No 166 - 2001
The Boy Giotto Draws Sheep on Rock (c. 1280)
Look at him, drawing sheep on rock! So you think you’re clever,
do you? That’s the latest gibe
of the boys from Vespignano. Why not?
I shouted back. Is it because they think I’m ugly
that they taunt me? I drew
a curtain across my mind, and made
another bounding line.
my mother. She said D’you think
there’s a future in drawing sheep on rock?
She meant no unkindness.
But future - what’s future? An empty
room we can’t see yet, waiting
to receive its furniture? Why worry
about empty rooms?
But what if my room’s always
empty... and no paint
for pictures on the walls? People
think I’m clever, but if the years
trap me what’s the good of that?
thinks I’m clever too. I want
to do the best for you he said.
But what best can a poor
peasant farmer do for his son?
At least he lets me mind these few sheep
and goats. And so I look and look
at all the things in the world. Light
flows slowly in this Tuscan land...
there is time for light.
And I can draw. Donkeys and trees
and goats and these dear sheep.
On earth, on sand, on rock.
Rock’s hardest but the pictures
last... longer maybe than the Madonna and Child
on our Church’s altarpiece.
When my father
saw my sheep on a rock I could see
he was impressed. Didn’t say much. That
was when I said If only I could paint
my pictures - not just sheep
but sheep at the manger of Jesus,
sheep with shepherds hearing angels...
and distances. He knew
what I meant. He’s as quick as a hawk,
So here I am. The sheep
are quiet as thought.
Pictures crowd daylight
like sheep going for shearing.
I can think. And draw. Make
something where there was nothing.
Like the lambs that are here today
where yesterday there were none.
They drop from their mothers’ bellies
struggling into life.
I guess that’s harder than drawing
on rock. Today I’ll draw
those lambs. I watch
them always. See
the shape of their bodies as they nuzzle
at their mother’s side, the patterns
of their movement when they jump.
Today a lamb got lost.
Too adventurous. I saw
how ewe and lamb bleated for each other
and then the marvellous recognition: their bleats
belonged like lock and key. And at last
the lamb leaping with joy towards
his little life’s centre.
If only I could draw that.
Have you ever noticed how the artists
paint sheep? Have they never looked
at a sheep? They don’t know
they’re alive, with their own
little ways. Like people.
People are all different, they all
have their own souls, rare birds
looking out from their cages. People are
solid creatures with bodies rounded
like those hills. The artists
think they are dead and flat
and never changing, like eternity.
But it’s so simple,
all they’ve got to do is go out
and look. You’d think they spent
their whole lives cooped up
in church, cut off from light.
I’d rather be with nature -
to nature: I look and look
at the world, I trust
terrains and spaces,
I learn life
as a shepherd learns sheep
by watching. What couldn’t I do
with a few pailfuls of those paints the artists
slap on the walls of our church? I’d make
things real - no figures stiff
as a lamb hours after it’s stillborn
but living adorations of animals and men,
a perfection of wings,
stars falling out of blue distances.
This is the best day of my life! You’ll never guess
what happened. I can’t believe it.
It’s like the sun in the night sky.
I’ve met Cimabue,
and he’s going to help me - Cimabue,
the greatest artist in the world...Cimabue,
whose Madonna was carried through the streets
of Florence with crowds cheering
and trumpets sounding like it was heaven.
You see, he just happened to be walking
this way - he was going to our village
on business (must have been Providence) -
and I was sitting here drawing this lamb on the rock,
absorbed as the sheep eating their grass,
so I didn’t notice him standing there
Then I felt
something, a sort of presence,
like when the dog creeps up behind me -
and there he was! At first he said
nothing (made me feel funny, that)
and then he asked my name,
said he was ‘astonished’ (yes, that
was his word), astonished at my drawings.
For once I didn’t know what
to say. Anyway he asked if I’d like
to go and live with him and learn
to paint - me to paint!
The sun went in and came out again
in a hurry. My words
somehow got lost inside my skull,
just for a moment.
Then words hobbled back.
I stammered I’ll have to ask
my father. So off we went
together - found him
in the barn - had the shock of his life,
my father, seeing this grand man
in front of him, like suddenly finding
wine in the water jug! Of course
I knew he’d hug me and give
his blessing. The stars shone
in his eyes too.
Oh and another thing. Cimabue
brought out a little crucifix he’d made -
just painted wood: the poor
twisted body of Jesus, his neck bent
to the side as always like a tree
after a storm - not life like,
but real pain
crouching behind his eyes
like a wolf. I can learn
from Cimabue. It’s a miracle!
I might have spent my whole life crushed
by the weight of empty air
and ahead of me only time
we danced in the kitchen. Air
dances still. Look at the light
of that moon.
I’m a raft on a rushing
river. I own
colour, shapes press
on my eyes. Happiness
is colour, all the colours
in the world are mine,
mine. It means joy,
this full moon.
I wonder, is heaven
colour?... no that’s not it -
it’s ordinary light,
robust as trees
or sheep. Sky,
heaven comes down to these
houses and the flow of hills. Francis
(he’s my favourite saint)
he knew this...
he preached to the birds. I
will speak in paint, my
pictures will be like our stream,
its clear water.
Why is that ewe bleating
in the dark? At the next lambing
I’ll not be here.
I’ll miss it... the sheep, this earth...
just a little. Sheep at the birth
of Jesus - what
did they make of it?
Some were looking
the other way, I’m sure
of that! This will be
my first real picture!
The line of looking
between Mary and her baby opens
like a flower, just as I’ve seen my mother looking.
It’s ordinary joy, but God’s joy too -
like that apple tree
that’s crammed so tight with blossom
there’s no space for anything but joy.
And I’ll think about shepherds
gazing at angels, like when the sky
is so intense with blue it pulls
at your eyes...
you can hardly bear the joy.
The urgencies of daylight!
Time will circle round me like
a falcon... tonight
I’ll not sleep. Will I ever
will follow me, always the light.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Private Tutor
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The