One year ago I received an email in Dutch from poet Elsa Fischer. She had read my second collection and related to the poems about the Second World War. Elsa and I have kept in touch by email. Her poems were featured here on 24 May 2020 – the end of that month we were going to meet in person in The Hague …
A 1,000-piece jigsaw of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Hunters on the Hill is waiting in the hall – a present for a friend. Seeing it there reminded me that Elsa and I have both written a poem inspired by that painting from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. On its website you can see all the works by Bruegel that still exist from their 2018 exhibition.
Jonathan McAloon published a fascinating article on Artsy “The Deadly Truth Behind Pieter Bruegel Elder’s Idyllic Landscapes” (4/2/2019). The winter of 1564-65 was the coldest winter of the century. Europe was living in what’s now called the “Little Ice Age”. It would be so cold that rivers froze enough for local people to have rent-free marketplaces on them. Frozen birds fell from the sky, people could enjoy themselves skating. There were also food shortages, resulting in illness and riots.
Elsa’s poem Hunters was published in the journal Poetry Salzburg Review. Mine is in the pamphlet A Stolen Hour (Grey Hen Press, 2020). We’ve both taken the viewpoint of someone in the landscape.
I’ve come to feast again on Flemish grotesque
at the peasant wedding and Shrove Tuesday’s kermis.
To watch the hunters as they bring in the kill,
the trails of blood not far from where I stand
for cover. I hear branches and shrubs and ice
breaking and feel no pity until the knives release
a medieval agony of entrails, shimmering,
steaming, on to the floor of the estaminet.
The heady beer explodes, the pissoir smells.
I grab a cue at the billiard table. I am seventeen.
Piercing the cold like the crow’s flight I escape
into the northern twilight, away from memories.
In a far corner
It is a clear afternoon.
I hear children laughing,
the clacking of skittles,
skates carving the ice.
I know it is Friday and hear
the silence of crows.
My bones are strong,
my wife is in good health.
I do not yet know that
on the hill the hunters
with their wet and tired dogs
are heading for home.
I think about my wife,
heavy with child, her apron
as white as the snow
under my feet.
I see plumes of breath from my lips,
as though I’m a horse with plough.
Branches on my shoulder creak, shudder.
I’m yoked to this life.