Category Archives: 90s

The Alba Madonna

I sit meditating
  before the Adoration of the Magi —
Fra Angelico and Fra Filipo Lippi
   together captured this joy
                     of Christ’s birth
     in a wonder filled circle.
An echo of hands rise up in Hallelujah
                . . . and here
     . . . and here
             in the crowd of shepherds.
Blacksmiths shoe the Magi’s horses.
     Children dance on a wall
          to better view the new child.

I sense another, also unable to break away,
   from this vision of the brothers.
      We exchange glances but remain silent.

Galleries later I am caught by the same scene,
  this time by Botticelli —
       Magi bowing to Child and Virgin
   amidst Classical ruins.
    “Look, the Magi are the three ages of Man.
       This one mature
                     . . . him aged
    . . . and here the young one.”

It is my companion of the first Adoration,
   speaking a gentle brogue.
       We explore together, quietly noting
                          Joseph’s sweet smile,
    a Magi’s horse rearing with excitement.
I say, “Isn’t this human nature too,
              not just Auschwitz?”
He is Father Sean from Ireland,
   here on a Sabbatical of prayer and study.
I walk on alone.

Then another painting glows so intensely
       I cannot break away —
Dosso Dossi’s Aeneas and Achates on the Shore of Libya.
The crowd of Trojan sailors,
    two tall trees,
                 and the curving shore
        all an Impressionist dazzle,
   with the two heroes alone
        still living in Renaissance clarity.
And again Father Sean stands besides me.

   “Father, I am so baffled by evil!”
My hand sweeps around the bright scene.
      “How, when we have such beauty in us,
         how do we choose
                  to do so much evil?”

“That’s a hard one, son.
    St. Augustine wrestled with your question.
   His answer,
         Evil is a state of deprivation.
      You can only understand it
    in the context of the good.
                       It can’t stand alone.”

Then I come finally to Rafaello’s Alba Madonna,
               again a circle,
      a painting I thought I knew well.
The Christ Child’s translucent nakedness
    reclines against Mary’s thigh,
       holding a toy in his right hand.
His mother gazes serenely at the toy.
      Young John the Baptist,
             clad already in animal skins,
  looks up at the toy.
They sit upon wildflowers.
             Orchards and fields,
        farmhouses and forested hills
  stretch off behind the three.

The Christ Child
        is total peace
                 in a circle
    of total peace
       and the toy He holds
              the crucifix.

July 1991, at the National Gallery

This clear space

Ten years ago I struggled to live in the clear space
                           between hope and despair.
           Chinese tanks
                  had crushed the Goddess of Freedom
                                      in Tiananmen Square.

Now, just eleven days from the turning of the century,                  
                                  I am filled with hope,
              growing feelings of hope
      that we are at a great divide.
                                  I fear I’ve lost that clear space
                where true actions flow like water.

But I’ve walked, at sunset and twilight,
                      the high desert land of San Cristóbal.
          I’ve watched Julia Butterfly climb down
      from the redwood she named Luna.
                      Only two years of her young life up there and
                Maxxam bowed to her pure will.
   I’ve breathed the perfume of tear gas and pepper spray
                                             on the streets of Seattle
           and I’ve gone home
                   to campuses and neighborhoods
       organizing around the world,
                  calling my brothers and sisters
    to the great task.

I walk the skies
                       the waves
                                  the rivers and
                                the fields.
                  I am the deserts and the forests.
                                     No need for hope or despair.
                          I am this world
             this universe
    this clear space.

December 20, 1999

Theodore on the porch of the National Gallery

Forty-five minutes to wait for Allen —
 who never did plant trees for the White House —
   sitting on a bus stop bench facing Constitution.
Homeless black guy approaches and I stand.
 “Don b’fray.”
   Face of a monster! Fire? Nam?
   One eye gone.
    Mouth so burnt
  his words are a puzzling blur.
“I’m not afraid. Here, Sir.”
 I hand him a ten
    He holds it up to his one dim eye
  and smiles.

We shake hands.
    “Hello, I’m Ernie.”
 “Mm Thrrrrr.”
    “Pleased to meet you. Say it again, your name?”
          “Amm Thdrrrr.”
          “Ssss, Thdrrr.”

Rain starts falling
   so I move to the porch of the National Gallery.
 “Don’ bfray!!”
“I’m not afraid. Just wet.”
    He offers me his bottle
and tells me his story
 on the porch of the Gallery.
I understand one word in ten,
    looking into his one dim eye,
           asking him to say it again
      and again.

From time to time
       fear does flit through my mind.
   I might misunderstand
         say the wrong thing to him
     trigger an attack.
I tell him my story
     to relax from the stress
  of listening to words from a ruined mouth
        I can hardly understand.

Then he seems to tell me about
 a man and a lie.
   I look at the valleys down his face
      and hear about a man and a bottle of lye.
He offers me his bottle.
Little white flecks of spit hit my blazer.
      I move to the side, out of range,
  and tell him how Ely, my bro in Atlanta
         was a freedom fighter in the Sixties,
   freedom fighter even now.
      Theodore points to his chest,
           “Freem fire too.”

He waits with me, telling his story.
      I understand one word in ten,
    and look into his one dim eye
       wondering when was the last time
  anyone had looked into his face
 or listened to his words.
Allen’s car pulls up and we shake.
    Theodore holds on tight to my hand,
  telling me one more story.
 I pull loose.
    He offers me his bottle.

         June 8, 1992