blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1



Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin

After BA Fennelly

Not humility, but the animal inside
that brought him here, the artist fugitive,
pensive beneath the rafters of a barn,
hiding out, his hands shamed with blood,
the future coming at him with a knife
as he plumps the hay together for a bed,
then kicks it astray, his interior lightning-
struck, made visible by the suddenness
of his crime, the blood-thrum and God’s presence
hammering inside of him, the man’s face
carved onto the tablet of his memory, Caravaggio
pacing, tearing at his shirt, wanting God
out of him, thinking, isn’t that how the Virgin
felt, water-broke among the horse-stench,
the slop, pain thorning deeper in her side
with each heave, the child crowned,
Joseph dumb-struck, trembling, one hand
ready at the blood-pail, one hand turning
the shoulders, trying to unscrew the child
from his mother’s heart, though Mary
only thought out, I need it out, and the animals
around them lie down in the straw, already
hungry for the after-birth. But it’s her death-
scene that unveils itself inside of him now,
Caravaggio feeling the images encircling
his heart, the way men close around a fight,
the eyes floated out across the surface of her face,
the body pale, breached, something glittering
swifted off in a confusion of wings, though she
must be in red, he thinks, the sun setting in her
dress, the Apostles astonished by its crimson
folds, their faces darkened by the shadow
of the savior’s hand, the master turning them
away from the body, from his first temptation,
the nipple that ripened in the child’s mouth,
deep and red as the inside of a plum,
the infant desire flaring into blood-lust
when the breast was pulled away, like the fury
we feel when love’s withdrawn, which is why
he killed him, Ranuccio, his once-lover, the artist
pinning a corsage of blood onto his chest,
Ranuccio falling, stung, reaching dumbly
for his breast, like the gesture Caravaggio
will give the Virgin’s hand when his canvases
are brought to him, as if she were buttoning
her dress, because she was also the first to tell
the child no, wasn’t she? The first to deny him. 

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