Carlo Crivelli and the Trees

Playful, prolific, noted for
tableaux of bounty, he’d do a portrait
of a man’s face composed of fruit,
or picture his Madonnas under

garlands, bright as chandeliers,
of nearly three-D pickles, pears,
apples pecked by birds; then turn
even a gruesome Crucifixion

into a sort of game. Here: a
trompe-l’oeil in oil and tempera
replicates the look of wood on
a panel that is truly wooden,

in fact paints over knots to make
knots in the hard planes of the cross.
Real as a relic, the unique
tree on which one man-god dies

while mourners on both sides gaze up,
their tresses patterned like wood grain
again, the dry eyes in their deep-
lined faces weeping beads of sap,

and in that surfacing of sorrow
each arrested teardrop tough
as an acorn, as if there to sow
millennia of grief.

What excuse then for the lustrous
finish on the instrument
of torture set before that sparse
landscape? What could be meant

by the assorted grayish, spindly
background saplings, barely a leaf
(though it is Spring) alive?
Should we write off existence simply

as a pale prequel to the tale
of afterlife? False question for
him, probably, inclined to honor
foremost his material,

which is to say the fresh-cut trees
splintered into delicate
paintbrushes, or hewn as flat
massive planks to soak up these

minerals and plants ground down
to the consistency of paints
that may, or may not, blossom in
the ways the maker wants.

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter is the author of eight books of poems, mostly recently The Surveyors (Knopf, 2017), and is a co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry.She is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Mary Jo Salter

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Author: Mary Jo Salter

Mary Jo Salter is the author of eight books of poems, mostly recently The Surveyors (Knopf, 2017), and is a co-editor of The Norton Anthology of Poetry. She is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.