A new poem by Frederick Pollack

Locus Classicus

The duke of this province is mad
for pedigree, and has traced his
through Otto and Tiberius to Aeneas;
and thence of course to Adam, but my
epic, it’s understood, must stress
the family’s Trojan connection.
Work is slow.  I’m paid less
than the very minor and drunken
Venetian who is now painting,
inter alia, the Duchess.
But at any moment His Excellence
may tire of the expense
I am, which will put me
back in the monastery.
One could despair.  Yet I’m heartened
by having been granted the right
to walk the grounds extra muros.
These have been left, or rather
made to appear, wild.  (At times
my patron’s madness stumbles
on sanity or taste, the way
a cataract, briefly drifting, allows sight.)
When our paths cross in the forest,
his mastiffs growl as if they would
without especial ire tear me apart,
much like their handlers, exactly like
Himself were it not for art.  I bow
at length and deeply enough
that I needn’t face his contempt,
jocularity, or, worse,
questions about my progress.

To answer might be amusing
but dungeons aren’t.  When the woods
are, so to speak, mine again,
I ponder the appeal of walking thus
through wilderness:
a pleasure our ancestors didn’t feel.
Such paths recall
the first man to tread them
and the last who will,
and therefore Time apart
from Alpha and Omega
and time’s supposed midpoint, the parousia,
the Incarnation. As I move,
I start to chip away at God again.
He is like the vain and stupid
heroes in obsolete breastplate
the Venetian paints and I write.
And like the sun that shines on them, so different
from the light through these leaves.
No witch-glance or unguarded word
to myself alarms a pious bird
until – as has happened lately –
strangeness comes over me,
and visions: Jews walking,
evenings like this, outside the ghetto;
women with shining teeth and men’s clothing
at ease a hundred leagues above the earth.
The stream I drink from then
is colder and clearer
than any I ford.  I see men
whose thoughts interpenetrate like clouds
on other worlds; and have not slaked
my thirst when the flow stops, leaving
(somehow inevitably) the sight
of myself in quaint and musty robes,
flea-ridden, stooped, on the edge
of that congress, wanting to be liked.