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Poetry

Video: The poem read by the author as part of our live event series.

 

(Autobiography with Doves) 

My visitations come 
from herons, egrets, 
hummingbirds, in 
certain seasons: ram’s 
horns, bitter herbs 
and that winning
combination—citron, 
willow, myrtle, palm—
contracted in oak-gall 
ink on primed and
sanctioned parchment
in sacred, if much 
disputed, words. 

I thought the Holy Spirit 
was a collar on God 
the father’s robes as he
stood—sad, accusing—
over the dying Christ
in that chock-full showpiece, 
Santa Maria Novella, my 
first time in Florence, 
December 1978, Masaccio
a name I’d never heard 

and I was so enamored
of the teeming Ghirlandaio, 
its faces like the faces 
in the dream-inducing streets, 
its birds, its clouds, its gilt- 
brocaded gowns, its two 
intriguing figures 
(attributed to Ghirlandaio’s
wunderkind apprentice,
Michelangelo) turning 
their backs to me 
to stare over a wall 
at something only 
they and he can see, 

I barely attended
to the gripping
triple spectacle
unfolding three-
quarters of a 
nave away, waiting 
for me to rise
to its ethereal 
occasion, its respite 
from importunate 
detail, waiting, even, 
for me to misconstrue 
its sense entirely—
ridiculous, really, 
the thing is called 
La Trinità and anyone 
can see that that’s a dove. 

But what did I know
about the Holy Trinity?
its sole association
the name of a school 
near the mostly Jewish
neighborhood where
I grew up, oblivious 
to who was meant
by Father, who by Son
and fearful at the sound 
of Holy Ghost 

Even now, I only know 
what Masaccio has 
told me, aided by his 
unassuming dove 
and the hopeful 
virtuosos who 
put brush to still-
wet plaster, bent 
on capturing 
before it set
that first suspicion 
of transfiguration
hanging on an angel’s 
lightning utterance
or a sprinkling from 
John’s—the spirit 
descending from heaven 
like a dove—surprisingly 
unprepossessing bowl. 

I had always imagined 
it was Noah’s dove returned, 
or the dove as beloved
in the clefts of the rock
(an allegory for God,
the rabbis say)
let me see your countenance,
let me hear your voice 
and here he is emerging
from the secret places 
of the stairs to purify
a deity’s unlikely 
bulk or amplify
a bombshell 
from an angel… 

though sometimes 
the dove stays
nearly secret,
dissolving—Fra 
Lippo Lippi—in a dove-
gray loggia wall, or 
disguised as another
line of cirrus cloud
in the sky above Piero’s 
baptized Christ, 
its gliding body 
approached straight on, 
head downward,
wings outspread— 

But the dove’s 
heralded with 
fanfare in Piero’s 
Annunciation, 
trotted out in 
quattrocento
neon: swooping
toward Mary 
from just inside 
the frame, 
ushered in 
and trailed 
by beaten gold. 

And there is no 
dove where 
Pontormo gets 
involved, just
an inside glimpse 
of the domestic,
its trompe l’oeil 
so convincing, I 
myself—intruder?
voyeur?—feel 
like I’m a piece
of the tableau: 

                    Mary, 
hand on banister, 
foot mid-step, swivels 
to face backward
as she’s gliding
up the stairs, toward
a new and strangely
intimate imperative
reconfiguring the 
far-flung syllables
of what remains 
to her of her 
own name 

            coming from 
the other side of 
an ugly polychrome
altar, added to this 
chapel in the eighteenth 
century—perhaps 
covering over
the missing dove?  

or was Pontormo’s 
instinct just to let 
the Holy Spirit 
infiltrate his 
universe invisibly? 

or maybe it’s simply 
I who cannot see? 

In Leonardo’s 
Annunciation,
is there a dove? 
I certainly can’t
find one—but 
Leonardo is famous
for hiding things, 
his revelations coherent 
only when reflected 
in a glass and, even 
then, inscrutable 
with code, or   

worse, as with
his masterwork, 
sabotaged from 
within, impermanence 
a feature of their very 
makeup: encrypted
in an undercoat of 
luminous white lead 
the promise
of certain dissolution. 

Perhaps he was 
suspicious of 
the actual?
Intolerant of 
its inherent 
weaknesses? Or 
was he merely trying 
to counter the affront
of his own (to him 
prodigious, however
inaccessible to us)
incapacitating 
limitations? 

unless it was
a matter of faith? 
he didn’t believe? 

But even Fra Angelico,
devout Dominican, 
seems to have perfected
his divine Annunciation 
without assistance
from any dove. 

Still, halfway down
the hallway, above 
his freshly baptized 
Christ, the dove couldn’t 
be more conspicuous, 
encircled by a halo
of concentric clouds 
arranged to channel 
never-ending light: 
the heavens’ makeshift cup 
running over into Saint John’s 
bowl, as ripple after ripple
upends the lake of sky
as if the dove were 
skipping pebbles 
with his wings 

or does the dove 
itself serve as pebble? 
skipped by a, for once, 
lighthearted God, 
at this, perhaps 
the only wholly  

jubilant occasion 
in his only child’s 
only earthly life.  

I mean, of course, before 
the Resurrection.  

