When Nothing But Tree
can be seen in the tree though the dogs
unmistakably indicate, when clearly
the canopy calls to them and days
have passed before you’ve even begun,
when nothing in the undergrowth has
prompted so much as a whimper, you
must turn your thoughts to the other bank.
Scent from a living body will be carried
on the wind. Scent from a corpse in the
river spreads like oil. But say
the return-to-elements has started just
beyond that rise. The body is cold,
the scent like a river seeks lowest ground
becoming part of the river itself which the
trees in turn imbibe and, drawing upward,
change to living green.
The one you seek is now an exhalation.
As the dogs, intelligent beyond our wildest
reckoning, have told us. Have
been telling us.
In Basel, on a panel made of limewood,
the body of Christ lies in its frame as in
a coffin. Thwarted verticals. And strung
along a fault line where the pigment-
in-egg-yolk old way meets the pigment-
in-linseed new, the flesh
breathes beauty as only
that-which-is-liable-to-perish can breathe.
The green-going-black of face, of feet,
of visible hand confirm: no going back to
what you were. How is it
the linen on which he lies so clearly
discloses a pallet of stone (and hence
the catalog title—entombed) which means
the coffin I’ve imagined (warmer
framewood) must be pity’s crafted after-
thought. Or argument. The wholly
this-world begging to differ
with all we’ve been taught to hope for.
1521: the heretic from Wittenberg
refuses to recant though the question
has not yet turned to presence or real.
Sit down at my table (my body my
blood) and I on your behalf will paint
a picture. Note the gaping nostril, gaping
mouth, the other mouth of the wound in his
side, the cradle of the abdomen. You see
how disproportionate I’ve made his length,
the better to seal credulity. It’s fifteen
hundred twenty one. “It is known,”
writes my informant, “that the artist used
a body retrieved from the Rhine (citation
needed).” And either
the fish had not eaten the open eye or
Holbein in his studio restored it. Never
elsewhere, says the limewood, never
the nearer case for mystery. I’m here to praise.
Copyright © 2021 by Linda Gregerson. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 27, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets.