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The Illustrated Church

The Church of Madonna dei Boschi is open for mass
at eight-thirty each evening, its altar a cloudy swirl
of bronze, its walls curved to an arched-over-ceiling,
and all of it covered in holy illustrations, every inch
an opportunity taken for a visual lesson.

On a wall near the door, past a holy fount,
a tattooist’s dreams of naked scenes in hell
with our mortality done in skeletons and shrouds.
Here where I walk beside the wall are blue and
grey-black demons tossing pink-fleshed peasants

into the jaws of a giant snake. A demon presses
talons into the leg of a writhing woman.
Another is bitten by the man he carries
into darkness. A queue of worried, naked
villagers shuffle down to the abyss.

              Closer to the altar,
a pregnant teenage Mary with her mother,
who has one hand on her daughter’s womb,
their heads in towards each other, eyes unfocused,
no Veronese angel, no golden dove
above a Renaissance virgin shocked, reluctant, blessed:

this is the daughter confessing to the mother,
asking what she should do now, and what will
Joseph say, what will become of her,

and will her mother put her out, or will she
put one hand upon the new child in there,
the other on her daughter’s waist
so her daughter knows they both will share
what happens now, whatever happens.

After that, a donkey brays in the background
as the newborn child is laid upon the stable dirt.
There is a donkey that brays each morning
on these hills, I hear it, coarse and long,
loud and primitive, twice or three times,
then not again till early the following morning.

The painter has given the child this arrival song:
no baby angels, trumpets, wise men, shepherds,
just this donkey, neck stretched, mouth open,
lips straining. It is a convincing donkey;
the painter must have had one near to go by.

Then the brand new family escapes the slaughter
of the innocents, that donkey on the path,
Mary balanced on its back, her baby close.
The donkey’s head is down in concentration
on its task.

       Next, a man holds up a knife.
The knife, painted white, is at the centre,
everyone is looking at this upright, gleaming knife:
the knowing infant Jesus naked on his mother’s lap,
genitals exposed for the coming circumcision.

I see then that his sacred genitals have been scratched away.

I go back to the scenes of hell to find
the genitals of every naked man scratched away
back to bare plaster. The high priest’s knife will never
do its work in this church-cave in the Piemonte hills,
hills where partisans fought for freedom until

whole families and towns were slaughtered,
their old names listed on stones beside the road
up to this church where the hills are green and wild
and locals now complain of wolves returning.

A donkey meditates against a wall,
farm dogs bark along the valley,
some children pass on bikes
as three or four parishioners arrive.
The priest, in cassock, puts out his missal
on the altar and I hear him sigh.

KEVIN BROPHY teaches creative writing in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. From 1980 to 1994 he was founding editor of the national literary journal Going Down Swinging. In 2005 he was awarded the Martha Richardson Medal for poetry. In 2009 he was co-winner of the Calibre Prize for an outstanding essay.