Mudlark Poster No. 125 (2015)

A Requiem of Hammers
Poems by Adam Tavel

Creation Myth | Catafalque | The Sons and Daughters of Unimpeachable Light
At the National Gallery | Gauguin’s Teeth | Comrade Holmes | Adam’s Apocrypha

Creation Myth

The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Caspar David Friedrich, The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818,
oil on canvas, 98x74 cm, Kunsthalle Hamburg, Germany

Drunk on mead and the drone
of chanting, our soothsayer
rained incense and gibberish 
on our chieftain’s crimson sprawl. 
His widow smothered herself
with snatched-down clouds
and I marked the snarls blooming
on her sons’ beardless mouths  
who, in their minds, had already left
to barter with the blacksmith.
Indifferent, our best warriors
in darkness sculpted their revenge.
When prayer drove the dampest eyes
to the mountain where our gods reside 
I saw only mountain, butcher birds 
circling carrion, a smear of mist 
colorless as my hovel. Bound 
to ewes, it’s no wonder
we believed our people rose 
from clay and sanctified dirt
by scratching with staffs.
That night I stuffed my blizzard fur
inside father’s shield before feasting
with our galled, milk-eyed mongrel
whom I tethered for my sister
to slow her morning’s river walk.
She knew any scrap bone broke 
his begging. She knew to tell 
her elders that my mud-tracks
led up to mist and disappeared.

Note: “Creation Myth” is a tribal retelling of David Caspar Friedrich’s famous Romantic painting The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog.


Stealing Lincoln's Body

President Lincoln’s Funeral Service at the White House, April 19, 1865,
engraving from Harper’s Weekly Magazine, May 6, 1865
Two tube-top bimbos nuzzle
Barry Winter, the mattress
king of Crisfield. His goatee glue
shimmers in the blinding 
snow-light as he shouts
his only line: fourscore it all 
must go! The prices pulsing 
make a red extravaganza
of February curbs. He bounces
an unsheeted king, top hat tight 
to his bald spot with a chinstrap,
his costume frock coat
two sizes small. It’s so cold
in the take that airs 
hourly I can see the areolas 
of both girls puffed up through 
spandex. According to my cousin 
who lost his shirt running
the sub shop next door
both girls are Winter’s nieces.
The First Lady’s mewling
melted walls and rushed
our hushed deliberations
on which pallbearer should lead
Lincoln down the hall. 
Wordless, harried, we shed
our brogans, our stocking feet
a squeakless glide to spare her
hearing what yonder
passed her door. We carried 
cumulus and sky
shimmering on the casket lid 
with the rigid Ls of our arms 
numb across the lawn. I swear 
though back-soaked we could not 
breathe out our mouths for grief 
of what might pass through.
Beyond, the labored platform 
with its nightmare canopy was
a requiem of hammers.

Note: “Catafalque” was inspired by a journalistic sketch of Lincoln’s catafalque from 1865. The anecdote about Lincoln’s pallbearers taking their shoes off when they removed his casket from the White House to avoid upsetting Mrs. Lincoln is factual and can be read in Thomas J. Craughwell’s Stealing Lincoln’s Body. The engraving of Lincoln’s Funeral Service at the White House, from Harper’s Weekly Magazine, can be found, using The Civil War Research Engine, in The House Divided Project at Dickinson College, Carlisle PA.

The Sons and Daughters of Unimpeachable Light

Les Tres Riches Heures du duc de Berry Janvier

Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Limbourg Brothers, 
French Gothic manuscript illumination, 1412-1416,
Musée Condé, Chantilly, France

We planted lilies in our chamber pots
and watched them bloom October 
in the heated greenhouse. After rains
we drained our brandies there, 
voyeurs among the greasy kingdom
of slugs. No skein of fog could ravel
our spirits—we were the sons
and daughters of unimpeachable light,
free from the creaking wheels
of carriages, the city’s devastating
stench, the rats who bobbed on bones
in the gutter’s current. Once a month
we granted audience to ruddy serfs
whose babes refused to suck, who woke
at dawn to gawk at maggots wreathed
around a heifer’s anus. Each turd
we called dear sir. They’d slouch
and fret and spin their hats awaiting
wonderwork. How dreadful, we said, 
passing chalices brimmed with sorbet. 
We recited sympathies. We raised
our rubied fists to brace our yawns.

Note: “The Sons and Daughters of Unimpeachable Light” satirizes the Limbourg Brothers’ Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The page displayed here, Janvier, is from “Labors of the Months,” the section illustrating the various activities undertaken by the Duke’s court and his peasants according to the month of the year.

