This poem appears in the Spring 2016 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
1. Conversion of Saint Hubert
Astride a handsome dove-grey, long-limbed horse,
a rider richly capped and dressed with art
stops suddenly, arrested in his course,
bewildered by a wondrous rearing hart.
The reins are stretched and taut; the steed pulls back.
The holy stag, its forelegs crossed, displays
a crucifix encircled in its rack.
A hunting dog, its paws together, prays.
The halo is already painted in, its gold
contrasting with the hunter’s smart attire.
The future and the past, the new, the old
to Christ are all one moment—spark, flame, fire.
2. Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus
Imagination led to the machine—
a spindle in a frame, above a bed
on trestles, where, unnaturally serene,
Erasmus lies, well bound, with mitred head.
The executioners each turn a wheel
to wind, from where his stomach is incised,
the saint’s intestines. There is no appeal,
though one man leans away; the death is prized.
The landscape, verdigris and bare, is low;
the sky, of white-tinged blue, betrays no grief;
no mourners figure in the border, though
a hobbyhorse and child give strange relief.
3. Saint Agatha
With pincers, she displays a severed breast,
her attribute. There’s some distaste, but pride—
the womanly adornment cruelly wrest
has marked her as a most unlikely bride,
save to her Lord. The background emblem, red
and gold—a phoenix rising from his ash,
the spirit’s figure, toward her radiant head—
provides a feathered, marvelous panache.
Her dress hangs straight; she lets her mantle fall,
not seeking, obviously, to conceal
the mutilation. Jewel motifs recall
her patronage of smiths, the fire’s seal.
4. Saint Ambrose
Attired in green surplice and a cope,
the bishop holds his crozier and a book,
insignia of sacrifice and hope.
He’s bearded, though not ancient, with the look
of charity. The Latin legend underneath
reads “Pontifex.” A puzzling design
around the portrait draws the eye: a wreath
or necklace made of mussels—not his sign.
A mystery. The shells are drawn with care,
the outside dark and rayed, the inner pearled;
a crab provides a clasp. That they must bear
our appetites bespeaks a fallen world.
5. Saint Martin Dividing His Cloak with a Beggar
The soldier, mounted, turning sideways, holds
his sword, unsheathed. The beggar, with a crutch
and wooden leg, already has the folds
of half the mantle on his shoulders. Such
seems groundless; why not give the other part?—
The soldier owned but half. The Amiens gate
behind them is as crimson as a heart.
For agape, it cannot be too late.
A second crippled beggar lifts his bowl.
Above, Christ shows the cloak, like that he set
aside at Calvary. A banderole—
a winding sheet—unfurls, the lasting debt.
6. Saint Catherine
A patroness for Catherine of Cleves,
the holy woman stands among the signs
of martyrdom. Around the portrait, leaves
of varied colors, with fantastic lines.
Beside her, adumbrations of her pain
to come—a dwarfish man with wheel and sword.
She holds a book; her interest does not wane.
She waits upon the wisdom of the Lord.
Did Catherine of Cleves believe that all
was sanctified—grief, error, levity?
Among the leaves, a bear cub throws a ball;
so felix culpa bought salvation’s tree.
7. Saint James Minor
The saint—well clad in garb of red and brown,
and holding beads, a curving pedum staff—
though less than Great, is not without renown.
The master artist knows it; he can laugh.
For James was famous for his abstinence;
yet even Jesus blessed the wedding wine
at Cana and the chalice. No doubt whence
the motives at the foot: a stylized vine,
an empty tankard, and an outdoor stand
where someone fills a pitcher from a cask.
A sculpted angel smiles in Rheims; at hand,
to taste God’s vintage is a joyous task.
8. Saint Christopher Carrying the Infant Christ
It’s richly drawn, a multi-action scene.
The Infant, on his shoulder, holds a globe
and blesses Christopher, whose mantle, green,
drags underfoot; his cut-off scarlet robe
may be in tatters. At the lower edge,
the gates of Gaza fall, a parallel.
The saint is weary. On a rocky ledge,
a hermit holds a lantern; wavelets swell.
As orange sunset fades before the night,
the saint leans on his staff, as if he bore
a growing stone. The moon is high, to light
the shallows, and the bearer steps ashore.
Note: This ekphrastic sequence refers to The Hours of Catherine of Cleves, introduction and commentaries by John Plummer (New York: George Braziller, n.d.), the manuscript of which (now, in two parts, in the J. Pierpont Morgan Library) dates from about 1440 or slightly earlier and was produced in Utrecht for the eponym, perhaps when she became Duchess of Guelders. The poems bear the titles assigned to the illuminations, which, when featuring one or two saints (as opposed to scenes from the life of Christ and other biblical tableaux, usually multi-figure), are called suffrages. It should be noted that panache here has its first meaning: a tuft of feathers used ornamentally.
Catharine Savage Brosman is professor emerita of French at Tulane University and honorary research professor at the University of Sheffield. Her creative work comprises ten collections of verse, of which On the Old Plaza is the most recent. Two new books are in press for 2016: Southwestern Women Writers and the Vision of Goodness and Music from the Lake (essays in autobiography and cultural criticism).