BY PETER STRECKFUS
Bodies, depicted in the Garden, almost as a kind of food.
Groups form distinct shapes and dramas.
Each contact having, forming together, various kinds of mind.
Skin to skin, other and other, the cause, the rouse in the air, the movement, in the bed, in the car.
The sound of your feet striking the floorboards above.
Your struggle and enmity.
I speak to you as if I were myself, but I am neither.
Tooling about in the fiction of another mind, she said, to herself.
As if a home were a possibility.
My brothers and I took a boat across the floodwater. To explore.
To bring goodies to our grandmother, in truth. The water six feet over the path we road into the village.
It was cold, November. We caught sight of the Vanorts’ summer home. A wall on one side of the house had caved in.
As we rowed, I saw their fence beneath the boat.
The feeling of transparence, as a pedestrian.
In medieval times, what mattered, to nobles, was the number of souls one possessed.
In Bosch’s paintings of hermits—it’s not the body I’m drawn to, all men, of course, but the world about it.
The most difficult thing is painting a question.
Withdrawn into the desert, meaning, to our minds at the time, the wilderness, unpeopled.
Unpeopled, it peoples the canvas. I think also, it’s the turning away. Painting versions of the self.
In the background, in miniature, a woman washes her clothes in the river, bleaching them in the sun.
My clothes always have stains on them, everything I eat.
In John the Baptist, sprouting from the base of the painting, but also as if from his abdomen, a giant thistle, an artichoke.
Its fruit the size of a head, a kind of egg, white-pink, a head sized eye, like the colors of the baptist’s robe.
There is a previous figure painted beneath it—
A man in medieval hat and cloak, his now invisible head beneath the large fruit.
John the Baptist lounges, his head in his left hand, pointing causally with his right to the object of his gaze, away from the botanical body: a lamb, resting in the corner of the canvas. It looks on with equanimity.
My husband’s retired from his botany, but I can’t give up the library.
When we moved here, ever the American, he wanted all the amenities.
He loves the yardmen—we’re too old to plant trees now, he says.
Out my window, they’ve planted a spruce, I think.
Its needles are blue—it moves them into the air mathematically, occupying the space as if it were on the vanguard, the only of its kind in sight.
Literature is about inventing a missing people, someone once said.
The darkness of effort.
When they built these homes, on what used to be Zonneveld’s farm, they moved and churned the land, making it higher. Nothing left. The trees they plant are orphans, we tell each other, or exiles, planted in the new soil, their own Dutch desert. They’ll only live half as long as seed born trees.
But in the scale of our lives, what does that matter?
Waves splashed against the walls.
The boat echoed like a drum as we floated through the house.
A corner of its façade fallen, like a rip in a cornea, we floated through and into it.
There was a spiral staircase.
No furniture on the ground floor, all put in its place upstairs, as we all did in preparation for a storm—
The Vanorts must have done this every fall, just in case.
BY PETER STRECKFUS
The road I walked to school.
I walk through it now, or, beneath where it was.
My boots in the muck of newly made land.
Like the little tumor on my forehead.
The doctor scrapes it off.
You allow the wound to heal on its own.
The sun rises over the earth, and you let it be so.
The rest falls away, I tell my husband.
Once, here long ago, two cities were at war.
Between the cities and their two rivers, some seventy villages embanked against the sea.
The only peat some could get to was against the sea wall.
On the feast of Saint Elizabeth, a storm erased the space between the two cities.
Thousands drowned in the new shallow sea that was born—
Thus ended the war of the Cods and the Hooks.
Over centuries, tides pushed sediments that came from the rivers back into the low sea—
Islands riddled with creeks.
Gradually, we built up the high land.
To work the rushes and willows and reeds—each its own kind of plastic.
Three generations after the flood, a few towns to the east, Hieronymus Bosch painted a triptych of Genesis.
The painting’s outside panels depict a domed firmament above a water land in black and white.
On the third day, God removes the land from the sea. Below the horizon, the first hills.
By the end of the story, he joins them again, so that you see, below the horizon, buildings of the deluge.
Which moment do the outer panels depict. The flood having just receded. A wet land with trees.
Cross sections of alchemical glasswares, their long necks, border the land on the panels, its substance transformed.
First you must end the story. Then you get to begin it again.
BY PETER STRECKFUS
On our way back to the Netherlands, my husband and I watch a movie on separate seatback screens, our daughter’s son asleep between us.
Jewish tradition contains a story about forgetting.
Before birth, the child’s knowledge of the world is complete.
In the womb, the creator touches, with the tip of a finger, the space above the child’s lip.
This leaves an indentation. And the land is overflowed by sea, as in a spring tide, inundated, flooded.
And the child forgets.
It is not taken away. It is covered. And the child is born.
As I look to my husband’s screen, I see he began the film ahead of me.
In my ears, the heroine’s claustrophobic breath, as she hides on the floorboard of a car’s back seat.
On his screen, the silent future—she is on a plane, looking out a window.
It is a love story.
After the St. Elizabeth Flood, rush began to take root in the mud flats that appeared above the water surface at high tide.
Slush and mud, a kind of noise of the river, an unintended signal.
Like a callous on the skin produced by the garden work.
Across the face of the instrument, the marks of the plectrum.
When I pull out my earbud, I hear the beautiful static of the plane’s white noise.
In one of Bosch’s depictions of the flood’s hereafter, St. Jerome at Prayer, a broken seed pod, which appears to have been previously attached to a red stem above, floats in a morass.
The stem appears to have belonged to a great fallen tree, biomorphic in its broken figure.
Bosch’s hybrid monsters, fish, foul, crustacean, insect, mammal, mixed with human persons, are common in medieval iconography.
The botanically derived fruits and structures that tend to appear in relation to human effort are less so.
The disembodied, broken soul, light seeking, earth bound, its thorned fruit.
The child is placed in time. But let’s not put a bow on it, Bosch says.
And releases Jerome, for a moment, from the flood.