At the National Gallery

            for Ellen Hathaway

The Pistoia Crucifix

Pietro Tacca, The Pistoia Crucifix, c. 1600/1616, 
bronze, corpus 86.9x79x20.6 cm, cross 167x90.1 cm 
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Another sooty crucifix leers 
and leans, angled on slackened 
cables anchored in the ceiling.  
Baroque, gargantuan, its bronze
charred lusterless by centuries,

it slows no steps but mine
in this fountain room’s cavernous
tinkling where I try and fail
to pucker out the slurring vowels
of the Pistoian master’s name.

The agonized gaze of Christ 
leads fifteen yards away 
to the kneeling girl who keeps 
giggling as she flips
pennies from her palm 

into the perpetual marble roar
of a lion jet. Twin transmitters
from cochlear implants shimmer 
in her tawny hair like flying 
saucers smashed in a wheat field.  

Each time she leans her face
closer to the rippling surface
to mark the spot a twirler fell
her grin glows orange above 
a shallow copper sea. The centurion’s

gash takes a squinting stare
to spot amid exaggerated ribs.
A child might say the wound
had healed. A child might stretch
to kiss the frozen mane.

Note: “At the National Gallery” references a lion fountain and Florentine crucifix, both of which are located at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. Regrettably, the lion fountain lacks an online image.

Gauguin’s Teeth

            Hiva Oa, Marquesas Islands, 1903

Breton Village Under Snow 1984

Paul Gauguin, Breton Village Under Snow, 1894, 
oil on canvas, 62x87 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Two Atuona boys delighted in stomping
his Maison du Jouir, his filthy little hut,
until the pale bellies of its roof thatches
shriveled in the sun. Their sisters’ nipples
whorled purpura through the smoke
on every canvas burning except the snow-
cloaked steeple back in France, which they left 
leaning against a shaded stump
to sell to homesick sailors. I made excuses
to pass his well and waste my hours there,
straining for the faint glint of ferrules
from busted brushes on the bottom.
Only so deep and no further, the mottled 
light caught the mouth of the beer bottle
that held four black teeth—teeth
that once scraped my neck and later
I helped him yank through a drunken fog
so thick we roared each time he spat out blood.
So deep. My belly’s shriveled hut. The day
he clanked that bottle down he found
my black hair smeared across the milky
breast of a mountainside and left it.

Note: “Gauguin’s Teeth” alludes to Breton Village Under Snow as well as recent news reports that some of the painter’s teeth have been found in a bottle at the bottom of a well. The poem is in the voice of a teenage Tahitian lover, of which Gauguin had many.

Comrade Holmes

            for Lienna Hillenburg

Comrade Holmes

How strange to hear the Russian river out
of Livanov. His gaunt and hawkish face
broods, snug inside its deerstalker, beside
a pool of blood so obviously fake
I shake the spell of cinema and pout
at the scene’s poverty. And yet such grace—
the magnifying glass, unseen, now glides
beyond his houndstooth  inverness cape.
Your Sherlock peers unflinchingly at clues
so lost upon Lestrade and Watson, mute
as children at a magic show, that I’m 
absorbed again. Our realms converge tonight: 
the pilfered ring, the smog that parts like hair, 
a cane’s faint tap across the thoroughfare.

Note: “Comrade Holmes” responds to the Russian made-for-television films and corresponding Moscow statue of Sherlock Holmes as portrayed by Vasily Livanov. The photograph, displayed here, of the statue by Andrey Orlov is from Tumblr. It includes Doctor Watson as portrayed by Vitaly Solomin. The statue is located on the Smolenskaya embankment alongside the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Moscow.

Adam’s Apocrypha

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Bosch

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1510,
oil on oak panels, 220x389 cm, Mueseo del Prado, Madrid

We heard some voice proclaim the dawn was ours.
That drizzle drove the bloom. Menageries
of all that stalked and crawled belonged to us.
We beamed, tracing one another’s ribs.

The legless one stuck his tongue through hours
beneath the danger-fruit that set us free
to suffer sums. His opalescent fuss
meandered on the mottled rinds and slipped 

in rot we knew was there. Though mute and tame
we willed his voice to barter with our shame.
But then the desert too, its mutts and stones
howled to haunt our blistered nights. Our same

and tender hands sparked hard at flint. Alone  
we learned the shadow voices were our own.

Note: “Adam’s Apocrypha” is in conversation with Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.

Adam Tavel won the Permafrost Book Prize for Plash & Levitation (University of Alaska Press, 2015). He is also the author of The Fawn Abyss (Salmon Poetry, forthcoming) and the chapbook Red Flag Up (Kattywompus, 2013). Tavel won the 2010 Robert Frost Award and his recent poems appear in Beloit Poetry Journal, Sycamore Review, Passages North, The Journal, Potomac Review, and American Literary Review, among other places. He can be found online at

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