Although American, Jorie Graham grew up in Italy and received much of her education in Europe. “Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence,” like many of Graham’s poems, comes from her Italian experience. The poem describes a religious painting by the Renaissance painter Titian, a painting that exists in two versions. In both versions, the painting’s foreground features Saint Lawrence, who reclines on a grill with a fire burning beneath him. In the earlier version of the painting (completed about 1557), the martyrdom is set in front of a temple façade, while in the later version (painted 1564-1567 by Titian and his workshop), the martyrdom occurs in an open archway. Smaller differences between the two versions abound. (In the painting’s second version, for example, the human figures that surround Saint Lawrence are more grotesque, and two cherubs holding a crown descend from the sky.)
As Graham remembers the painting, she seems to be blending details from the two versions. This conflation may be unintentional, or she may be repainting Titian’s martyrdom to suit thematic purposes of her own.
“Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence” is very much like the many other poems about paintings in Graham’s second volume of poetry, Erosion (1983). In these poems, Graham describes a painting in detail but often freely alters these details, perhaps fulfilling what she calls in an interview her “rage to change” what is fixed and finished. The poems about painting—fitting into a subgenre of lyric poetry called ecphrastic poetry—follow a typical pattern of description modulating into meditation. The clearly meditative sections of Graham’s ecphrastic poems often involve sudden plunges into metaphysical questioning about time and eternity, for instance, or permanence and impermanence, or the relation between spirit and flesh. Many critics of Graham’s poetry have called her a philosophical poet, a very apt description as long as it does not imply that her poems are abstract or unsenuous. Graham is, however, one of the few contemporary poets who acclaims abstractions because she feels that they are messengers of silence and implicitly mark the failures of language.