Flattered by any masterful representation
of things we knew, from Reubens’s black faces
devoutly drawn, to the fountaining elation
of feathery palms in an engraving’s stasis,
we caught in old prints their sadness, an acceptance
of vacancy in bent cotton figures
through monochrome markets, a distant tense
for a distant life, still, in some ways, ours.
The St. Thomas drawings have it, the taint
of complicit time, the torpor of ex-slaves
and benign planters, suffering made quaint
as a Danish harbour with its wooden waves.
And what of the world, burning outside the library,
the harbour’s cobalt, every hot iron roof,
and its mongrel streets? That ordinary
alchemical indifference of youth
transformed by a page’s altar, even then,
loved the false pastorals of Puvis de Chavannes,
until the light of redemption came with Gauguin,
our Creole painter of anses, mornes, and savannes,
of olive hills, immortelles. He made us seek
what we knew and loved: the burnished skins
of pawpaws and women, a hill in Martinique.
Our martyr, Unique. He died for our sins.
He, Saint Paul, saw the colour of his Muse
as a glowing ingot, her breasts were bronze
under the palm of a breadfruit’s fleur-de-lys,
his red road to Damascus through our mountains.
Saint Paul, Saint Vincent, in the hallowed toil
of crowning a wave, as green as our savannes
shining with wind; pouring linseed oil
and turpentine in cruses with sacred hands.
Precious, expensive in its metal cruse,
and poured like secular, sacramental wine,
I smell linseed oil in the wild views
of villages and the tang of turpentine.
This was the edge of manhood, this a boy’s
precocious vow, sworn over the capped tubes
like a braced regiment, as his hand deploys
them to assault a barrack’s arching cubes.
Where did we get the money from to paint?
Out in the roaring sun, each road was news,
and the cheap muscatel, bought by the pint?
Salt wind encouraged us, and the surf’s white noise.