IN THE BODY, OF A BOOK
A name is a kind of threshold, and when I think of you sometimes Mary’s there too, in the
doorway, before everything else happens.
Same when I see Mary, sometimes I think you’re seeing her with me. And when I think about
Mary she’s thinking about Venus, just off-stage. That’s the sense of company.
I’m thinking of the name as infrastructure. Of writing as a kind of mothering. Of infrastructure as
Something given, something worn.
This is how we know about the we within the I, the body through which any new reality is
I’m thinking of the Montefeltro altarpiece stolen by Napoleon showing up in the Brera Gallery in
Milan where it takes a different name, that’s what money does. A museum is not a church but
then it is with all its contemplation, even worship, someone saying this is so good it must have
come from the beyond. At the same time it’s an effigy of all the artist lost. Every room wants a
I’m thinking of the way a man might see a child’s body lying on a woman’s lap. The lap itself an
architecture that requires of the artist the most obvious of lies: a child sitting still, a child out of
scale like a tiny man, a body displayed at the very edge of a woman’s knees as if she formed a
solid platform whose purpose was display, a parody of a nude.
But there she is, the exhausted mother, the reader who had to set aside her book, so nearly
crushed by the weight of her own knowledge, the impossible body of which is on her lap. She
makes it look not easy but survivable: godliness floating in mid-air, an astronaut pushing off the
mother ship. She’s turned herself to stone.
This part is hers alone: to be center and periphery at once. She is, in this way, the end of art. A
red thread back to Venus, the bones on their way to a rosary, a flower, after the fact, beside
herself, to index the divine.
So it’s an egg and not a sun that hangs above her in the painting, an object ruled by gravity,
dangling from the ceiling by a fine, barely visible thread.
And there she is in all the symbolic labor of her form. From a distance she’s the mother of a
wounded boy, pulled off the pavement onto her lap.
A shock of red splashes against his chest, a gash in the painted flesh. From the middle distance,
it’s an umbilicus. Closer in, it’s the red tie of her cape that touches the boy’s chest.
In the collapsed time of representation, I think he’s idly toying with the strange carnality of his
Closer still, it’s a rosary, he’s wearing Mary’s afterlife as she wears his.
Then he’s just a boy awkwardly occupying the stadium of his mother’s lap. She’s the dome
above him, she’s one of us, sort of, patiently waiting out the baby who already has a life of its
own, among these faces set awkwardly on the frozen column of their necks.
What human would raise their hands in prayer with a baby lying so precariously across their
knees, that’s a fiction. It’s as if she’s made a tent for him to live in, a temporary church to give
him earthly form. All this while the men crowd up, smelling like a herd of goats in a metal shed,
pointing improperly at the obvious.
Someone says the painting was executed between 1472 and 1474, what a word, like Jesus saying
“it is finished” or “accomplished” depending on the translation, the end is everywhere, it’s the
paper on which we’re written, a dead tree.
It hangs in the air between the birth of a child and the death of a mother, the wife of Federico da
Montefeltro and the son whose infancy she didn’t survive.
I see her climbing out of the shell that carried her to shore. I see her raise her bow.
I see her watching herself enter the public domain. The look is not devotion. She’s taking an
arrow. In the middle of a conversation she’s picking up a pen.
Her face is a statement of fact, unsettling the room. What I mean is the knowing at the bottom of
it all. The being born.
Elizabeth Willis has published six books of poetry, most recently Alive: New and Selected Poems (New York Review Books, 2015), a finalist for the Pulitzer. Others include Meteoric Flowers and Address (both from Wesleyan), Turneresque (Burning Deck), and The Human Abstract (Penguin). She also edited the volume Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place. Her essays can be found in Transatlantica, Contemporary Literature, Textual Practice, and elsewhere. Since 2015 she has been living and teaching in Iowa.
Lead image: Piero della Francesca, Madonna and Child with Saints, Angels and Federico da Montefeltro (San Bernardino Altarpiece), 1472 - 4, tempera on panel, 251 × 172 centimeters. Collection of Pinacoteca di Brera, Italy.
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