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Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” has been my favorite painting ever since i discovered it about 3 years ago. This will give you some idea of just how excited i am about the fact that im going to see the painting itself in Brussels in less than a week. In honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve decided to post here a poem written about the painting by a British poet, W. H. Auden.

Musee de Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

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My Easy God is Gone

I have lost my easy God – the one whose name
I knew since childhood.
I knew his temper, his sullen outrage,
his ritual forgiveness.
I knew the strength of his arm, the sound
of his insistent voice.
His beard bristling, his lips full and red
with moisture at the moustache,
His eyes clear and piercing, too blue
to understand all,
His face too unwrinkled to feel my
child’s pain.
He was a good God – so he told me –
a long suffering and manageable one.
I knelt at his feet and kissed them.
I felt the smooth countenance of his forgiveness.

I never told him how he frightened me,
How he followed me as a child,
When I played with friends or begged
for candy on Halloween.
He was a predictable God, I was the
unpredictable one.
He was unchanging, omnipotent, all-seeing,
I was volatile and helpless.

He taught me to thank him for the concern
which gave me no chance to breathe,
For the love which demanded only love in
return – and obedience.
He made pain sensible and patience possible
and the future foreseeable.
He, the mysterious, took all mystery away,
corroded my imagination,
Controlled the stars and would not let
them speak for themselves.

Now he haunts me seldom: some fierce
umbilical is broken,
I live with my own fragile hopes and
sudden rising despair.
Now I do not weep for my sins; I have
learned to love them.
And to know that they are the wounds that
make love real.
His face eludes me; his voice, with all
its pity, does not ring in my ear.
His maxims memorized in boyhood do not
make fruitless and pointless my experience.
I walk alone, but not so terrified as when
he held my hand.

I do not splash in the blood of his son
nor hear the crunch of nails or thorns
piercing protesting flesh.
I am a boy again – I whose boyhood was
turned to manhood in a brutal myth.
Now wine is only wine with drops that do
not taste of blood.
The bread I eat has too much pride for transubstantiation,
I, too – and together the bread and I embrace,
Each grateful to be what we are, each loving
from our own reality.
Now the bread is warm in my mouth and
I am warm in its mouth as well.

Now my easy God is gone – he knew too
much to be real,
He talked too much to listen, he knew
my words before I spoke.
But I knew his answers as well – computerized
and turned to dogma.
His stamp was on my soul, his law locked
cross-like on my heart,
His imperatives tattooed on my breast, his
aloofness canonized in ritual.

Now he is gone – my easy, stuffy God – God,
the father – master, the mother – whiner, the
Dull, whoring God who offered love bought
by an infant’s fear.
Now the world is mine with all its pain and
warmth, with its every color and sound;
The setting sun is my priest with the ocean for it’s alter.
The rising sun redeems me with rolling
waves warmed in its arms.
A dog barks and I weep to be alive, a
cat studies me and my job is boundless.
I lie on the grass and boy-like, search the sky.
The clouds do not turn to angels, the winds
do not whisper of heaven or hell.

Perhaps I have no God – what does it matter?
I have beauty and joy and transcending loneliness,
I have the beginning of love – as beautiful as it
is feeble – as free as it is human.
I have the mountains that whisper secrets
held before men could speak,
I have the oceans that belches life on
the beach and caresses it in the sand,
I have a friend who smiles when he sees
me, who weeps when he hears my pain,
I have a future of wonder.
I have no past – the steps have disappeared
the wind has blown them away.

I stand in the Heavens and on earth, I
feel the breeze in my hair,
I can drink to the North Star and shout
on a bar stool,
I can feel the teeth of a hangover, the
joy of laziness,
The flush of my own rudeness, the surge of
my own ineptitude.
And I can know my own gentleness as well
my wonder, my nobility.
I sense the call of creation, I feel its
swelling in my hands.
I can lust and love, eat and drink, sleep
and rise,
But my easy God is gone – and in his stead
The mystery of loneliness and love!

© Copyright Р James Kavanaugh

Translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard…
take in their song and speak no word.

He could hear them off in the forest
massive branches breaking:
you are no good, will never be any good.

Sometimes they followed him,
rubbing out his tracks.
They wanted him to get lost
in the world of trees,
stand silently forever, holding up his hands.

At night he watched
the streetlamp’s light
soaking into his lawn.
He could bathe in its cool voice,
roll over to a whole different view.
What made them think
the world’s room was so small?

On the table he laid out his clothes,
arranging the cuffs.
What he said to his enemies
was a window pushed high as it would go.
Come in. Look for me where you think
I am. Then when you can see no one is there,
we can talk.

I would like to describe the simplest emotion
joy or sadness
but not as others do
reaching for shafts of rain or sun

I would like to describe a light
which is being born in me
but I know it does not resemble
any star
for it is not so bright
not so pure
and is uncertain

I would like to describe courage
without dragging behind me a dusty lion
and also anxiety
without shaking a glass full of water

to put it another way
I would give all metaphors
in return for one word
drawn out of my breast like a rib
for one word
contained within the boundaries
of my skin

but apparently this is not possible

and just to say–I love
I run around like mad
picking up handfuls of birds
and my tenderness
which after all is not made of water
asks the water for a face
and anger
different from fire
borrows from it
a loquacious tongue

so is blurred
so is blurred
in me
what white-haired gentlemen
separated once and for all
and said
this is the subject
and this is the object

we fall asleep
with one hand under our head
and with the other in a mound of planets

our feet abandon us
and taste the earth
with their tiny roots
which next morning
we tear out painfully

I’m still the one who knelt before you
in monk’s robes, wanting to be of use.
You filled him as he called you into being–
a voice from a quiet cell
with the world blowing past.
And you are ever again the wave
sweeping through all things.

That’s all there is. Only an ocean
where now and again islands appear.
That’s all there is: no harps, no angels.
And the one before whom all things bow
is the one without a voice.

Are you, then, the All? and I the separated one
who tumbles and rages?
Am i not the whole? Am I not all things
when i weep, and you the single one, who hears it?

Listen–don’t you hear something?
Aren’t there voices other than mine?
Is that a storm? I am one also,
whipping the trees to call to you.

Are you distracted from hearing me
by some whining little tune?
That’s mine as well–hear mine as well;
it’s lonely and unheard.

I’m the one who’s been asking you–
it hurts to ask–Who are you?
I am orphaned
each time the sun goes down.
I can feel cast out from everything
and even churches look like prisons.

That’s when I want you–
you knower of my emptiness,
you unspeaking partner to my sorrow–
that’s when I need you, God, like food.

Maybe you don’t know what the nights are like
for people who can’t sleep.
They all feel guilty–
the old man, the young woman, the child,
They’re driven through darkness as though condemned,
their pale hands writhing; they’re twisted
like a pack of frenzied hounds.

What’s past lies still ahead,
and the future is finished.

I will take your heart
I will take your soul out of your body
as though I were God.
I will not be satisfied
with the touch of your hand
nor the sweet of your lips alone.
I will take your heart for mine.
I will take your soul.
I will be God when it comes to you.