Part One

I leave the gate and take a path that leads
through flowering marjoram and open vines.
Above are oranges and, just as then,
the periwinkles sparkle in the grass.

It seems but yesterday the years I passed
in surrogation to our sovereign Venice,
but now a summer's breath is in the wind,
and all around there seems a happiness
that clothes these festivals of countryside,
and makes our littorals of floating lights,
the fret and hubbub of our carnivals,
but working transcripts of a dream, with no
more matter to them than the tranquil clouds
have business with us but to trail on slowly
in turbans, endlessly, across the blue:
white canvases of nothing, or in-between,
remote and ever-moving and to me
most beautiful and of our Saviour's light,
His meek, perpetual majesty as shown
in wondrous spectacles upon the earth

I press on upwards as the path grows steeper
a free man walking in his own good time
a man at peace with God who is his conscience,
a man moreover kindly, with a wit
well known to Doge as to the quayside merchant,
a twinkling eye and ready deference
that brings commission from the Church or State,
for though at last this brush is laid aside
the workshop still has salaries to find.

I pause to get my breath, but looking up
can see the tops of cupolas through trees,
and over them that yellow, heavy dome
above the chapel where my work would hang:
a shout of outside laughter where the light is dim,
regaled with incense and with candle smoke,
with sins repented of, where God comes back
to figure in our soul- and self-perceivings
as in those paintings that we see again
with long-forgotten passages that show
in our long trailings after truth we found
one day a resurrection of the light.

As so it seemed then, though the path was steeper.

A nun is waiting for me. Quietly
we go down corridors and into rooms
where all is ordered and the air is still.
I pass by apparitions bent at tasks,
intent on sewing, on the stitch and patch
of cassocks threadbare at the knees. One lifts
a head, acknowledges my greeting, sadly
50. smiles. The figures here were famous beauties,
hung with wealth and title, families
whose names make riot down the packed canals,
receive in palaces of gilded pomp,
where men in livery, good honest men,
must go the instant on some passing whim.
I think on that and how the memories
now cross at evenings with a careworn glance
from others in this withdrawn, shadowed place.

She'll be, the Abbess, with me presently.
I sit at first, but then get up and pace
between the windows and rush-back chairs,
across a room that's comfortless: a small
brass crucifix beside an altar cloth
of clean, white linen, nothing more: a Heavenly
Saviour sought through service and with fasts.

How different is the world beyond. The window
looks down to levels where my workshop lies.
The light still flares there but the prospect darkens
and what was glittering is laid aside.
The everyday returns and I can see
both shining interludes and what are now
but villages with churches, congregations
that bow to images and rough-hewn saints.

The ground falls steep away from these east walls
and leaves a promontory from which I gaze
as on a crystal globe of bulbous forms
now reaching out, now vanishing, and turning
with that far, heavenly music which we hear
but only distantly, far out of mind.

A rustle: she is here: I make my reverence.

'A new face for you, signor Veronese.
Please be seated. You must excuse my calling
one so well known, who has many duties.'

The workshop thrives. I have the leisure now
to see and travel, and in choosing hope
that what we undertake will please our Lord.

'My predecessor will have missed that quiet
appropriateness she often spoke of: words
that show a wise and courtly deference
but please both honest worker and the heart.'

She's gone, the Sister Agnes? I had not heard.

'This March. We buried her before the springtime
came with scent of oranges and singing birds.
A long, harsh time it was. Our sister lingered
much in her prayers but watching, we could see,
the slow light drag itself on floors, the sun
pick out more solidly these heavy walls,
the trees and vines show promise with their buds
of summer's leafiness
she would not see.
100. She lived with friends, but still that wasted body,
cooped up in long impatience, took its leave
without a backward glance, in pain, and late.'

To hear that I am sorry and would repent
of any matters that involve my name.

'Things to be cleared up in the contract here:
both parties put their hand to it but still
it lies these ten years after, unfulfilled.'

It does.

'No drawings given us?'

None.

'And none intended? Ever? Voided contract?'

There were some stipulations, features which
in a mind of giving or of recollection
I gave assent to, stupidly, which even
now I think on, and regret, and daily. . .

'You need not speak in riddles, master painter.
The donna Antonia has spelt the matter
out and wants no redress from the past.'

Well then.

'You could not bear to draw that face?'

I tried.

'Or did not want to, Veronese,
being a man of substance, a reputation
not assisted by such memories?'

No doubt, most Reverend Mother, but in truth
the hundred faces in my canvasses
have come from high life and the low.

I need
not say to one who offers grace and hope,
a sanctuary to all who hear His gospel,
and more, will take His simple words to heart,
how variously those pictures are assembled
from artisans long out of work, poor men
glad for a glittering soldo to stand for hours,
from drabs and courtesans, rich merchant wives,
the most respectable, good burger folk,
the hard of heart and merry under God.


