Monday 23 April 2018

Gunn's Caravaggio

Ever since my absurdly belated discovery of Thom Gunn, I've been looking out for his earlier collections – and today, on the shelves of a local charity shop, I spotted one: My Sad Captains (1961, first edition, with the tattered remnants of its Faber dust-wrapper, and an inscription, 'To Ann, with Love from Romney'). I opened it, and read this, the first poem in the collection, a brilliant work of ekphrasis that explores the meaning of Caravaggio's bravura representation of The Conversion of Saint Paul – or rather, Gunn seems to suggest, the blinding of Saul...

In Santa Maria del Popolo

Waiting for when the sun an hour or less
Conveniently oblique makes visible
The painting on one wall of this recess
By Caravaggio, of the Roman School,
I see how shadow in the painting brims
With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out
But a dim horse’s haunch and various limbs,
Until the very subject is in doubt.

But evening gives the act, beneath the horse
And one indifferent groom, I see him sprawl,
Foreshortened from the head, with hidden face,
Where he has fallen, Saul becoming Paul.
O wily painter, limiting the scene
From a cacophony of dusty forms
To the one convulsion, what is it you mean
In that wide gesture of the lifting arms?

No Ananias croons a mystery yet,
Casting the pain out under name of sin.
The painter saw what was, an alternate
Candor and secrecy inside the skin.
He painted, elsewhere, that firm insolent
Young whore in Venus’ clothes, those pudgy cheats,
Those sharpers; and was strangled, as things went,
For money, by one such picked off the streets.

I turn, hardly enlightened, from the chapel
To the dim interior of the church instead,
In which there kneel already several people,
Mostly old women: each head closeted
In tiny fists holds comfort as it can.
Their poor arms are too tired for more than this —
For the large gesture of solitary man,
Resisting, by embracing, nothingness.

[Ananias was the Damascene disciple who, in a vision, was told by Jesus to seek out Saul of Tarsus. When he found him and laid hands on him, the scales fell from Saul's eyes and he could see again.]

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