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  • By Stewart Burke

Silver Salver, Golden Chalice

Dutch still life by Abraham van Beyeren

Things first gazed upon most define our sight.

Rapt eyes are drawn to the sensuous cleft

In a musk melon of one slice bereft,

Betraying an almost carnal delight.

Suchlike, too, the furry, rose-rumped peaches,

Their sunlight concealing bloodstone within,

Honeyed secretions dripping down the chin

As if from a lover’s innermost reaches.

Snug in inset pearl and silver salvers,

To the blithe oysters it’s of small matter

That the ice is cool and lighting flatters,

For they live in the moment, these halvers.

Outermost rims of auricular plates

Sport coronets of grape leaves, both living

And smithed; figs, red and green grapes abounding

Atop Delft bowls, and wood and wicker crates.

Fruits of hot Midsummer, fruits of cold sea,

All exist for mind and eyes’ consumption,

But not the mouth: taste is our presumption,

And leaves us starving for more, constantly.

Around roemers’ stems, blackberries bestrewed,

Twin bowls filled with a vinous fruit’s remains,

Reflecting light from glowing window panes

Through which another, inverse world is viewed.

In vain reproof of gravity’s stern laws,

A lemon’s rind dangles from the precipice,

Unfurled athwart a lobster’s red carapace

And Scylla and Charybdis of its claws.

Is it day or is it night? Both? Neither?

On the timepiece, six-forty’s absolute,

Endless consecration of a minute

Captured in imagination’s ether.

Centering this universe, a chalice

Nautilus-shaped, as golden as its mean,

All mathematical mysteries redeemed

Within the dark chambers of its palace.

Next which a lewd, wreathed figure – Silenus? --

Floats bestride a covered goblet of glass,

Bearing tray aloft, if not borne by ass

Bestride which he followed Dionysus.

Just a sot when sober, yet while drunk, wise,

He thought it best never to be born,

Deeming life and fecundity forlorn

(Despite burghers need to aggrandize).

Resting on a plate precariously

Is a slender paring knife, smooth-handled,

Like an infant upon a knee dandled

Both lovingly and nefariously.

Atop the banquet board, a Persian rug

Draped carelessly but with the utmost care;

A satin cloth also frames the plates there:

All might fall with just one gentle tug.

Beyond the table, a tenter-hooked rail

From which a shroud that dims all light depends,

As if covering casket from end-to-end,

Or a widow’s face beneath a veil.

Initials carved thereon, a post rises

Behind, by artist marked lest he’s forgot

By those who came later and knew him not

Before judgement in Heaven’s assizes.

As a gesture of plenty, goblets will

Be insolently cast into the fire

As the shadows in the great hall expire

And satiety and ennui work their will.

Things last gazed upon least refine our sight.

It’s the vermin unseen that outlive us all,

Climbing on our corpses, chewing through the walls

As we wither, unblinking at the light.

Stewart Burke lives in Arlington, VA. Retired from one of those ABC agencies, beyond writing poetry he enjoys traveling abroad and studying and teaching martial arts with his wonderful daughter. He most delights in reading in translation the classical poetry of the Near East, the Subcontinent, China, and Japan. Burke particularly savors the works in translation of Li Qingzhao, Shmuel ha-Nagid, and Hafiz. William Empson and Theodore Wratislaw are two of his favorite English-language poets.

9 Kommentare

20. Feb. 2023

Well done, Stewart, truly a delight to read and reflect upon. The third stanza drew me in -

Snug in inset pearl and silver salvers,

To the blithe oysters it’s of small matter

That the ice is cool and lighting flatters,

For they live in the moment, these halvers.

Life noted from a bivalve point of view! Looking forward to more along these lines- Julie

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17. Feb. 2023

Thank you so much, Martin. Any merits of the poem aside, it made me reflect on how and in what format people read poetry today. The instant poem is unusual in that it is so contextually contingent on the ability of the reader to clearly see the painting on which it is based. Indeed, it was inspired by my surprise discovery of the mouse after zooming in on the image of the painting. In my own case, my vision remains good except for the need of 2.0 reading glasses. As such, using a smart phone to read poetry would be my least preferred format, something I probably have in common with many of my older contemporaries. Moreover, smartphones often wreak…

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17. Feb. 2023

Quite a lot of imagination in describing the Scylla and Charybdis of the lobster claw, and in many other elements of the poem. I'd like an apostrophe at the word "burghers" as burghers' unless I've misinterpreted. Many thanks for a long journey through the scene. (I wondered if you'd treat the knife.) And many thanks for recalling to me the word "assise."

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17. Feb. 2023
Antwort an

Thank you for those kind words. In the course of readying the proverbial printing press it is sometimes difficult to find what I need in the apostrophe drawer – they are so small, yet at times so consequential! BTW, the printing press leads one to the considerations contained in my reply to Martin McCarthy below.

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17. Feb. 2023

Hard to tell which is more appealing -- the painting or its description. From still life to life stilled.

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18. Feb. 2023
Antwort an

I certainly would, Martin. Insightful feedback from fellow writers and readers is part of what makes this such an enchanting and meaningful journey.

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17. Feb. 2023

There is a touch of perfection about this poem. It opens with that striking line: 'Things first gazed upon most define our sight', and our eyes are immediately drawn to the painting above it. Then, detail by detail, the poem itself becomes the painting - becomes its own still life - containing everything on 'the banquet board' and beyond it. Then, in the final two stanzas, we are given the poet/painter's reflections on life's great feast and the sad fate of things that first delight the senses. I especially like the way the first line of the last stanza ties in so well with the opening line, taking us on the whole journey from opulence to decay, and the full…

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