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Piero della Francesca’s Madonna and Child with Two Angels

For half an hour we had the painting
mostly to ourselves,
and the longer we stood there
taking it in together,
the more the people drifting
around us seemed to disappear.

We spoke quietly
when we spoke at all,
as though trying not to discomfort
the mother and child, though they
seemed imperturbable,
inhabiting a world apart,

along with the two angels
who stood behind them on either side,
vigilant, looking in different
directions, like (I said)
celestial secret service agents.
The one in the blue robe, head globed

as though in a space helmet,
fixed us in his gaze and seemed
to be guarding a back room
that you said looked inviting,
illuminated by a slanting beam
of tangible sunlight.

I couldn’t help remarking
that the basket of gauze cloth
behind the other angel
looked like a pie topped with meringue
placed on an upper shelf to cool,
beyond the reach of mortals.

We marveled at the tenderness
of Mary’s delicate fingers
cradling the feet of the child,
who appeared to weigh
several pounds less
than if he’d been part of our world.

He shared his mother’s
pensive serenity,
had the face of an old man
he would never live to be,
and wore a coral pendant
like a branching artery.

He held his right hand up
as if to call for silence.
But we were done with talking.
It was just the two of us
and the four of them
in that unearthly stillness.


For Eric Karpeles


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