Caravaggio’s Dagger and the Still-life Sonnets of Diane Seuss

Michigan poet Diane Seuss presents the artistic correlation between still-life painting and formal poetry in five sonnets recently published in the Summer 2014 issue of The Missouri Review.  She describes the poetry as “unrhymed sonnets framed by fine art.” She applies several additional constraints: each line contains seventeen syllables (the ‘American Sentences’ invented by Allan Ginsberg); and, the pronoun ‘I’ cannot be used.

This is compositionally and structurally of considerable interest to me, as it is a representation of interconnections that I myself find important creatively, and inexhaustible of discovery.

In the order of their publication, the five Still Life poems are composed after five still-life paintings.

Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, by Rembrandt:

Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, by Rembrandt

Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl, by Rembrandt

Suck scorched tough dark meat off of hollow bones. Look at her, ready to reach.

She’d hoped for pie. Meringue beaded gold. Art, useless as tits on a boar.

The Knight’s Dream, by Antonio de Pereda:

The Knight’s Dream, by Antonio de Pereda

The Knight’s Dream, by Antonio de Pereda

What if you’re only a knight in your dream? You wake to no glittering

waistcoat and breeches, no black velvet hat, just a shirt and ill-fitting

pants, tight in the crotch or loose in the crotch, from the church donation room.

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, by Juan Sánchez Cotán:

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, by Juan Sánchez Cotán

Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber, by Juan Sánchez Cotán

That leaves melon, center stage, rough wedge hacked out of her buttery side.

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, by Pieter Claesz:

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, by Pieter Claesz

Vanitas with Violin and Glass Ball, by Pieter Claesz

All is ephemeral but the image. The image lives forever.

And The Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens:

The Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens

The Head of Medusa, by Peter Paul Rubens

Once she became a full-fledged woman, things around town started turning

to stone. The dam dried up. Fields, banks and meadows. No rain, then overnight,

the burial ground became a parking lot. All was stillness. The End.

The painter Caravaggio also painted the head of Medusa. There are two versions, from 1596 and another from 1597. But it is another beheading, that of John the Baptist, that forms the cover of my book, Caravaggio’s Dagger, which also employs the relationship between the arts, employing two photographs, one print, and three excerpts of musical scores, one image prefatory to each of the six sections (taxonomies) of the poetry. Due to time constraints during the permissions process, the images were not published alongside both the epigraphical commentary and the taxonomical text; nor was the compositional locale and chronology included in the table of contents, due to timing demands in the editorial process.

The first image is a street scene in Hamburg, Germany, after the firestorm of Operation Gomorrah, in July, 1943. It was because of this event that my father escaped from the Nazi labour camp, possibly Neuengamme, to hide in the Dutch countryside till the end of the war.

Caravaggio's Dagger, Hamburg, Firestorm, Operation Gomorrah

Hamburg, July 1943, after the firestorm of Operation Gomorrah

And over

The new wasteland littered with deposits of death,

Charred energy lies hideous as chunks of flesh,

Rose red, the scented petals of their lives, falling.

The image prefacing the second taxonomy is Rembrandt’s print of Faust in his Study (1650-52).

Rembrandt: Faust in his Study (1650-52)

Rembrandt: Faust in his Study (1650-52)

The gold resided in what once went amongst us,

But what stays is merely the supposed memory

Of the sheen of the lustre it must have had then.

English Bay, a photographic composition (2004-05) by Gloria Steel, prefaces the third taxonomy. The work itself hangs in our residence.

Caravaggio's Dagger, English Bay, Vancouver, BC, Canada

English Bay, Vancouver, BC. 5 June 2004. (Photo: Gloria Steel)

… adopting … / A course of action we thought was right, though we knew

It could not bring us happiness, ever.

The fourth taxonomy opens with the first two bars of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. Upon a time we often walked by Theater-an-der-Wien, on the Linke Wienziele within the Naschmarkt of Vienna.

Caravaggio's Dagger, Beethoven, Piano Concerto 5

Beethoven: Opening bars of Piano Concerto #5

Resolution altering from ideal to real as exact as

Syllogisms of history that splinter the harmonies

Of shimmering.

The Louvre’s photograph of the male torso excavated from the theatre of Miletus in Asia Minor opens Taxonomy Five. Rilke’s powerful sonnet is about this sculpture.

Caravaggio's Dagger, Miletus Torso

The Miletus Torso (Louvre)

Necessity’s insistence makes naked

The unguided best of us, making mistake

The superfluity of intention, willingly bound

In the golden garden of the flesh.

The last taxonomy opens with the opening bars of Bach’s sacred cantata 84. One of my most lasting memories of this cantata is listening to it as sunset overcame Stuart Lake at Fort St. James, when I was dealing with the Dakelh (Carrier) people in the northern interior of British Columbia.

Caravaggio's Dagger, Bach, Cantata 84

Bach: Opening bars of Cantata #84

Silvered hands that displace clear tinctures of melody with

The dissonance of immeasurable distances

There is no segregation of the arts, for neither can there be any segregation of ourselves.

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