Tiepolo’s Hound (extract)
On my first trip to the Modern I turned a corner,
rooted before the ridged linen of a Cezanne.
A still life. I thought how clean his brushes were!
Across that distance light was my first lesson.
I remember stairs in couplets. The Metropolitan’s
marble authority, I remember being
stunned as I studied the exact expanse
of a Renaissance feast, the art of seeing.
The I caught a slash of pink on the inner thigh
of a white hound entering the cave of a table,
so exact in its lucency at The Feast of Levi,
I felt my heart halt. Nothing, not the babble
of the unheard roar that rose from the rich
pearl-lights embroidered on ballooning sleeves,
sharp beards and gaping goblets, matched the bitch
nosing a forest of hose. So a miracle leaves
its frame, and the epiphanic detail
illuminates an entire epoch:
a medal by Holbein, a Vermeer earring, every scale
of a walking mackerel by Bosch, their sacred shock.
Between me and Venice the thigh of a hound;
my awe of the ordinary, because even as I write,
paused on a step of this couplet, I have never found
its image again, a hound in astounding light.
Everything blurs. Even its painter. Veronese
Or Tiepolo in a turmoil of gesturing flesh,
drapery, columns, arches, a crowded terrace,
a balustrade with leaning figures. In the mesh
of Venetian light on its pillared arches
Paolo Veronese’s Feast in the House of Levi
opens on a soundless page, but no shaft catches
my memory: one stroke for a dog’s thigh!
But isn’t that the exact perspective of loss,
that the loved one’s features blur, in dimming detail,
the smile with its dimpled corners, her teasing voice
rasping with affection, as Time draws its veil,
until all you remember are her young knees
gleaming from an olive dress, her way of walking,
as if on a page of self-arranging trees,
hair a gold knot, rose petals silently talking?
I catch an emerald sleeve, light knits her hair,
in a garland of sculpted braids, her burnt cheeks;
catch her sweet breath, be the blest on near her
at that Lucullan table, lean when she speaks,
as clouds of centuries pass over the brilliant ground
of the fresco’s meats and linen, while her wrist
in my forced memory caresses and arched hound,
as all its figures melt in the fresco’s mist.
It’s hard to conceive of a collection of poems about art and painting that doesn’t include some reference to Walcott’s luminous and incredible Tiepolo’s Hound. This is a celebration of art at its most insightful and extravagant – a book-length poem that is at once an intensely personal memoir, a profound work of art appreciation and an immensely visual work of language. I picked these two sections from the book only because they are the ones that describe the poem that the book gets its title from, but the whole book goes on in this vein.
And what a vein it is! This is trademark Walcott – the sharp intelligence of the poet half-concealed amid long, rambling sentences; the subtle rhymes, sometimes perfect, sometimes a little off, but never, ever obtrusive; the gorgeous phrases so casually scattered within the speaking voice (“a page of self-arranging trees”, “Across the distance light was my first lesson”).
What other poet could write “the epiphanic detail / illuminates an entire epoch”, thus encapsulating the whole point of his poem in a single line, and make it sound natural enough to get away with it?