At Luca Signorelli's Resurrection of the Body

by Jorie Graham
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 490

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“At Luca Signorelli’s Resurrection of the Body” is a long, free-verse poem of 106 lines divided into eighteen stanzas; the first seventeen stanzas have 6 lines and the final stanza contains 4 lines. The lines of this poem are mostly short and vary from two to six syllables per line, although some lines have as many as eight or nine syllables. The title immediately locates the poem’s speaker in front of a fresco by Luca Signorelli, an Umbrian painter known for depicting muscular bodies in violent action, capturing them in a wide variety of poses and foreshortenings. Resurrection of the Body is in the San Brizo Chapel in Orvieto Cathedral, where, between 1499 and 1502, Signorelli painted a series of scenes depicting the end of the world.

Jorie Graham’s persona speaks in the first person in a voice that is likely analogous to, if not wholly imitative of, the voice of the poet. With the speaker’s voice so similar to Graham’s, one is encouraged to read the tone of this poem as serious and philosophical. It appears that Graham will attempt to pose an answer to the introductory question, “Is it better, flesh/ that they/ should hurry so?” The poem is organized into three unannounced sections that show the speaker’s meditation progressing from one subject to another. The first section comprises the first thirty-three lines, in which Graham gazes at the details of the fresco. She notices the violence of the bodies and points out how the subjects of the painting “hurry/ to enter/ their bodies.” There is a bombastic and cacophonous quality to these images. Angels “blare down/ trumpets and light.” Graham questions whether the spirits entering these bodies truly desire perfection because the precision of Signorelli’s work, evident in the detailed muscles of the subjects in the painting, suggests that only the painter desires such perfection.

In the second section, Graham looks outside the cathedral. When she states that “Outside/ it is 1500,” she brings together the time of the fresco’s composition with the lyric moment of the poem. This suggests that Signorelli’s frescoes have powerfully altered her perceptions of the world. Graham also juxtaposes thoughts about the figures on the wall, which remain ignorant of their experience, with a recognition that she, as a viewer of this fresco, is unable to tell them that there will be no fulfillment of their dreams of “wanting names,/ wanting/ happiness.” In the third movement of the poem, Graham’s thoughts lead her away from the fresco and the cathedral to a narrative about how Signorelli dissected the body of his young son who died in an accident. Graham portrays this action as a loving search for truth, emphasizing words such as “beauty,” “care,” and “caress.” In order to understand his grief and loss, Signorelli, a master of depicting the muscles of the body, must explore what is unknown to him: the inside of his son’s body.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

The experience of standing in front of a painting and contemplating its meaning is an experience that is likely familiar to most readers. Poems written about this type of experience are part of a genre called ekphrastic poetry. Ekphrastic poems often show a speaker attempting to find meaning or feeling by looking intently and deeply at a painting, sculpture, or photograph. The images of the art object often become a part of the imagery of the poem. Two familiar examples of ekphrastic poetry are John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and William Carlos Williams’s “Pictures from Brueghel.” There are several other ekphrastic poems in Graham’s Erosion collection. Paintings by Signorelli, Piero della Francesca, Masaccio, Francisco de Goya, and Gustav Klimt allow Graham to interact with visual art in a way that makes art objects part of a living, breathing tradition of attempting to make philosophical sense of the world. Signorelli’s painting is as real and as vivid as any image in twentieth century poetry. Just as Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” is about the visual importance of a commonplace object because of the mental connections that it can stimulate in one who sees it, Graham’s poem focuses upon the value of art’s ability to focus her thought. Art allows Graham to understand how one can make sense of the relationship between body and mind. This specific fresco is not only valuable for its intellectual and historical importance, but it is also of value because of the thoughts and responses that it continues to trigger in its viewers.

One of the most obvious aspects of this poem’s form is Graham’s use of a short line that approximates Williams’s trimeter line. These lines, barely long enough to contain more than three or four words, require the reader to move down the page quickly. Instead of reading each line as a freestanding unit of thought or imagery, Graham’s short line encourages the reader to recognize the dependence of each line upon the lines that precede and follow it. In the first stanza, an associative logic becomes apparent as Graham’s thinking leads her from her command to notice the fresco to a questioning of whether such action is good and back to a recognition of the image of the angels in the fresco.

While there is a sequential, orderly logic that leads Graham from a contemplation in front of the painting into a meditation about the relationship between the body and mind, this logic may not be obvious to the reader. Graham’s poem does not proceed line by line as much as it proceeds step by step. There is a movement between discursive commentary and imagistic detail that organizes the poem thought by thought. These thoughts are then broken down into lines that reflect the complications of tonal change that occur. Graham’s philosophical poem does not offer a coherent argument with thesis, proof, and conclusion; it is more analogous to a private moment that the reader has been privileged to overhear, a moment in which an engaged and intelligent speaker attempts to sort something out.