The Sistine Gaze
My first visit to the Sistine Chapel in 1967 was a rather casual stroll through the chapel, aware of magnificence and some vague sense of a compressed tension high over my head in the colourful ceiling. My revisit came in 2010 during a short stay in Rome. Now I was almost overwhelmed by the startlingly live surge of colour, form and human body. Sensing a need to absorb something of its energy, but without other conscious purpose, I began to scan the multiplicity of images on the high ceiling from a vacated bench by the chapel side wall.
Because I felt she was watching me, my eyes insisted on out-staring one modest image of a solitary woman (with vague figures behind, too dark to make out). Her full length lemon green dress cloaked raised knees as she hunkered on the ground in a triangular pseudo-architectural space above the lunette labelled ‘Jesse, David, Salomon’. Meditative, chin rested on one arm, an elbow supported on a knee; her eyes held mine so firmly the word ‘gaze’ leaped into my mind and remained there. Painted by Michelangelo himself, she seemed to dare me to converse.
Three or four months later, back home in Ireland, I began to write—rather, a poem began to work itself onto the page. As this continued over some weeks, I realised serious research was essential if I were to proceed further with any intelligence. As if in dialogue with Michelangelo high up there on his ceiling platform, I thought—and wrote: ‘I too begin with scaffolding’.
I needed to discover what the poem might become. Like the ceiling, it had to respond to creation—for me human creativity—and like the great Last Judgement Wall, it had to be about ultimate issues such as death. I also wanted to write about what was in between—the ‘what we are’ in body/mind. As the familiar biblical narrative was Michelangelo’s 16th century scaffold, his ceiling and wall frescos, and his sculptures and poetry too, became mine. Here I found ways into my own metaphysical and physical/imaginative narration. My course however was not linear, it was more music-like in progression; hence I wrote it as a poem in 31 movements, not as a sequence of individual poems.
It is a poem circling within personal and cultural mythologies—at times incantatory; at times logical and sensible, never certain, always honouring doubt, always conscious of the body each of us inhabits and how our bodies interact and relate. Few have expressed the human body more dramatically and viscerally than Michelangelo, and his supreme attention to his art and its crafting, and his innovation, struck a sort of joyful fear into my heart whenever I stopped to observe what I was trying to do. ‘The cartoon will draw itself’ became a mode of approach when writing on the role and place of work we task ourselves with—especially for artist and poet. And, in this GPS century, ‘Getting lost is not a condition men like me endure or venture on today’—but the poem prefers to venture ‘on the curved and arching sky, and through the in-between. Let’s go. Let’s go!’
A late discovery—midway through my writing—raised questions about my gaze. A comparison of pre- and post-restoration images of my seated woman in the ‘Jesse’ spandrel revealed that the irises and pupils I clearly recalled seeing, did not then and do not now exist! There are two hollow flesh-coloured sockets; most definitely no iris and pupil to hold my gaze. But photographs of the image pre-restoration reveal that Michelangelo gave her clearly defined irises and pupils. An unforgivable indifference to his art. For a while my self-deception dismayed me. I had clearly induced the ‘gaze’; the lady didn’t know I was down there staring back! But perhaps the muse is indeed blind for without eyes she led me to ideas, images, word clusters and through almost three years of work, great satisfaction and pleasure in the research, writing, editing of a long long poem.
As dark and light disperse (verses 24-34)
Did Adam’s apple fall? Or was it Eve? I dreamed I was the tree
plucked and outed as a man, and left to wander in that garden
on my own, abandoned by the lovely pair who mated there
and grafted their own branches. I must bind mine.
Or was it my first Eve, sate beneath me,
plucking through time the serpentine harp strings
of my loom, ignoring sun, moon and rubbish dump
till goaded by her sting, the reprimander stang?
This body of mine confuses me—and sometimes you.
It shoulders all I need, it reseeded, shaped and struck
a pose for survival schooled on this for’m we hold firm.
We have no other one. Though I might sculpt me better.
As a rub of lipstick from your lips on my thumb
will leave a trace of darkness on skin well smeared again
releasing any lead within its base, our journeys, mired
on every track we trace, betray, display, or sing dumb.
But I like kissing your lips clean, brightly firm and full;
I like tasting your touch and mixing our clay ready for bedding
into autumn’s winter, summer’s spring, and covering
with hands’ harrow and hold, heaving muscle, hair and skin.
My eye wanders to the sky where angels seem to thrive as messengers
discoursing neural currents between then and now and show the universe
in virginal blue, pinpricked with silver’s gold. What has an apple got to do with this?
Who gives a fig! Our kiss emboldens its golden hue.
So mix the plaster well. The full bucket will space
a day for our creation under Jonah’s railing eye
and arching pose as, spread with lioncloth power
and leaning back, he sees a world he scarcely knows unfold.
Three days and three nights in a whale’s belly
reassure the body of the power that it relies on.
What point angers, shouts and stones? Sit back and think:
then carve the rock you have to carve—and knock twice.
I still swim in that whale’s belly where life’s offals float,
fanciful, profound and bare; drugged by the grandeurs
that hide nakedness in flesh grown soggy, dour.
I exercise each day to find my hour and tend my vine and fin.
As a child I followed Jonah into the belly of that whale;
not in argument with hands that gesture nor swallowing bile’s
unsavoury glug. It was for adventure, voyage and vision—for action
in the mystery of a belly more than human, not divine
but with the power of brimstone and a language of its own
—a great cathedral chapel to explore and know, to sieve the secrets
of its bones and gut to followers of woe, to swap
tears for story’s joy underneath this happier outside sky.
We lie in wait (verses 60-64)
Here between this scaffold floor and ceiling we wait
the sharing of a second vision; but as morning drifts
the vigours of the day bring other plans; we go to work,
you swiftly on those wings of gossamer and goose, me in my boots.
When you are gone, a shadow slows my way,
envelops me in gloom and irritation at
the vastness of the vault, the space to fill with colour.
Thought curdles over rapids to a sullen turning pool.
Getting lost is not a condition men like me endure or venture on today.
All GPS and mobile interlinks enmesh our every step or slip without mercy.
The mood and mode of language slips too, and abandons silence
to the noise of angry, rash and insignificant collision.
Perhaps it is time to begin without the beginnings we have been,
to journey without the maps we made or borrowed from those unknown travellers
who, indifferent to the scapes and soils they journeyed on,
were themselves scoped, scraped and scattered without care or thought.
Let’s go. Let’s go. I have the whereabouts to win a smile
for any traveller with the balls to fly, the breasts to show,
with feet unfettered and ready to run. Up on this wall, up on this floor, high up above
on the curved and arching sky, and through the in-between. Let’s go. Let’s go!