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"Fall of Icarus" by Breughel
W.H. Auden (1907-1973)
"Musee Des Beaux Arts"
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
(1999) by Alan Devenish
You'd think we'd have enough of falling
since that sunny day high off the coast of Crete. Air disasters
appalling and impersonal. The bomber's hate
made potent with a bit of plastic and some altitude. Spacecrafts
with schoolteachers aboard--exploding over and over
again. The parents aghast at the pure Icarian sky of Florida
suddenly emptied of their child.
What is myth if not an early version of what's been happening
all along? (The arrogance of flight brought down
by faulty gaskets.)
As Auden would have it: the way we plow through life
head bent to the furrow while tragedy falls from the sky.
Bruegel shows only the legs--flailing and white--scissoring
into a pitiless green sea.
Williams treats a distant casualty in his clinical
little sketch. (Did the astronauts feel their fall
or breathe instantly the killing fumes?)
Matisse plays it another way. It's color--Icarus' love
for color and who can blame him? Hs poor heart
waxing red as he falls through blue and what might be
a scatter of sunbursts or a vision of war--the enemy
aces sighting Icarus in their crosshairs over France.
In Ovid the line that never fails to move me is
And he saw the wings on the waves. . .
The way it comes to the father. His lofty design reduced to this
little detritus as he hovers in the left-hand corner of the myth
grieving wingbeats wrinkling the surface of the sea.
Even in bad prints of the Bruegel I can't help feeling sorry
for this kid. And dismay at our constant clumsiness. Our light
heart pulling us down. Love itself believing against all gravity
our waxen wings and how foolish not to.
Oil on canvas
Samuel Yellen (b. 1906)
The place is the corner of Empty and Bleak,
The time is night’s most desolate hour,
The scene is Al’s Coffee Cup or the Hamburger Tower,
The persons in this drama do not speak.
We who peer though that curve of plate glass
Count three nighthawks seated there—patrons of life:
The counterman will be with you in a jiff,
The thick white mugs were never meant for demitasse.
The single man whose hunched back we see
Once put a gun to his head in Russian roulette,
Whirled the chamber, pulled the trigger, won the bet,
And now lives out his
And facing us, the two central characters
Have finished their coffee, and have lit
A contemplative cigarette:
His hand lies close, but not touching hers.
Not long ago together in a darkened room,
Mouth burned mouth, flesh beat and ground
On ravaged flesh, and yet they found
No local habitation and no name.
Oh, are we not lucky to be none of these!
We can look on with complacent eye:
Our satisfactions satisfy, Our pleasure, our pleasures please.
The Starry Night
by Anne Sexton
That does not keep me from having a terrible need of—shall I say the word—religion. Then I go out at night to paint the stars.Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother
The town does not exist
except where one black-haired tree slips
up like a drowned woman into the hot sky.
The town is silent. The night boils with eleven stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die.
It moves. They are all alive.
Even the moon bulges in its orange irons
to push children, like a god, from its eye.
The old unseen serpent swallows up the stars.
Oh starry starry night! This is how
I want to die:
into that rushing beast of the night,
sucked up by that great dragon, to split
from my life with no flag,
Natalie Safir (1990)
A break in the circle dance of naked women,
dropped stitch between the hands
of the slender figure stretching too hard
to reach her joyful sisters.
Spirals of glee sail from the arms
of the tallest woman. She pulls
the circle around with her fire.
What has she found that she doesn't
keep losing, her torso
a green-burning torch?
Grass mounds curve ripely beneath
two others who dance beyond the blue.
Breasts swell and multiply and
rhythms rise to a gallop.
Hurry, frightened one and grab on--before
the stich is forever lost, before the dance
unravels and a black sun swirls from that space.
Adrienne Rich (1965)
They have carried the mahogany chair and the cane rocker
out under the lilac bush,
and my father and mother darkly sit there, in black clothes.
Our clapboard house stands fast on its hill,
my doll lies in her wicker pram
gazing at western Massachusetts.
This was our world.
I could remake each shaft of grass
feeling its rasp on my fingers,
draw out the map of every lilac leaf
or the net of veins on my father's
Out of my head, half-bursting,
still filling, the dream condenses--
shadows, crystals, ceilings, meadows, globes of dew.
Under the dull green of the lilacs, out in the light
carving each spoke of the pram, the turned porch-pillars,
under high early-summer clouds,
I am Effie, visible and invisible,
remembering and remembered.
When A Woman Holds a Letter
by Sandra Nelson (1993)
It is always from a man.
knows this as he paints the dark
note in Clarissa's right hand;
her left strangling the fretted neck coming
from the pear-shaped body of his
mandolin. Her upturned eyes may be tied
to a ferris wheel of sparrows' biting love.
Or she may feel the heavy curve of his instrument
against her stomach and her eyes
instinctively flip up to heaven to see
if anyone is watching. I am
probably wrong. There
behind her (a washer-woman whose head
is wrapped in a wimple to keep out the dirt).
Perhaps it is to her that Clarissa's eyes roll.
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