Four Poems

Delicious poems from the paintings of four masters

Detail from the center panel of <em>The Garden of Earthly Delights</em> by Hieronymus Bosch
Detail from the center panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch


Goya’s Saturn Devouring One of His Children

First he swallowed the screams.
They were bitter, stringy, hard to chew, but he seasoned them
with the sweet dark curls & managed to get them down
without gagging, & then opened wide, wide
for the head, the staring eyes, the tender mouth that had smiled
just a minute ago, & the fountain of blood that exploded
from the white neck, causing him to choke just a little but he
bent to the task, it was imperative that he finish, though his own head
seemed to be exploding too, & he could feel his eyes
bulging like boulders, his teeth dulling & blackening
with the dried blood as he licked the slim stiff
arm that had been thrust out as if in salute, & he knew
he’d have to gnaw for centuries, legs spread,
shoulders askew, on the crumbling black wall
of the dining room while beyond the slammed-down
window of his rage the mother
stood in the garden dressed as a plum tree,
her blooming pink army of petals
wilting & uselessly falling.

Manet, Déjeuner sur l’herbe

So did they or didn’t they, how else to put it, fuck her between courses—
between, say, the salade olivier & the not very dissimilar
potato salade Piémontaise, or between the jambon persillé
& the caviar d’aubergine?

In any case, however it happened, where
or whether, she’s clearly annoyed, sitting straight up in her beautiful
glistening skin & wondering why two healthy expensive young men
are fancily suited, as if indifferent, beside her.

What was the point then, of enlisting Liline & urging her to stir herself around
in her underwear in that muddy stream in the Bois? What was the point
of putting on & taking off pastel ruffles & tiresome corsets & equally
obnoxious straw hats? The not very gentle gentlemen

(considering their odd behavior)
are deep in baritone Bergsonian chatter & she’s left
to look at whoever wants to look at her, since she, as she knows,
is the point of the déjeuner, a plat principal

as wise as if a fatted calf were suddenly to reattach its lost
tête & turn toward you, audience, with a sly smile, saying Me voici,
prepared by the best of chefs, so let your passions carve my white
loin, my succulent thigh, belly & breast—only do remember

whatever you plan to bite, suck or chew,
my scornful eyes will be appraising you.

Hopper’s Nighthawks

not wanting to eat, not
wanting to eat at midnight or maybe

not wanting anything at all in the
mouth, ever, not even the coffee in its giant silver

tanks, not the sawdust tidbit of a sandwich
held together by a tooth-

pick with a paper frill, not the curlicue
of lettuce, not wanting that, not even wanting

the red dress, the matching hairdo, just wanting
maybe to smoke or stare into the black gap

in the cup or at the shiny swerve of counter, the two
guys six feet from each other with their hats tipped

at the same angle, same
dark suits, not wanting to think about what

the short-order cook in his white sailor outfit is
just about to say, not wanting to wonder what he

sees coming around the corner on the other
side of the great curve of plateglass that locks out

the empty street, not wanting to bite into those
blue-green shadows, not wanting.

Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights

What crimson joy, as Blake would say, for the pale
half-man half-embryo—silly on the lower
right—embracing a strawberry so swollen

with the fever of its own self
that it’s bigger than he is, big as a
throne he could climb on, bigger than the fat old

pillow of his mother’s breast, so big that if he
were a worm he might bore into it & coil inside
its eerie pulp & nibble in a dream of

forever, forgetting that—as the painter
probably means—he’s really just a skinny
fruit, dangling like a pod from a splayed hull,

his skin already the hue of death,
& the strawberry full of icky prickles.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Sandra M. Gilbert is the author of nine books of poetry and of Rereading Women: Thirty Years of Exploring Our Literary Traditions. With Susan Gubar, she wrote The Madwoman in the Attic and Still Mad: American Women Writers and the Feminist Imagination, 1950-2020.


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