from Seven Paintings by Brueghel

Anne Simpson

copyright ©2003 Anne Simpson

The Triumph of Death

These watches. Ticking, still. Each hour is cold:
the rims surround quick voices. Shut in rooms.
Gone. Tick. The towers. Tock. A fold
in air. We’re smoke, drifting. A painted doom
where cities burn and ships go down. Death’s
dark sky – a grainy docudrama. Time
swings bones on circus wheels. Listen: wind’s breath,
a shriek. Theatrum Mundi. In their prime,
the living. Leapt. That buckling of the knees.
Then gunshots: plastic bags on fences. Snapping.
Or loose. Thank you – shop – at. The lovers see
nothing. He plays a lute. She sings. Clapping –
machines sift through debris for the remains.
A sales receipt, a shoe. The silvery rain.

Notes on the Poem

We previously examined how Derek Mahon took a painting for poetic inspiration in Art Notes. We saw how he went into it deeply and specifically to arrive at a mild and comforting conclusion. Could there be a more striking contrast as Anne Simpson takes Brueghel's haunting and horrific The Triumph of Death as the starting point of her poetic exploration? Painted in 1562, Brueghel's work is a detailed depiction of death and destruction, on land and at sea. An army of skeletons destroys a town and surrounding land and water, and attacks, captures and tortures people and leaves the scene gruesomely littered with corpses. The fine detail of the painting shows structures, clothing and commonplace appurtenances of the day, as if this deathly invasion came suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of everyday life. It's those minute and mundane details that swirl amidst the horror in Simpson's poetic rendition of The Triumph of Death. However, her mention of items such as plastic bags, a sales receipt, a shoe ... suggest that she is not describing Brueghel's work specifically, but another scene that could be contemporary and could also be many places on the world stage (as "Theatrum Mundi" hints). The stark fragments "The towers" and "Leapt" abruptly bring a painfully specific recent historical event to mind. While the lines A fold in air. We're smoke, drifting. A painted doom where cities burn and ships go down. Death's dark sky - a grainy docudrama. accurately describes the Brueghel painting, it also acutely captures the firsthand and televised images of the September 11, 2001 attacks. In doing that simultaneously, Simpson drives home sharply the tragic timelessness and continued relevance of a work from centuries ago.

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