The Story of Painting
by Michael Benson
Ah, the museum of all that ever was, beginning perhaps again:
A bison from the Altamira cave scribbled on good scribbled death on good,
Thin lines of paint blown through a reed,
Underground creator toils by the light of burning marrow,
170 centuries ago, at the dawn of us.
Wounded, hunters fur for warmth, meat for hunger,
Girls nipples up women nipples down mingle at the fowling,
The feathering of straw nests, 2D in profile, strict rules of proportion,
and I went into a dream—
Multiple realities glazed with a wash of yellow Thursday-morning fog.
Stifle the damp hug atop the graduation knoll,
Lips bruised from brawling and heavy kissing,
Rusted threadbare up to the waist in beer bottles
Drastic vandalism at a welfare hotel run by a guy
with a number tattooed on his wrist
No one is fishing anymore, the creek tainted by cannibals
Bobbing actors dress like a Rembrandt, musical chimps hard sell Red Rose.
Loaded shotgun on the back porch wall behind the violins
A rusty washing machine and a bullet-riddled refrigerator
Customers wear overalls, plaid & denim, morning buzz after graveyard
Amazing Field Day games and races, spoon, water balloon, sack, three-
Angel food and dinosaur erasers at the strawberry festival.
While a school band plays, “In the Good Old Summerime”
Tristessa shows me her wrist at the swings: “See, I tried.”
“Go away,” I said. “Go away and never come back.”
Milky sunshine splashes heavily
over heat-softened blacktop, WBBF power music,
The Honeybee spins 45s of rebellion, adventure, experimentation, abandon.
The music stops and Tristessa is gone. I’d wished her away and she’s gone
With nothing to show but a postage-stamp portrait on the back pages
Of the local weekly beside the phases of the moon,
Great lakes shipping, and results from Batavia Downs
And now, along this dark museum hallway,
Sister Wendy glides with grace, haunts all that’s ever been:
The dignity of tempura paint on dried plaster,
Art that returns to the earth with the artist.
Keeps privacy inviolate on a lidded shoulder amphora.
Helen liked it sumptuous and violent in a barber’s backroom
Where she watched a Trojan priest slowly strangled by sea snakes.
Ethereal flowers in the plucking mist,
Low trellis mocks the Baker and wife,
natural light on the peach and jug,
Marble outer surface of the column carved.
Mosaic of beardless ascension in a Roman catacomb.
The dragon slayer, enters with sword sheathed.
St. Matthew on his Harley, grace made visible.
Black, ochre, and vermilion hide and seek illuminated manuscript,
sets of magnificent serenity, a mystic number of butterflies and mice.
Meticulous monks reconciled through a dream,
Fingerprints of fresco, the metallic sweetness of gravity,
Wednesday came hard with a mighty and natural brush.
Catch a buzz off the harrowing intensity of a well-produced execution,
Mix a martini for the angel who lifts her defiant flank,
Ribbed vaults for the pleasure of a delicate arch,
thirsty women sway but never touch.
On the arid hillside a leafless tree, a brush-stroke homily,
While from the sky a secret luminosity, soldiers cluster
Into an organic mass, the angel dazzle of golden bewilderment.
Each alone, kissed hard on the lips by betrayal. Balls are dowries
For the astonished head. I am a serpant and an apple, some testicles
And a leaf, bubonic and pneumonic and black as a whip.
Skull and crossroads on the staff of a tee-shaped crutch.
An abbey firescreen exposed to a glance, a gleam,
Pours liquid light as thick as stout onto a flat belly—
A manifestation of moral truths like the miracle-ready of Fatima
As they gazed at bomber planes disguised as the Virgin Mary.
Patron saint of childbirth swallowed by a monster, a monster
With teeth, with gums anointed by a merciful salve.
A rhythmic curl to the pennant on the tree of bones. As fresh as dawn
The nymphet bobbed in the clearest brook, now joined by a friend—
Then brutally and autumnally color-washed.
Outside a liquor store sacrificial blood pours into a chalice
Splashing charmingly but with a tough appreciation of sensual truth.
Images that convey emotion rather than meaning are mercury between
thumb and forefinger. A human Xerox in the sanitarium at St. Rémy
Dissembling as both artist and scientist, emerging optics,
The capture and destruction of primitive joy
By an unexpected stiffness in the tonal breeze swirling around a pale
Turned awkward, turned into something canine, craggy and unyielding
Serving shallow sociopathic needs, barking back with the froth of a prickly
Solid Ariel solid Caliban solid flat and deep,
a grotesque aesthete, confused and restless
between two pillows beneath a gingery portrait framed
In a blond wood. Heightened nature,
life-threatening fertility surges into flaming ears,
wades through ripening grain, now beleaguered, stunted and sparse, wild,
on a blade’s edge, blades of ultramarine,
moral ascendancy, and summer shack-up
Sister Wendy saves the best for last.
Shows me her wrist. “See? I tried.
Tell me a story,” she says, “using only the corner of your eye,
peripheral, magnificent marginalia, paint the illusion,
paint the truth bubbling out from the pores
Until you can see the man’s face melting like Leo G. Carroll in Tarantula,
And it is the mystery itself that endures
As he sits in this horrible bar beside this horrible pool table.”
Michael Benson is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Award, and in 2016, was named a Wheatland-Chili High School Graduate of Excellence. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.