To James Ensor’s Skeletons Fighting For the Body of a Hanged Man, by Grace Marie Grafton
To James Ensor’s Skeletons Fighting For the Body of a Hanged Man
The Hanged Man has lost his costume and his mask.
He wears a white nightgown now that he’s being erased.
It’s still a terrible surprise to have his red striped
pantaloons, his harem pants, sprawled
heaped on boards below his feet –
and the blue silk tunic and black leather boots,
his alter-ego that allowed him to flash,
to clap, to entertain the gathering crowd. Ribaldry,
spit, the percussive click of his heels, cape’s swoop
over spectators’ eyes as his unobtrusive
accomplice with deep-pocket apron slipped
like oil into the layers of their coats.
Then there’s the one who mocks, the one who hates
to be kicked in the shin though she provokes it.
She flaunts her feather boa, she’s there
to sweep out the images that swim through
the eyes of spectators with their greed for
the ghastly, she’s there to see that injustice
is done. Hanged Man was her competitor for
the crowd’s jumpy attention when she performed
the ultimate umbrella trick. He sneaked in behind
her swirling mesmerizer, aped and somersaulted,
holding out his snatching cap just as they were
ready to toss coins into her spread red skirt.
Now that he’s dead, she’ll beat him with her broom.
The one dressed as Death in shambled clothes,
the one with the pole, most wants to win.
But he who is unafraid will win in the end.
If it can be called winning, if it can be called end.
Death’s character, with long pole and forward tilt,
must cross the dark river, propelling the barge
that carries the bones. He must wear the bones.
His face repels, no matter his fancy hats, no
matter his silks and the laugh plastered on his
visage. People turn away, people flee from him
and he can stop nothing.
Grace Marie Grafton
Grace Marie Grafton’s most recent book, Jester, was published by Hip Pocket Press. She is the author of six collections of poetry. Her poems won first prize in the Soul Making contest (PEN women, San Francisco), in the annual Bellingham Review contest, Honorable Mention from Anderbo and Sycamore Review, and have twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Poems recently appear in Sin Fronteras, The Cortland Review, Canary, CA Quarterly, Askew, Fifth Wednesday Journal, poetrymagazine.com and West Trestle Review.
8/14/2017 01:42:12 pm
Wonderful poem! Strong, thoughtful, surprising!
8/16/2017 07:20:23 pm
You've given us a fascinating interpretation of an ambiguous, symbolic painting. It's interesting to see death as something that means "losing a costume and mask" and as being "erased". The corpse is now bereft of role, identity as well as life. The image of the skeleton with the brim being "there/to sweep out the images that swim through/the eyes of the spectators with their greed for/the ghastly" develops the idea that the hanged man is being erased by the living. The voyeurs of conflict deny that death is also their fate.
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