For many years, I would go to museums and stare at the Pollocks on the wall and think to myself I don’t get it. And that was the problem; I was trying to find a narrative. Certainly there are early Pollocks in which you can find figures, mythologies, symbols; but when he hit his late phase, the paintings become wholly about gesture, they are fluid, like a dance on a canvas. I finally ‘got it’ one summer in the Guggenheim Museum in Venice, standing in front of a painting called 'Alchemy’. The light reflecting off the canal was latticed through the window onto the floor. The heat of the day was deflected against the cool marble. Everything was sensation, movement, as in his painting. In that decadent Palazzo, Pollock suddenly made sense, in that I wasn’t trying to 'understand’ him anymore, his painting simply affected me in a way I couldn’t explain. This poem is about that damascene moment.
Guggenheim Museum, Venice
Just when I think nothing can move me,
room after room of Tintoretto, Veronese, Bellini,
the Virgin granting me her doleful eyes,
her pearly tears,
I enter a cool white palazzo,
find his huge canvas, which shows me the truth
of water and fire, in this place
of canals and candlelight, a city he never saw.
What he made was a world
in perpetual swirl, violent red, yellow bile,
the way the galaxy might look to a man stranded
in space, before science and logic takes hold.
And I stand before this picture,
the man who painted it
dead, like the masters shut away
in these palaces of art, their works their tribute;
wanting to pin beauty to the canvas,
dusty and flightless. But this picture lives, black
against the midday sun, legions of day-glo tourists
bobbing along the canal,
and I feel tears
welling up before I can make them stop.
I don’t know why; I’m tired,
vulnerable in my light summer clothes,
he and I foreigners to a faith
which isn’t ours: Christ on the cross,
the martyrdom of the saints, spelled out in
blood and gold.