I just came across the Syrian artist Tammam Azzam's photoshopped image of Klimt's "The Kiss" on the face of a bombed-out building in his homeland.
It is the perfect illustration of the first poem by the great Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, written when he was sixteen in the midst of World War II.
The forests were on fire -
wreathed their necks with their hands
like bouquets of roses
People ran to the shelters -
he said his wife had hair
in whose depths one could hide
Covered by one blanket
they whispered shameless words
the litany of those who love
When it got very bad
they leapt into each other's eyes
and shut them firmly
So firmly they did not feel the flames
when they came up to the eyelashes
To the end they were brave
To the end they were faithful
To the end they were similar
like two drops
struck at the edge of a face
An illuminating synchronicity.
As I was in the midst of rereading the poems of Cavafy, I visited the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City, which is home to Caravaggio’s “John the Baptist.” It was impossible not to be struck by the similar erotic visions. Here is the Caravaggio.
There’s nothing John-the-Baptist-ish about the image: none of the traditional markers, none of the usual emotions. The emotional world of the model is intensely fascinating, and the flesh is painted with an intense erotic charge. Notice that the limbs are pale, but the hands are suntanned: a "farmer’s tan." Notice also the dirty toenails. The model is working class. Caravaggio makes no attempt to hide his model’s origins; he seems to relish them. How to describe the strange mixture of raw attraction and emotional insight with a touch of religious awe?
Here is Cavafy’s “Days of 1909, 1910, 1911.”
He was the son of a harassed, poverty-stricken sailor
(from an island in the Aegean Sea).
He worked for a blacksmith: his clothes shabby,
his workshoes miserably torn,
his hands filthy with rust and oil.
In the evenings, after the shop closed,
if there was something he longed for especially,
a fairly expensive tie,
a tie for Sunday,
or if he saw and coveted
a beautiful blue shirt in some store window,
he’d sell his body for a dollar or two.
I ask myself if the glorious Alexandria
of ancient times could boast of a boy
more exquisite, more perfect—lost though he was:
that is, we don’t have a statue or painting of him;
thrust into that awful blacksmith’s shop,
overworked, tormented, given to cheap debauchery,
he was soon used up.
(trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
Here is Cavafy’s “Days of 1908.”
That year he found himself without a job.
Accordingly he lived by playing cards
and backgammon, and the occasional loan.
A position had been offered in a small
stationer’s, at three pounds a month. But he
turned it down unhesitatingly.
It wouldn’t do. That was no wage at all
for a sufficiently literate young man of twenty-five.
Two or three shillings a day, won hit or miss―
what could cards and backgammon earn the boy
at his kind of working class café,
however quick his play, however slow his picked
opponents? Worst of all, though, were the loans―
rarely a whole crown, usually half;
sometimes he had to settle for a shilling.
But sometimes for a week or more, set free
from the ghastliness of staying up all night,
he’d cool off with a swim, by morning light.
His clothes by then were in a dreadful state.
He had the one same suit to wear, the one
of much discolored cinnamon.
Ah days of summer, days of nineteen-eight,
excluded from your vision, tastefully,
was that cinnamon-discolored suit.
Your vision preserved him in the very act of
casting it off, throwing it all behind him,
the unfit clothes, the mended underclothing.
Naked he stood, impeccably fair, a marvel―
his hair uncombed, uplifted, his limbs tanned lightly
from those mornings naked at the baths, and at the seaside.
(trans. James Merrill)
If you spend a day in eternity,
You're as old as God could ever be.
- Angelus Silesius
Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sunrise would kill me,
If I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.
We also ascend dazzling and tremendous as the sun,
We found our own O my soul in the calm and cool of the day- break.
My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds and volumes of worlds.
Speech is the twin of my vision, it is unequal to measure itself,
It provokes me forever, it says sarcastically,
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
Come now I will not be tantalized, you conceive too much of articulation,
Do you not know O speech how the buds beneath you are folded?
Waiting in gloom, protected by frost,
The dirt receding before my prophetical screams,
I underlying causes to balance them at last,
My knowledge my live parts, it keeping tally with the meaning of all things,
Happiness, (which whoever hears me let him or her set out in search of this day.)
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am,
Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me,
I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you.
Writing and talk do not prove me,
I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face,
With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic.
- Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself," Section 25
There are many things in the world and you
Are one of them. Many things keep happening and
You are one of them, and the happening that
Is you keeps falling like snow
On the landscape of not-you, hiding hideousness, until
The streets and the world of wrath are choked with snow.
How many things have become silent? Traffic
Is throttled. The mayor
Has been, clearly, remiss and the city
Was totally unprepared for such a crisis. Nor
Was I - yes, why should this happen to me?
I have always been a law abiding citizen.
But you, like snow, like love, keep falling,
And it is not certain that the world will not be
Covered in a glitter of crystalline whiteness.
- Robert Penn Warren