‘El Perro’, (The Dog), is one of Goya’s series of Black Paintings, which decorated the walls of his home, the Quinta del Sordo, (the country house of the deaf man).
He can’t hear his gloom clattering about the house.
That is my job, hearing for him, but what could I do
other than catch Leocadia’s sleeve. She fed me
before she knew that she must humour him,
keep him painting. I sit at his feet, jammed
against the wall, as he works, waiting for him
to kick out and curse.. ‘Son of a bitch’,.. but not today;
it’s linseed , and the scratch and swish of brush on plaster.
He was up before her, found his boots. And, oh, got the lead.
We walked slowly as the day warmed, air letting slip
its rich smells. By the river the mist had lifted;
I pawed his leg to tell him of the danger;
the water’s rush, the city beyond with the cries
of his ink wash subjects, and those obdurate
church bells. He shaped to take the lead to me;
I have too much of his lost sense for my own good.
A boot presses hard into my back. He stares down
at me, then at the wall, eye and brush, go to and fro.
Given his art, I would have arrived at myself
differently, not the perplexed look, but eyes
masterful, ears pricked, guarding him against
the glum featureless backdrop he wants to paint.
( I would have my say.) He shifts his weight,
off my back, and stretches to change a brush.
I hear him digging out oil paint. He has set
my sad head at the lip of a fresh dug hole
as if I had buried the bones of mankind there.
If you follow my eye line, I seem to be
listening on behalf of a shade, a someone
roughly painted out, who is as deaf as dark.
I want to nip at their tenuous sleeve
and tell them of the danger in helpless space.
Albrecht Durer records in his diary that during his travels in the Low Countries,
he often gave away a pair of prints: ‘ St . Jerome in his study’ and ‘Melancolia 1’.
He had stopped me on the quay. Throwing caution
to Antwerp’s dissemblers and bawds, I thought
what harm could come of an old man doing
my portrait ? There was time for my mug to get
touched up and topped up with ale. Taking the board
that the lass brought drinks on, he fixed paper to it
and set to with charcoal sticks.
His eyes roved among faces at the tables,
then stared at me wistfully, as if drawing
from the inside. He wouldn’t show me
but, on parting, gave me two scrolls.
I put them away where I could safely forget.
Yesterday, when the black humour and nagging came,
I found them, as if I was meant to: the prints.
One calmed me: a room somewhere is caught in a burst
of sunlight, light that etches a halo for a man
at his letters. Everything stops as if the moment
were blessed. By his desk, a lion dozes, a wolf
catnaps. On the window sill a skull holds back
on its wake up call; death can wait until
the snoozing is done, till the ink is dry.
As for the other, I wish I hadn’t
met the earthbound angel; we are as alike
in our puzzlement. Even with the tools to hand,
we cannot make what we will of the world;
dogs starve as the cherub scribbles our failings.
The sand in the hour glass petrifies,
and acid etched futility numbs.
There is ladder propped against the heavens,
off-print; I’m minded of a ladder fixed against
the quay, and stepping down to the leaking
wreck. The boatman who punts the Ship of Fools,
greets me, stashes my knapsack of lost days;
from the prow, I consider my portrait
drawing through the dark swirling water.