Note: When Rudolph II acquired Breugel’s painting, he had all references to his atrocities
in the Spanish Netherlands painted over, including the slaughtered children.
From a distance, the painting plays tricks on us – a lively village
in winter, Carnival perhaps –
and would remain just that, until we choose to stand
two deep and inspect the detail.
A wall of cavalry is enjoying the warmth of its horses’ flanks,
lances erect in ritual indifference to the little families
trapped on all sides like dammed water. Mercenaries
boot down doors. Old men kneel in the snow, barter for mercy.
But why is this woman weeping over a mound of ham flitches?
Or a mother shielding her pitcher from a soldier’s blade?
How well those despots understood the shocking power
in a small body. How easy it is to blot out.
It becomes a compulsion to find them: the babies who float
on the edge of visibility. They begin to surface
from under the varnish. A goose, grabbed by the neck, is not
entirely goose. The hacked pig, not simply hog. Their tender bones
lie silenced under earthen pots, cloth bundles, a gaggle
of frantic poultry. Only the grief goes on.
Claire Booker lives in Brighton on the south coast of England. Her poetry pamphlets are The Bone That Sang (Indigo Dreams Publishing) and Later There Will Be Postcards (Green Bottle Press). Her poetry has been set to music, filmed, displayed on the side of buses and published widely in literary magazines and anthologies, including Magma, Rialto, and The Spectator. She was awarded a Kathak Literary Award in 2019.
The Ekphrastic Review
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