
No one notices how there’s a wobbling at the core of his music
and no matter how high the dancers kick their heels
they will never find solid ground.
The goodly burghers will follow the streamers
and no one thinks twice of the five servant girls
penned in their cages
awaiting the sentence of beheading
for certain lewd practices
as reported by their illustrious employers.
Each day the ocean grows outside the dike.
The wounds in the sky slowly multiply.
Ever more threatening the viking ships come closer.
I continue these stern faces, hands folded in laps,
apocalypse near Delft, the circle sealed.
Long needles knit the great cloaks for our third winter in the trenches.
The troops of the Duke of Alba torch another outlying settlement
while the regents’ faces betray no emotion.
They know the civilization I smear on this canvas will last a thousand years.
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