Provenance by Joseph Stroud


by Joseph Stroud

I want to tell you the story of that winter
in Madrid where I lived in a room
with no windows, where I lived
with the death of my father, carrying it
everywhere through the streets,
as if it were an object, a book written
in a luminous language I could not read.
Every day I left my room and wandered
across the great plazas of that city,
boulevards crowded with people and cars.
There was nowhere I wanted to go.
Sometimes I would come to myself
inside a cathedral under the vaulted
ceiling of the transept, I would find
myself sobbing, transfixed in the light
slanting through the rose window
scattering jewels across the cold
marble floor.  At this distance now
the grief is not important, nor the sadness
I felt day after day wandering the maze
of medieval streets, wandering the rooms
of the Prado, going from painting
to painting, looking into Velazquez,
into Bosch, Brueghel, looking for something
that would help, that would frame
my spirit, focus sorrow into some
kind of belief that wasn’t fantasy
or false, for I was tired of deception,
the lies of words, even the Gyspy violin,
its lament with the punal inside
seemed indulgent, posturing.
I don’t mean to say these didn’t
move me, I was an easy mark,
anything could well up in me–
rainshine on the cobblestone streets,
a bowl of tripe soup in a peasant cafe.
In my world at that time there was
no scale, nothing with which
to measure, I could no longer
discern value–the mongrel eating
scraps of garbage in the alley
was equal to Guernica in all its
massive outrage.  When I looked
in the paintings mostly what I saw
were questions.  In the paradise
panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights
why does Bosch show a lion
disemboweling a deer?  Or that man
in hell crucified on the strings of a harp?
In his Allegory of the Seven Deadly Sins:
Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, Avarice,
Pride–of which am I most guilty?
Why in Juan de Flanders’ Resurrection
of Lazarus is the face of Christ so sad
in bringing the body back to life?
Every day I returned to my room,
to my cave where I could not look out
at the world, where I was forced into
the one place I did not want to be.  In
the Cranach painting–behind Venus
with her fantastic hat, her cryptic look,
behind Cupid holding a honeycomb, whimpering
with bee stings–far off in the background,
that cliff rising above the sea, that small hut
on top–is that Cold Mountain, is that where
the poet made his way out of our world?
My father had little use for poems, less use
for the future.  If he had anything
to show me by his life, it was to live
here.  Even in a room without windows.
One day in the Prado, in the Hall
of the Muses, a group of men
in expensive suits, severe looking,
men of importance, with a purpose,
moved down the hallway toward me,
and I was swept aside, politely,
firmly.  As they passed I glimpsed
in their midst a woman, in a simple
black dress with pearls, serene, speaking
to no one, and then she and the men
were gone.  Who was that?  I asked,
and a guard answered: The Queen.
The Queen.  In my attempt to follow
to see which painting she would choose,
I got lost in one of the Goya rooms
and found myself before one of his
dark paintings, one from his last years
when the world held no more illusions,
where love was examined in a ruthless,
savage anger.  In this painting
a woman stood next to Death, her beauty,
her elegance, her pearls and shining hair
meant nothing in His presence,
and He was looking out from the painting,
looking into me, and Death took my hand
and made me look, and I saw my own face
streaming with tears, and the day
took on the shape of a crouching beast,
and my father’s voice called out in wonder
or warning, and every moment
I held on made it that much harder
to let go, and Death demanded
that I let go.  Then the moment
disappeared, like a pale horse, like
a ghost horse disappearing deep inside
Goya’s painting.  I left the Prado.
I walked by the Palacio Real with its
2,000 rooms, one for every kind
of desire.  I came upon the Rastro,
the great open-air bazaar, a flea market
for the planet, where everything in the world
that has been cast aside, rejected, lost,
might be found, where I found Cervantes,
an old, dusty copy of Don Quixote,
and where I discovered an old mirror,
and looking into it found my father’s face
in my face looking back at me,
and behind us a Brueghel world
crowded with the clamor of the market,
people busy with their lives, hunting,
searching for what’s missing.  How casual
they seemed, in no hurry, as if they had all
of time, no frenzy, no worry,
as the Castilian sun made its slow
arch over us, the same sun
that lanced the fish on crushed ice
in the market stalls, fish with open mouths,
glazed stares, lapped against each other
like scales, by the dozens, the madrilenos
gaping over them, reading them
like some sacred text, like some kind
of psalm or prophecy as they made
their choice, and had it wrapped in paper,
then disappeared into the crowd.
And that is all.  I wanted to tell you
the story of that winter in Madrid
where I lived in a room with no windows
at the beginning of my life without my father.
When the fascist officials asked Picasso
about Guernica: “Are you responsible
for this painting?” he looked back
at them, and answered slowly: “No.
You are.”  What should I answer
when asked about this poem?
I wanted to tell you the story of that winter
in Madrid, where my father kept dying, again
and again, inside of me, and I kept
bringing him back, holding him for as long
as I could.  I never knew how much
I loved him.  I didn’t know that grief
would give him back to me, over
and over, I didn’t know that those
cobbled streets would someday
lead to here, to this quietude,
this blessing, to my father
within me.

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