Beuckelaer reports from the biblical scene by Janet Kofi-Tsekpo
after four paintings by Joachim Beuckelaer at the National Gallery
A thousand fish found stranded in the middle
of a market town have had better days.
Hooked and gutted and sliding over
each other in barrels, they have the eyes
of humans who secretly worship nothing.
Some get a fair bit of attention
as they shimmy along the cobbled stones,
their mouths agape. Traders throw up their hands.
A man with long hair holds up two fingers,
says he knows nothing about it.
Singing sea shanties to the empty waters,
half the sailors are longing for their wives;
courtyard women who wring the necks of birds.
They lost their flight some time ago. Talons
are removed from the foot of a falcon
that like a slovenly girl lies featherless
amongst the ordinary poultry, partridges
and guinea-fowl, and other wild game.
What we create are pale imitations;
this meat on the hob, these bodies hanging
over a flame. The fire gently nibbles
the trees of the forest. She lays down
her blanket like a vixen covering
her young. A volcano is just
an adolescent nosebleed, an eruption
that might disturb her parents; make them
wake up and feel the heat of their own making.
As if it had been lifted into the air
and dropped again, the earth
belches something sweet,
shedding and renewing
by mere circumstance
the rotten and the riches,
as we scoop vegetables in their packs
and ignore the cauliflowers, smiling
superfluously like maiden aunts.
from New Poetries V © Janet Kofi-Tsekpo
The internet has many advantages for poetry, not least being blogs like New Poetries, which put poets and their readers in contact. Search engines and online encyclopaedias, too, are invaluable for tracing references and allusions. I often wonder how different the debates about ‘difficulty’ and ‘obscurity’ in modern poetry would have been if the early readers of, say, Pound’s Cantos had been able to look things up online – but of course, there are complex reasons and ramifications as to why poets felt the need to include so much in their work at just the time that they did (the influence of Ezra Pound’s poetics on the theories of Marshall McLuhan being a case in point). The internet is especially helpful with ekphrastic poems – poems about visual artworks – in enabling you to see the image, as in the case of Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s “Beukelaer reports from the biblical scene”.
But it can be a double-edged sword. It’s easy to get tangled up in the chain of links – skim-reading articles, letting information stand in for understanding, even forgetting what it was you were trying to find out. In fact, these dangers are very similar to those faced by the critic writing on ekphrases: there’s a continual temptation to think that seeing the picture means knowing the poem, and vice versa, finally settling for a superficial acquaintance with both. One can perhaps guard against this by determining to look for what the poem is doing, either with the picture or on its own.
With these preliminary warnings, then, I would direct you to the National Gallery’s website, where you can see Joachim Beukelear’s “The Four Elements”. Look at them; scrutinise them; but then look back and see what Janet Kofi-Tsekpo makes of them.
In “Water”, the fish flopping over the foreground “have the eyes // of humans who secretly worship nothing”, a glazed, nihilistic stare. But look at the eyes of the humans in this scene. They look back, apparently surprised to find themselves being watched, but with only a bare minimum of interest. They seem to see us, but can’t; and this makes it unsettling to return their gaze, knowing it never reaches them. Contact vanishes into mise en abyme. What dead, empty eyes their spectator must have.
The sailors in “Air” are not in the picture; perhaps they’re the Disciples, just visible in the background of “Water”. In the foreground, their wives; beyond, a “slovenly girl” appears to flirt with someone’s prodigal son. There’s a contrast, not visible in the painting, between this open-air intimacy, and the loneliness of these women married to mariners. “Fire” continues the imagery of families and old flames, and seems to take off even further from the picture; while in “Earth”, the cauliflowers smile “superfluously like maiden aunts.” If this suite of poems has an underlying theme, without amounting to a message, it’s something to do with families: what drives them, and the times when that motor stalls.
And look: in the top left of “Earth”, the holy family, with the virgin mother, goes trundling over a bridge.