A Renaissance Altarpiece
Uccello painted them: a family bound
together to a tree-trunk post, staring
with horror down as flames leap up from
foot to calf to knee. Four horsemen on
the right display the flag of Rome. Across
from them, with faces glistening in the flame-
light, stand the helmeted guards who
trussed this family up and set them blazing.
Two boys, both red-heads, share their parents’
fate, while in the background—fields, a leafy
apple tree, farm houses, and a church.
The sky behind a neighbor castle town
is black. The merchant and his pregnant wife
and boys were damned for what they did to
desecrate the host. “Religion,” I once
told a Catholic friend, “makes good people better,
bad people worse.” Another panel illustrates
their crime. They cooked it in a pan until
it bled. The blood of Christ spilled out and ran
across the floor, and when it dribbled
underneath the door, they were exposed.
Have you ever fallen from the second
story window of a dream—the broken
glass, the silent floating scream? You’d think
at least the child in her womb could be
redeemed. Why would a Jewish merchant
be so hostile to the host? Why in
Urbino was this credited? What calculus
of feeling can elucidate this art, unless
it charts a program to annihilate
a race. Aghast, the baffled victims
stare at lizard flames that leap and leap.
This poem first appeared in Archives of the Air (Salmon Poetry, 2015)
John Morgan has published six books of poetry and a collections of essays. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, and many other magazines. He has won the Discovery Award of the New York Poetry Center, and his Collected Poems, 1965-2018 will be coming out next year from Salmon Poetry. Morgan divides his time between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Bellingham, Washington. For more information visit his website: johnmorganpoet.com
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