—for Paul Otremba
Bewildered—something in me is made wild
from looking at it—but something
also chastened, subdued, because
it holds my gaze a long time. It is itself
a unit of time—one bewildering instant
caught by Caravaggio’s imagination—Saul
thrown off his horse, landing on his back,
taken aback, Saul becoming Paul, struck blind,
being spoken to by the light. It seems
none of us really cares for Gunn’s
take on the painting, defiant insistence
of being hardly enlightened, but I admire
the chiaroscuro-like contrast he makes
between Paul’s wide-open arms
and the close-fisted prayers
of the old women he notices in the pews
when he turns away. But even if
Paul on the ground is still falling, both
are gestures of blind faith, as Stan calls
it. You call it a bar brawl, all this one-upmanship,
but in your poem you don’t take sides,
you give your own perspective, twenty-first-century,
postmodern, belated. You ask what happens if
a hundred people hold the painting in their minds
at the same time. Will it gain a collective dullness,
a tarry film like too much smoke? But I like to think
it would sharpen the focus, deepen the saturation
of the red cloak, crumpled like bed sheets, beneath him.
A lot could be made of how Gunn, then Stan, then you
make a poem out of a painting, but Caravaggio
did it first, making the painting out of verses
from the Bible. All art traffics in some kind of translation.
Which might be another word for conversion. God says
Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for thee
to kick against the pricks. Which makes me think
of the horse, who should be more visibly
shaken probably from such a flash of light.
No one seems to register how claustrophobic
it all is, difficult to believe it’s happening
outside, where there should be space
for all this stretching out, and the horse
wouldn’t have to raise one hoof so as not
to step on Paul. And the groomsman,
why isn’t he doing anything but
staring down? Like all Caravaggios,
it’s sexual, the arms and legs splayed as if
ready to be taken by God himself,
but it’s really an outsize gesture of shock.
I heard the news of your being sick, Paul,
when I was in Italy. If God himself
is the radiance that struck Saul into Paul,
then what is the darkness swimming around
everything? It makes one feel inside of something,
confined by such dark. Afterwards, the Bible says,
Paul was three days without sight, and
neither did eat nor drink. Now after chemo
you consume a thousand-calorie shake
called The Hulk to keep from losing weight.
I went to see the painting when I was in Rome
in September. It is a pleasure to look at a painting
over time. To consider it along with others,
including you, my friend, over decades.
Something in the painting is insistently
itself, intractable, and yet inexhaustible meaning
keeps also being revealed. Paul, thinking of you
when I look at the painting changes it. I see you
vulnerable, surrendered, beautiful and young,
registering that something in you has changed
and what happens next happens to you alone.
And inside you. Conversion is a form of being saved,
like chemo is a form of cure, but it looks to me
like punishment, a singling out, ominous,
and experienced in the dark. When
I used to see the painting, I was an anonymous
bystander. Now I am helpless. It is
and you are, in the original sense, awful.
I can’t get inside the painting
like I suddenly and desperately want to,
to hold him, to help you get back up.
And now, for Paul, everything has changed.
from NER 40.1