The Righteous Man Surprised by the Devil

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Chopping wood & carrying water
at the old collieries,
a sudden smug thought popped up:
I should be enlightened
in no time!
And just like that,
no-time snagged me

there in front of the tipple,
by the monkey puzzle tree.
The ground buckled as if
from a blast of dynamite.
My ears filled with roaring
from the long-closed pit.

Pride is an itch you can only
ignore for so long until
Old Scratch surfaces again,
naked & ridiculous, like
a malevolent penis with two
blind eyes instead of one.

I dropped to my knees,
sank into the vetch & nettles
while the others went on
with their meditations,
lowering buckets into the well
of the long afternoon.

Only a dog paused to watch
my clawing at the air.
A rash spread above that un-
reclaimed stripmine like the glow
from some legendary sunset
in a land without smog.

The Celibate Couple Pursued

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Who let these two pawns crowd
into a single square? The game
requires that we each defend
our solitude. We have banished
the bird from the tree & the tree
from the horizon. But now

the white knight wrestles
with temptation: can’t he take
the direct route to head them off,
pin them against the straight-
arrow castle, instead of sidling up
in waltz steps like some kind
of goddamned dandy?

The black & white squares begin
to merge — a gray quicksand.
His horse grows scaley,
anadromous, gathers itself
for a leap worthy of Cúchulainn.

The disobedient pair flee
to the far edge of their flat earth
& turn into queens,
resplendent & terrifying.
The watchman bawls
from his tall tower,
Check & Check & Mate.

The Barbarian Brought Down by a Lioness

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Did he taste of loneliness, sour & marmoreal,
that man from away who came out here
to get away from himself?

What vapors rose from the punctured
balloon of his gut, which he used to tap
with the small end of a fist when explaining

the pull of mountain scenery,
the open spaces & abundant peace?
He would settle here

as lightly as a leaf, he swore, praying
for the developers to be enveloped
& the subdividers subjected to division.

They didn’t feel the wilderness
the way he did, living off the land,
conscious only of God’s grace

as he looked back: the poor earth raw
from harrow & bulldozer, a snaggletoothed jumble
of lighthouse, smokestack, steeple.

Nothing like the orderly ridges
rippling under his attacker’s pelt,
that figment of the blue distance suddenly at hand.

The Penitent Roasted by the Sun

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

For the sin of thirst, surround yourself with mirrors
& wait for baptism.

For the sin of sensitivity, plant yourself among lawn ornaments,
neon-bright & obvious.

For the sin of poverty, expose yourself
to the cauterizing desert of the sky.

Build a stockade between the storm door & the doghouse
to incarcerate the green thieves of light.

You have lived too many years as a parasite,
drunk the high-fructose corn syrup of paradise.

It’s time to tunnel into the brazen day
& shrug off your integument, oh locust.

Under what basket or milk crate have
you hidden your cry?

The Man Who Lived in a Tree

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Turn up the lights on the hominid pen.
It’s feeding time, though some
don’t even know they’re hungry.
You can give them each
a slice of manna if you like.

See the one who squats in the crotch
of that tree? Almost since birth
he’s exiled himself from the ground.
Unlike the others, he seems to realize
something here is missing—
a grotesque sensitivity that makes him
a wolf in this wood, this tree
he clings to like a mother.
When the wind agitates its leaves
he hugs himself & rocks
back & forth, moaning.

Unlike the others who gibber with awe,
he wants nothing to do with us,
& recoils from your face
as if from a stone that the river
never learned how to read.
But see how his tree glows
in this lurid light, like a harp
rearing above a dark-suited orchestra?
Someday soon we will reunite it
with its former companions,
that whole forest enjoying
eternal life: value-added products
of our loving care.

***
UPDATE: Marly Youmans‘ series of five poems in response to paintings by Clive Hicks-Jenkins (including “The Man who Lived in a Tree”) are now live on his website. Go look.

The Comfort of Angels Attending the Dying

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

You always dreamed of a death
in the open, stopping at the wye
in the highway that runs past
the shell of the old mill,
the land like a black lung
infiltrated by bronchial trees.
You’d keep your eyes pinched shut
against whatever brightness might spoil
the immaculate desolation.
After so many tiresome years
of living for others, this would be
your own time at last,
alone on the baked earth.

But it seems the Father won’t let you off
that easy, sends a pair of his goons
to bookend your shoulders
& breathe cabbage in your ears.
Meaty arms wrap around your chest
like pythons & begin to squeeze.
Let’s go for a ride, they whisper.
Death in the open — you’re finding out —
means all bets are off. The air turns
dangerous with blades.

The Grave Dug by Beasts

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series The Temptations of Solitude

 

in response to the painting by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from his series The Temptations of Solitude

Solitude is a burrow
into which you fold yourself
like a letter into an envelope

stamped Return to Sender.
It’s the metal flag raised
for the postman

or for the prisoner of conscience
still loyal to his cause,
waiting for the sky to change

its mind about being a roof.
His letters come back to him
with all the words blacked out,

leaving only the punctuation:
tooth marks, claw marks, tails.
This is the solitude

of St. Anthony, beset by lust
& anger, indolence & madness:
who wouldn’t want

to lose himself in
an unmarked grave
excavated by indifferent beasts?