About suffering, about adoration, the old masters Disagree. When someone suffers, no one else eats Or walks or opens the window--no one breathes As the sufferers watch the sufferer. In St. Sebastian Mourned by St. Irene The flame of one torch is the only light. All the eyes except the maidservant's (she weeps And covers them with a cloth) are fixed on the shaft Set in his chest like a column; St. Irene's Hands are spread in the gesture of the Madonna, Revealing, accepting, what she does not understand. Her hands say: "Lo! Behold!" Beside her a monk's hooded head is bowed, his hands Are put together in the work of mourning. It is as if they were still looking at the lance Piercing the side of Christ, nailed on his cross. The same nails pierce all their hands and feet, the same Thin blood, mixed with water, trickles from their sides. The taste of vinegar is on every tongue That gasps, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" They watch, they are, the one thing in the world.
So, earlier, everything is pointed In van der Goes' Nativity, toward the naked Shining baby, like the needle of a compass. The different orders and sizes of the world: The angels like Little People, perched in the rafters Or hovering in mid-air like hummingbirds; The shepherds, so big and crude, so plainly adoring; The medium-sized donor, his little family, And their big patron saints; the Virgin who kneels Before her child in worship; the Magi out in the hills With their camels--they ask directions, and have pointed out By a man kneeling, the true way; the ox And the donkey, two heads in the manger So much greater than a human head, who also adore; Even the offerings, a sheaf of wheat, A jar and a glass of flowers, are absolutely still In natural concentration, as they take their part In the salvation of the natural world. The time of the world concentrates On this one instant: far off in the rocks You can see Mary and Joseph and their donkey Coming to Bethlehem; on the grassy hillside Where their flocks are grazing, the shepherds gesticulate In wonder at the star; and so many hundreds Of years in the future, the donor, his wife, And their children are kneeling, looking: everything That was or will be in the world is fixed On its small, helpless, human center.
After a while the masters show the crucifixion In one corner of the canvas: the men come to see What is important, see that it is not important. The new masters paint a subject as they please, And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ, The earth is a planet among galaxies. Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.