Caravaggio: Swirl & Vortex
In the Borghese, Caravaggio, painter of boy whores, street punk, exile & murderer,
Left behind his own face in the decapitated, swollen, leaden-eyed head of Goliath,
And left the eyelids slightly open, & left on the face of David a look of pity
Mingling with disgust. A peach face; a death mask. If you look closely you can see
It is the same face, & the boy, murdering the man, is murdering his own boyhood,
His robe open & exposing a bare left shoulder. In 1603, it meant he was available,
For sale on the street where Ranuccio Tomassoni is falling, & Caravaggio,
Puzzled that a man would die so easily, turns & runs.
Wasn't it like this, after all? And this self-portrait, David holding him by a lock
Of hair? Couldn't it destroy time if he offered himself up like this, empurpled,
Bloated, the crime paid for in advance? To die before one dies, & keep painting?
This town, & that town, & exile? I stood there looking at it a long time.
A man whose only politics was rage. By 1970, tinted orchards & mass graves.
The song that closed the Fillmore was “Johnny B. Goode,” as Garcia played it,
Without regret, the doors closing forever & the whole Haight evacuated, as if
Waiting for the touch of the renovator, for the new boutiques that would open—
The patina of sunset glinting in the high, dark windows.
Once, I marched & linked arms with other exiles who wished to end a war, & . . .
Sometimes, walking in that crowd, I became the crowd, &, for that moment, it felt
Like entering the wide swirl & vortex of history. In the end,
Of course, you could either stay & get arrested, or else go home.
In the end, of course, the war finished without us in an empty row of horse stalls
Littered with clothing that had been confiscated.
I had a friend in high school who looked like Caravaggio, or like Goliath—
Especially when he woke at dawn on someone's couch. (In early summer,
In California, half the senior class would skinny-dip & drink after midnight
In the unfinished suburb bordering the town, because, in the demonstration models,
They filled the pools before the houses sold. . . . Above us, the lush stars thickened.)
Two years later, thinking he heard someone call his name, he strolled three yards
Off a path & stepped on a land mine.
Time's sovereign. It rides the backs of names cut into marble. And to get
Back, one must descend, as if into a mass grave. All along the memorial, small
Offerings, letters, a bottle of bourbon, photographs, a joint of marijuana slipped
Into a wedding ring. You see, you must descend; it is one of the styles
Of Hell. And it takes a while to find the name you might be looking for; it is
Meant to take a while. You can touch the names, if you want to. You can kiss them,
You can try to tease out some final meaning with your lips.
The boy who was standing next to me said simply: “You can cry. . . . It's O.K., here.”
“Whistlers,” is what they called them. A doctor told me who'd worked the decks
Of a hospital ship anchored off Seoul. You could tell the ones who wouldn't last
By the sound, sometimes high-pitched as a coach's whistle, the wind made going
Through them. I didn't believe him at first, & so then he went into greater
Detail. . . . Some evenings, after there had been heavy casualties & a brisk wind,
He'd stare off a moment & think of a farm in Nebraska, of the way wheat
Bent in the wind below a slight rise, & no one around for miles. All he wanted,
He told me, after working in such close quarters for twelve hours, for sixteen
Hours, was that sudden sensation of spaciousness—wind, & no one there.
My friend, Zamora, used to chug warm vodka from the bottle, then execute a perfect
Reverse one-&-a-half gainer from the high board into the water. Sometimes,
When I think of him, I get confused. Someone is calling to him, & then
I'm actually thinking of Caravaggio . . . in his painting. I want to go up to it
And close both the eyelids. They are still half open & it seems a little obscene
To leave them like that.
by Larry Levis
from Green Mountains Review
University of Pittsburgh Press