Tiepolo’s Hound, Part III, 1

Gauguin's Studio, by Derek Walcott

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.