Forgive me if I’m 
getting this entirely
wrong. I’m just 
trying to describe
what I can see, 
or rather what I’ve 
missed, or perhaps 
have not seen yet, 
or all of the above
in combination, 

unless—who knows?
it’s been working 
on me all along, 
its proselytizing 
deftly subliminal,  

like the edgy 
come-ons urban 
legend claims
were strategically 
concealed in 
advertisements: 
romance by a lake
or in a sports car 
or a yacht and 
the word cancer 
secreted in 
the smoke 
encircling a just-
lit cigarette. 

Though I grew up 
on those commercials 
and I never smoked.
Maybe we’re not so 
impressionable. 
Maybe we simply are 
what we are. And 
I—what can I tell 
you?—remain a Jew, 
born too soon after 
the war, no matter 
what I look at, what 
I see. Some disquiet 
can be difficult 
to shake; paranoia’s 
mother’s milk to me 

and I can still call up 
my childhood terror 
at the spurting blood
from Jesus after Jesus 
after Jesus: those dreaded 
rooms in the museum 
I could never race through 
fast enough, always 
catching sight of at least 
one Jesus spurting arcs 
of blood, caught in 
tiny bowls by stoic 
angels, unbearable 
to a squeamish
child like me  

and then, floating 
around, that 
alarming phrase. 
Imagine the havoc 
Ghost might inflict 
with the fanatic
dispensation of the Holy.
And where, exactly, 
would this ghost be? 
Maybe it was mixed 
up with the spurting 
blood, for which, 
though murky on 
precise details, I’d
heard accusations 
hurled at me.  

If only I had known
that it had wings, 
to which, all my life,
I’ve been susceptible, 
dreamily pouring 
over my Golden Book 
of Birds, memorizing
names and stunning
features, half of me
dubious I’d ever find 
these creatures in 
the flesh and half of me 
forever on the lookout: 

from the cardinals
my mother never 
tired of pointing
out, clashing with 
the mauve of our 
of our azaleas,  

to the hoopoe 
I caught sight of 
just the other 
afternoon in 
the ginestra-
perfumed woods 
above Assisi, 
overdressed
as usual and
showing off 
his hard-won 
if outlandish 
frippery 

and just now
there’s an egret
out the window
of my train, 
preening in 
the shallows
of Trasimeno, 
entirely indifferent
to his passing 
devotee, as 
my lethargic 
carriage hugs 
his shore. 

Maybe each one
is a holy spirit? 
or maybe, once 
again, I’ve entirely
missed the point, 
off-kilter as I 
am in the face 
of holiness 
as something 
human beings
are meant to see,  

which is why—
as soon as my 
train arrives 
in Florence—I
head for the façade
of Santo Spirito, 
left empty now 
half a millennium
though Brunelleschi
drafted a design, 

its blank, blank 
frontispiece an
oddball shape
fit for an ascetic’s
wedding cake
(a tiered lapsed triangle 
with flourishes draped 
as if to camouflage 
its bungled edges) 
or regalia for 
an earthbound 
fledgling angel, 
with triple sets of 
unavailing wings, 

its high rose 
window a plain 
circle on the outside,
commandeering
as a Cyclops’ eye,
and its three forbidding 
rectangles—the central 
one immense—suggestive
more of barriers 
than entrances 
though I’ve come 
through them 
dozens of times.   

It’s a miracle 
of grace when you 
walk in, a rare 
Florence church 
requiring no ticket 
for admission, but
I, resolute, remain 
outside, to let my 
eyes adjust—after 
weeks of masterpiece—
to the evenhanded 
discipline of blankness  

despite the doves
shot through with light
in the sacristy’s stained-
glass lunettes, the high-
glazed doves in terra cotta, 
white on their medallions’
trademark blue, the meek,
leaden dove in the pietra
serena floor, most likely 
hidden by a passing shoe.  

I’m not inside. I’m 
out here, staring and 
staring at this vacant wall 
the color of uninterrupted
parchment, gradually
yielding up its pale 
expanse, as if it were 
unrolling its own scroll 
almost translucent in 
the waning light, primed 
until its surface mimics pearl 

perhaps in preparation 
for a pious scribe, who’ll 
immerse his body in 
the ritual bath, stir 
his ink, sharpen his quill 
and stay the emptiness 
with thick black strokes 
and a binding admixture 
of miracle: 

                  a universe from 
utterance, a likeness
blessed, good and evil 
dangling from a tree, 
a dove returning 
to solid land, solid 
land emerging from 
the sea, a voice 
in flames at last
acknowledging itself
I will be what I will be  

but I’m ahead of myself, 
not ready for this yet, 
unwilling to give up 
this supple blankness
wide-open, burning, 
immaculate, this infinite 
façade of Santo Spirito,
indulging pilgrims, sinners, 
random guests, gorging 
us on everything we’ve 
yearned to see, pledging 
each petitioner a yes 

yes to the dove, 
yes to the Holy Spirit, 
yes to their sublime apologists
yes to yet another deafening transcription 
from the red-hot Hebrew alphabet,
yes to the possible, 
the unattainable, the precise,
yes to the wholly inaccurate, 
yes to grace, yes to vision, 
but not yet, not quite yet. 

 

 

Image: Florence, Santa Maria Novella. Abside (Capella Maggiore). Chapelle Tornabuoni. Fresques de Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494)


Jacqueline Osherow’s most recent book is My Lookalike at the Krishna Temple (LSU). She has received Guggenheim, NEA, and Ingram Merrill Fellowships and the Witter Bynner Prize and is Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Utah. 

 

 


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