- The Conversion of Paul
—for Paul Otremba
Bewildered—something in me is made wildfrom looking at it—but somethingalso chastened, subdued, becauseit holds my gaze a long time. It is itselfa unit of time—one bewildering instantcaught by Caravaggio’s imagination—Saulthrown off his horse, landing on his back,taken aback, Saul becoming Paul, struck blind,being spoken to by the light. It seemsnone of us really cares for Gunn’stake on the painting, defiant insistenceof being hardly enlightened, but I admirethe chiaroscuro-like contrast he makesbetween Paul’s wide-open armsand the close-fisted prayersof the old women he notices in the pewswhen he turns away. But even ifPaul on the ground is still falling, bothare gestures of blind faith, as Stan callsit. You call it a bar brawl, all this one-upmanship,but in your poem you don’t take sides,you give your own perspective, twenty-first-century,postmodern, belated. You ask what happens ifa hundred people hold the painting in their mindsat the same time. Will it gain a collective dullness,a tarry film like too much smoke? But I like to thinkit would sharpen the focus, deepen the saturationof the red cloak, crumpled like bed sheets, beneath him.A lot could be made of how Gunn, then Stan, then youmake a poem out of a painting, but Caravaggiodid it first, making the painting out of versesfrom the Bible. All art traffics in some kind of translation.Which might be another word for conversion. God saysSaul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard for theeto kick against the pricks. Which makes me think [End Page 84] of the horse, who should be more visiblyshaken probably from such a flash of light.No one seems to register how claustrophobicit all is, difficult to believe it’s happeningoutside, where there should be spacefor all this stretching out, and the horsewouldn’t have to raise one hoof so as notto step on Paul. And the groomsman,why isn’t he doing anything butstaring down? Like all Caravaggios,it’s sexual, the arms and legs splayed as ifready to be taken by God himself,but it’s really an outsize gesture of shock.I heard the news of your being sick, Paul,when I was in Italy. If God himselfis the radiance that struck Saul into Paul,then what is the darkness swimming aroundeverything? It makes one feel inside of something,confined by such dark. Afterwards, the Bible says,Paul was three days without sight, andneither did eat nor drink. Now after chemoyou consume a thousand-calorie shakecalled The Hulk to keep from losing weight.I went to see the painting when I was in Romein September. It is a pleasure to look at a paintingover time. To consider it along with others,including you, my friend, over decades.Something in the painting is insistentlyitself, intractable, and yet inexhaustible meaningkeeps also being revealed. Paul, thinking of youwhen I look at the painting changes it. I see youvulnerable, surrendered, beautiful and young,registering that something in you has changedand what happens next happens to you alone.And inside you. Conversion is a form of being saved,like chemo is a form of cure, but it looks to melike punishment, a singling out, ominous,and experienced in the dark. WhenI used to see the painting, I was an anonymousbystander. Now I am helpless. It isand you are, in the original sense, awful.I can’t get inside the paintinglike I suddenly and desperately want to,to hold him, to help you get back up.And now, for Paul, everything has changed. [End Page 85]
Jennifer Grotz’s third and most recent book of poems is Window Left Open (Graywolf, 2016). She teaches at the University of Rochester and directs the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences.