Remembering Titian's Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence

by Jorie Graham
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353

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.)

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

In “Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence,” Graham remembers most vividly the roiling smoke of the painting and its dominating lights—red from the fire, which flickers eerily and searchingly over the helmets and breastplates of the soldiers and the body of Saint Lawrence; and a blue light, which streams from the heavens and penetrates smoke and flame to brand, as the poem says, “even the meanest/ twig or/ fingertip.” The lights of the painting irradiate not only Saint Lawrence and every detail of the painting but also the painting’s circumambient air and, most intensely, the viewer of the painting:

    Seehow the two lightstwine, over my face,  my hands.Every pocket will be  found out,every hollowness  forgiven.

It is the way in which the painting’s lights search out the viewer that most amazes and troubles the speaker of the poem. The blue and red lights are so lurid and searching that it is the viewer rather than the saint himself that must suffer the painting. The saint is, paradoxically, untouched by his own martyrdom: “Even the excitements/ of the smoke/ glide over him/ unshadowing.” It is the viewer who is touched, ultimately examined, and judged by the painting.

Graham uses this and other paradoxes to begin what finally becomes an argument with the painting, a deep objection to its intervention in the life of humanity, which is by nature impermanent and vulnerable, unlike the marble-bodied saint that Titian depicts. The saint in the painting ultimately becomes, for the speaker, an affront to humanness.

Besides the poem’s use of paradox and its intensification of the imagery and lighting within the Titian painting, Graham reconfigures or figuratively displaces what she calls the “rivers” of light in the painting, turning these into a kind of Heraclitean, ever-changing river of the world. At the poem’s structural crux in stanza 13, the speaker defies the saint, saying she would not want to be like him—untouched by the elements, impervious to the flames. Graham turns her devotions from the saint to the transitoriness and genuinely immolating qualities of the world. “I would not be that man/ in the fire,” she says, then asks whether there is a stream “whose banks don’t/ come away/ into its muscular spirit,/ whose love/ doesn’t scour its own bed,/ roil its mud/ with sky.”

This crux in the poem is structurally its most important feature. The aspects of poetry—stanzas, line breaks—that are usually used as formal controls or indicators of content are, here and in much of her work, employed by Graham in an almost nominal fashion. The free verse stanzas have great visual symmetry, but the logic of the poem typically straddles stanzas; similarly, line breaks often occur where sense would seem to militate against them. Formally, Graham’s poems are often like a temple in ruins.

In the short line poems of Erosion, Graham’s use of stanza and line seems to rupture deliberately both cadence and sense, a device that seems to call for a broken reading, one that cuts against the firmly articulated argument of the poem. The very short lines (ranging in this poem from one to, at most, six or seven words) also create a great blank space around the poem. Graham has said that poems need white space because white space, like abstractions, suggests silence.

Not surprisingly, she admires the versification of William Carlos Williams, whose sense of line may be a model for her own. In an essay called “Some Notes on Silence,” Graham says that she likes to think of the poetic line as “otherwise skeletal notes rising in a very large empty cathedral.” This description seems applicable to “Remembering Titian’s Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence.”

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