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A meditation before the Madonna del Parto of Piero della Francesca


I speak to you, Lady,
in words of my time
still new as the boy’s laughter
as he cut this morning’s bread.
You sway a little, in the soft
shadows where you dwell,
like a boat painted
inexpressibly blue.
To speak of that blue
I would have to compare it
to a sea I haven’t seen
or to a distant heaven,
sea and heaven entwined
in feminine conjugation.
To say, for instance,
“there was lapis lazuli in it”—
such words won’t do,
beautiful as they are.
Words are not bridges
as we sometimes believe
but guardians of gates.
They rise up between us and things
like the twin angels
that open/close,
as if flustered for a moment,
the curtain of your Mystery.
Wingèd creatures—powerful,
yes, but not of themselves.
Always the core
of their strength
lies in a dimension apart,
impalpable, not human.
Yet what I vaguely
call “not human”
urges, insists, summons us
from its dark Origin.
Words inhabit us.
They enter us and depart
without our knowing for sure
where they come from.
They are terra verde, yes, but
blood and bone and muscle, too,
and something lighter, air.
Our connection is made
of an endlessly rocking motion.
Between what’s seen and what’s gone,
one form to another,
the substance of what we are
and do not know becomes incarnate
and takes breath. Later it comes
undone, perhaps too soon. Blade
of grass, straw of the world,
we slip away
like the outline of a bird in mist.
Not knowing whence
or where.
There you stand, pregnant child,
in your silence—gravitas,
enclosed in your own gravid state,
as if it were nothing,
as if it were everything.


Flower inside the flower,
ark within the ark.
Your hands in the customary pose
of one bearing in her womb
the weight of new life.
Above the long armhole
just where it bulges
your right hand lies open
like a snowflake or petal.
The left hand leans, graceful,
at your weary waist.
I can barely see your feet
that hold you erect
and proud, with the simple charm
of that other girl-child
who carried the world in her womb
as she took shelter from the rain
in the doorways of Mexico City.


Over the years,
lulled by joy
or afflicted with grief,
I’ve won and lost a kingdom,
only to learn that nothing
is ever ours but the darkness
where we make our way. This cheers us on
because darkness itself is nourishment
and your image, Lady, your little brightness,
has comforted me since I can remember
and even before that.
I grew up beside your
endlessly swaying lamp,
and the fuel that sustained the boy’s
blind faith ran out, but not your light.
I have been told to reason by the heart,
but heart, like head, leads helplessly.
Even so I have inherited
a strange protection,
never gratefully enough.
Bona Dea, steady vessel
in an uncertain sea,
I received, unquestioning,
your mysterious gift. I attest to it here.


Your hair is gathered up
into a knitted scarf
and your head, pale flame
from an unseen wick,
gives off a light, that light.
Noble archway,
your brows barely drawn,
your eyelids softly closing,
call us to gaze into your gaze.
Eyes turned inward,
eyes of one awaiting what she knows,
immersed now in time,
bearer of the spiritus mundi,
world sorrow—
child, yourself the fruit of the Word,
you carry in your womb that fruit,
that Word.
______Cloud inside the cloud.
Droplet enclosed in another drop.
You flow in the spring
that bursts from you. You open
a space for the future word that
already names you, and in that act
gives us a name, a reason
for being, perhaps, a fortune, or rather,
an abyss. But these mirror-image
angels—are they opening or closing?
When we gaze, they gaze back.
Saying nothing. They come, distant as I,
from the mystery they protect.
In your secret kernel, Lady, nothing
happens; everything is. And is
infinitely being. Even now.
The miracle birth, the visit
of the Magi, the flight
into an Egypt I live in
when I dream. The son walking
on water. You are that water,
that cross and crown of thorns,
you the selfsame cautery and flame,
substance that gives life to these words.


I turn my eyes away. Do I close them?
Once again I behold the splendor
I found in Prague one night.
It was your voice. A gentle thunder,
the Rain speaking within the rain.
Pregnant child, I have seen you take shelter,
frightened and stiff with cold, beneath
a great tree in Oaxaca.
____________So today, as before,
you are the face I saw in the holy card—
schoolboy in flight,
an orphan, though not,
tied to the yoke of a desk in school.
I turn my eyes away. Do I open them?
Here you stand, in the tiny room
of the museum in Monterchi. Before,
you watched over souls in a graveyard,
survived two earthquakes, two wars,
unharmed and blue.
Outside, it’s the tenacious Tuscan summer,
sunflowers aflame,
prolonging a late afternoon
of heightened shadows.
You gravitate in this space
with perfect gravitas, in this arch
of Piero, in the pomegranate flower,
the heaven, perhaps, of an image
only visible in stillness,
steadfast maker of peace.
The world is green earth, earth
transfigured in words
that never manage to hold
all human emotion.
These words, Lady, say something of
the dream cut short by morning, the dream
sown without knowing in the night.


But did you truly know?
Ecce Ancilla Domini, you meekly answered
the greeting of a Messenger
more startled than you, who’d come
in a maelstrom of voices.
Queen and handmaid, brief abode
of the eternity awaiting you.
According to your will, you said,
in a voice already containing what
would ask for the first miracle.
If I am anyone, I’m the prodigal son
of that voice I have seemed at times
to hear in the wind or water of dreams.
Your dear servant, your runaway deer,
I have attempted it here and now:
by the light and shade of what we see,
by what is countless and invisible.

Civitella Ranieri, Italy, summer 2009 – Guadalajara, Mexico, winter 2013

Author’s Note

The title, “Nostalghia,” pays homage to the film by Andrei Tarkovsky in which this image of the Madonna del Parto plays a part. The expression “straw of the world” comes from Hölderlin, and the lines that begin, “I have been told to reason by the heart,” are from Dylan Thomas.
Translated from the Spanish by Dan Bellm

NEA logoThis translation is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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