Inside the museum this sultry afternoon,
the air-conditioned hum offers an imitation
peace like that of libraries and empty churches.
I wait for you, as I have promised,
promising myself this afternoon will do no damage
to an earlier oath, watching out the window
where the sun shatters
against the fountain's water and water
transmutes to something other than air or water.
Though I sit at the point of betrayal,
my face feels smooth and unyielding
as the face of Saint Teresa
gilded on peeling wood or the sea
on the wall before me, becalmed yet broken
by the ship's hull and dorsal fins.
The ocean next to that one is all drowning
storm and cloud, as if the two paintings were
before and after, the seeds of one
hidden in the other.
Must it always be one or the other?
My husband's love laps at my closed shore,
then slides back into turquoise depths, a lake
his love, no sea like yours,
gray ocean breakers rolling over
galleons and frigates and the backs of whales
and sharks and squid and dolphins who
leap and squeal as they follow the sails
of men (and now their motors), catching rides
on the wakes of ships. He has no dolphins
in him, only freshwater fish, frogs and trees
under the water, a sunken forest
drowned with its squirrels, snakes, ants and bees
that once made a world, reduced
to a floating green crest.
We whisper in deep-carved shadows
of the recreated medieval chapel.
They built to keep the heat and sun out.
The dark ages knew
summer draws insanity and sin,
a poultice pulling infection from the soul
to burst in the sun.
It was always summer in Eden.
Mother of Perpetual Help,
with your slanted eyes hurt
by visions of your later Son
who sits now, infant, in your hand, a perfect
fit, and takes your thumb
between his palms, as if to suck,
pray for us.
Mother of the Word Incarnate,
though attended by angels
floating near your narrow ears,
though surrounded by hieroglyphics
and striped everywhere,
your Son as well, with gold,
though you wear a halo crown,
despise not our petitions.
Virgin of Virgins,
in paint, wood, song, stone, clay,
I stand before this incarnation
with its blue porcelain necklace
and long hands that cup your Infant
as if you would never let go.
Help us, we pray.
We enter the twentieth century
on the floor above. Neon tubes,
gears and ratchets, kinetic
sculptures flashing dissonance,
disjointed collage, counterfeit
museum guard so real
you ask for directions to the men's room,
have to get them from the small black
woman in uniform in the corner.
I turn back,
down the marble stairs,
run through the Egyptians
all the way to the Coptics, hide
among flat-faced icons, holding my breath
from fear of your finding me, of what I will want to do
if you do. I watch you pass the massive stone
lion-casket on your way out.
I breathe again
In these halls of art, Mother,
I call on you with your human face
and divine Lover who came
only once, leaving you to someone else's
kindness. I can see how hard
your life must have been with him
Yet he loved the boy.
Of course, you were innocent,
they say, and angels smoothed
your way with Joseph afterward. None of them
will come to my husband, asleep,
to tell him I've escaped burning
but not the ocean.
Am I any less lost in the storm
because it has a frame?
The Englishman who laid down
the paint so long ago felt
the lash of rain, shivered to thunder's
blast, saw lightning burn
its way across the clouds to the sea,
even if he stood before a tea table
on floral carpet as he splashed ocean
across canvas. His tempest rages before me
six generations later. Drenched,
I wander home.