Read an Excerpt
To Make Various Sorts of Black
According to The Craftsman’s Handbook, chapter XXXVII
“Il Libro dell’ Arte” by Cennino d’Andrea Cennini
who tells us there are several kinds of black colours.
First, there is a black derived from soft black stone.
It is a fat colour; not hard at heart, a stone unctioned.
Then there is a black that is obtained from vine twigs.
Twigs that choose to abide on the true vine offering up their bodies at the last to be burned,
then quenched and worked up, they can live again as twig of the vine black; not a fat, more of a lean colour, favoured alike by vinedressers and artists.
There is also the black that is scraped from burnt shells.
Markers of Atlantic’s graves.
Black of scorched earth, of torched stones of peach;
twisted trees that bore strange fruit.
And then there is the black that is the source of light from a lamp full of oil such as any thoughtful guest waiting for bride and groom who cometh will have.
A lamp you light and place underneath – not a bushel –
but a good clean everyday dish that is fit for baking.
Now bring the little flame of the lamp up to the under
surface of the earthenware dish (say a distance of two or three fingers away) and the smoke that emits from that small flame will struggle up to strike at clay.
Strike till it crowds and collects in a mess or a mass;
now wait, wait a while please, before you sweep this colour – now sable velvet soot – off onto any old paper
or consign it to shadows, outlines, and backgrounds.
Observe: it does not need to be worked up nor ground;
it is just perfect as it is. Refill the lamp, Cennini says.
As many times as the flame burns low, refill it.
Reporting Back to Queen Isabella
When Don Cristobal returned to a hero’s welcome,
his caravels corked with treasures of the New World,
he presented his findings; told of his great adventures to Queen Isabella, whose speech set the gold standard for her nation’s language. When he came to Xamaica he described it so: “The fairest isle that eyes ever beheld.”
Then he balled up a big sheet of parchment, unclenched,
and let it fall off a flat surface before it landed at her feet.
There we were, massifs, high mountain ranges, expansive plains, deep valleys, one he ’d christened for the Queen of Spain. Overabundance of wood, over one hundred rivers, food, and fat pastures for Spanish horses, men,
and cattle; and yes, your majesty, there were some people.
You Should Go to Toledo
I’d stared hard at the tongues of flame over the heads of the disciples; I felt a dry heat catch fire in my fontanelle.
“El Grec” the docent in the Prado called him; a stranger in Spain all his days.
“What is it you like about him?” the one who came from the dark night inquires.
So I say this:
The way his figures struggle and stretch till they pass the mandatory seven heads must be about grasp exceeding reach.
The overturning of my temples,
the slant sideways of seeing that open as I approach his door-sized canvases.
And his storm-at-sea-all-dolorous blue;
and his bottle-green washing to chartreuse;
and his maroon stains of dried oxblood.
The verdigris undersheen of the black coat,
white lace foaming at the throat and wrist of a knight with one hand to his chest.
How I cling to the hem of the garment of La Trinidad’s broad-beam angel who resembles my mother when she was
young, strong, and healthy – body able to ease the crucified from off the cross.
And he who separated from the shades and sat at table with us in a late night place redolent with olive oil and baccalau said:
“Then you should go to Toledo.”