So painters see it, praying He forgives
their labouring handiwork if all their days
from fragrant colour at the flare of morning
to untold brilliance as the evening dies
be fashioned other than their sinful hopes
that walk in satined carnivals while God
sees through such finery and writes His name.

'She does not linger in your memory?'

Would that she did, good Reverend Mother. Sometimes
I think all Venice is interred with bones,
a feckless empery is in its pride
that mocks us emptily with courtier's phrase,
with words of love's submission, faithful service,
by which false
lovers turn their quarry, lay
the body and besmirch it. So our city.

150. 'You think too much of limepits and encroaching
fires, my son. She is with others, sent
from this distracted world of grief and pain
to where God's mercy is and all have peace.'

You never knew how kind she was, or what
perfection stood within those forthright features.

'God has His purposes as one who moves
beyond the firmament that makes our thought.

Has not the father of the Holy See
held service for us, said such solemnals
of prayer, that she and others have an end
appropriate in walls of dimming tears.
She is with God, my son, where body's needs
may no more make their inroads on the soul,
which is the citadel, where even love,
which here we answer to for scant reward,
becomes contumely, where the Evil One
undoes obedience to all better, turns
our faith to silvered grossi. She is at peace,
and nothing untoward prevails against
that image which is refuge for our faith.'

Nothing could. In her instinct for life
she was more prompt than is the wandering friar
attached to paternosters and his books.
The smallest frightened creature on God's earth
drew out her sighs and pity. I have seen
her nurse a tabby cat, a brindled stray
with sores and tattered ears and wariness
that kept to inner doorways or to dark
cloth underspaces of the vendors stalls,
with such a patience and a kindliness
that it would wanton after stranger's steps
.

'Then hers is paradise, and her good deeds
hang in our prayers long after she is gone.'

Who'd have thought it? That her innocence
would breathe such purpose that it brought
the bloom of quietness to all she spoke?

'My son, I cannot give you absolution.
This world of outward joys and untold griefs
is legendary in what it gives and yet
will not. Talk with your confessor, he
will know what keeps you from that inner path,
what may be done in retrospect to guide
you through the shoals and tempests of this life.

But on this matter we are simple folk
who ask for order and for straight accounts,
that
sums endowed to us for your commission
be wrought in handiwork or handed back.'

With all regret, that must be so. I ask
pardon on my dilatoriness and any
200. want of candour, but that path is best.

'Is it, my son? The lady Schiavoni,
the donna Antonia whom you knew so well,
has asked for audience, that you say
in person how your thoughts incline.'

She's here,
the donna Antonia, now?

'Has been
these many years, in hope to make her peace
for all that she has done, or has not done.
Speak with her.'

What can words effect
in me or us that were denied before?
Those bonds of loving ended in our Anna's death:
was doubtless of my doing, of my pride,
unwillingness she take her mother's part,
to father something that was sport for men,
their leering anecdotes, repugnant jests.

More: it was a father's covetousness,
that what he sired should not be sold
. Our child
became an ingrown thorn between us, will
continually the while we live. Respects
and courtesies to one who graced her station,
but nothing can be gained by speaking now.

'Sit with me awhile now, master painter,
and think the import of your previous words.
Where is the charity our Saviour seeks,
to act in principle as He has shown us,
against the altercations of our pride?'

Across these distances, good Reverend Mother,
what would our meeting do but stir up embers,
my pride, my failings, my overweening hopes
that led to acrimony, Anna's death?
I pray with all heart the wound has closed.'

'But has it? No. You have not heard how much
she mutters to herself and strikes her
breast,
and mentions by the hour your name and Anna's,
and how the hours tick past remorselessly,
with only night to come and wreathe in darkness
what love's rich embassies prepared for us.'

Time takes us to that other world in which,
after penances and purgatories, we may
converse with souls clean-shriven as our own.

'But not in pride, my son. Unless we be . . .
you know the words of course but will not hear them.'

I will consider on it, but now must go.

'You do not know me, with what experience
I came into this sanctuary of peace.
I gave my word, Signore, to our sister,
that you would see her, for the time that's past.'

Sometimes, as I have mentioned, promises
are made too quickly. No, I will not see her.

'So you would force us to pursue the contract?
250. Our hand is on the signing, as is yours.
Speak kindly to her as your reputation
assures us that you will. Good Veronese,
your case is just, but worldly pride will bar
the steps from
purgatory all souls must take.
I go for her. Wait here. She'll not be long.'

 

Now rewritten and published as a free ebook by Ocaso Press.

 

part 1  part 2  part 3  part 4  part 5  part 6  part 7  part 8  part 9