Essay: On Delacroix’s The Shipwreck of Don Juan
Delacroix, now that’s one bleak take on things. My dark perspective
Has been criticized again and again; or, never mind me
Think of a writer like Charles D’Ambrosio in The Dead Fish Museum
A killer collection of short stories mostly ignored
Because he’s just too damn dark. But look at you, Delacroix!
In The Shipwreck of Don Juan I count twenty-four disheveled
Bodies crowded onto an overloaded lifeboat surrounded by a broad
Expanse of sea and sky: dark, cold, mercilessly endless
Sea and sky as implacable elements, neither waiting nor caring
Merely there, unobserving of the shipwrecks’ struggle.
In Byron’s poem, Don Juan at least survives, swims ashore to find
Love with beautiful, seventeen-year-old Haidée
The slave-traders vivacious daughter, and thus desire once again
Saves us and makes a heartless world habitable.
But that bit of evasion is not for you, Delacroix, not where sea licks
Gunwale, and the sheer strake of a fragile wooden vessel
Rides inches above turbulent waters beneath a fast-moving sky:
Here the shipwrecks gather in an anxious circle
One man reaches into a hat and draws out his fate as others watch
In gaunt anticipation, fearing the sound of their name.
Because of course they’re going to drink the blood and eat the flesh
Drained and peeled from their fellow shipwrecks.
Now that’s cold: an insensate universe where brutes and savages
Will slaughter sons and daughters to hold off starvation
To survive another day where the sea roils and a bleak sky threatens.
Myself, I prefer art that’s uplifting, as long as it’s not the usual dreck
Boy meets girl and lives happily ever after; kindness
Triumphs over cruelty and avarice; decency over greed, ugliness
All manner of viciousness, of violence and human
Depravity—because, well, that’s just not true. I’m sorry. It’s just not.
At the Met, I take a seat on a bench and contemplate your painting.
It’s raining outside. In here, a lifeboat full of shipwrecks
Struggle to survive. In a moment I’ll get up and go find your tigers
Those sleekly muscled hunters you obviously admire
Stretched out luxuriously on the ground, lazing under a maculate sky.
About Our Affair . . .
It was only after that I learned someone had died
In the bed where you threw yourself down
With a coy smile and hiked up your dress.
A long, lingering illness, years and years, cancer
I believe, great suffering and distress.
But I didn’t know that then
Only that you had found this empty house
Belonging to a friend, in-between owners, and it was ours
To use when we wanted, to do whatever we wanted in.
It was only after that I learned your husband didn’t know
Things had reached an end, though it was true
You hadn’t been intimate for many years.
Your marriage may well have been dead
But you left out the details.
Now when I think back to that time I remember the bed
And a mattress soiled with blood and sweat
Where we took our pleasure as if the past were nothing
Deserving neither honor nor recognition or respect.
Three Transmutations of a Memory
After Christmas, Brooklyn, Night
In an abandoned lot gathered Christmas trees are set on fire.
Older boys swing a younger boy toward flames.
Overhead, stars flicker through a smoky haze and the boy
Heat pushes against his face. His hair is singed. In the blazing
Night, he’s transformed. Look! Look! How high the flames
Leap! How the trees explode and roar! How the night
Boy, After the Holidays
In the lot where they gathered discarded Christmas
Trees and set them ablaze, the towering big boys
Swung him toward the fire, where shrieking angels
Holy voices crackled in his ears, wailed beneath
Stars dim in a smoky haze, while the big boys
Danced like dervishes, their laughter echoing
Where He Finds Revelations
In the black hollows of the heart, where the dark animals
Reign, where keening rises up like lamentations
Whipped and fretted until a sleek skin sheer as a birth caul
Light pierces smoke and shadow as injured creatures
Scatter in the presence of what emerges blazing to reveal
Boys as towering angels, the fire their frenzied ecstatic
Three Views of a Lake
Body of water where a child has gone
Missing, where bathers in a line
Search step by step, wading through
Mouth reflecting a cobalt blue
Sky. Maw of Nothing, swallowing a child
Whole. Craw of a baffling
Body of water raucous with children
Swimming, where a field of hungry bodies
Bathe in the heat of a brilliant late-morning
Mirror of a powder blue sky, dazzling
Sunlight skittering across the surface of its glacial
Depths, emerald green spaces of shimmering
The surface of the earth under a retreating glacier
Eroded, an excavated emptiness cavernous
Deep, a gaping hole filled with a flood of icy
Body of water under sun under cloud under
Sky, body of water where life scurries and slithers
Fish in its murky depths, plankton and weed
Shithead, you must be the devil’s origin
The way you talk so miserable at times
Busting into whatever X might be
Lurking in the back of his mind
Voice for everything unspeakably
Ugly, conduit for all things
X calls you Evilhead, Shithead, Uglyhead
Ignores the nasty crap you utter, shuts you
Down, and still you skulk anonymous in the dark
Speaker for the opposite of what is good or just
Spokesthing for what shouldn’t be spoken, shouter
Out of the sludge, out of the foul excremental
Voice of the devil, or the origin of the devil
Myth, fetid aspect of mind that shouts out
Counters good with bad, speaks up for all things
Nothing is too horrid to be conjured, spelled
Out, leaving the shocked heart ashamed, X
Appalled that such a voice is his and unbidden
Ed Falco has published poems and stories widely in literary journals and is a recipient of The Robert Penn Warren Prize in Poetry from The Southern Review. His most recent book is the poetry collection Wolf Moon Blood Moon (LSU, 2017). He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech.