In the midst of a great forest

Armando Morales, oil on canvas (click to enlarge)

Armando Morales (1927–2011) was an internationally renowned Nicaraguan artist, a contemporary and friend of the poets, Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Martínez Rivas.

Morales was famous for his voluptuous still lives, in particular, sensual studies of apples and pears that evoked the softness of human skin. He later moved on to the painting of the female form, and in 1971, at the Galeria Bonino in New York, he showed a series of stunning nudes in which the fine detail of every muscle, of every inch of skin, reveals an unsurpassed sensuality.

I visited Armando at his studio in Vauxhall many years ago during a brief period he spent in London. On that day he was preparing a huge canvas, and in the course of our conversation many times he climbed a ladder to access the top of the canvas. In one hand he held a magnifying glass and in the other a razor blade, poring over the surface in search of the most minute imperfections, meticulous to a fault.

I have chosen his beautiful woodland study to illustrate the poem below, the title of which is based on the opening line of Dante’s Inferno.

In the midst of a great forest

What treasures I have amassed
        are immune to fire and theft
though I have indeed known loss
        loss of the body and loss of the soul
and live now in a quiet space
        catching the drift of birdsong
of the splenetic spider that plays
        upon its frosty web
I can resist all things
        better than my own changeability
I breathe the air
        but do not breathe it all
I am not proud
        and know my place :
the moth and the fish-eggs
        are in their place too
so too the bright suns
        and the wide golden moon
that shone last night
        so too the phantom dawn
that creeps through the mist
        to smother dreams
What is palpable
        is in its place
What is impalpable
        is in its place
Whether we fall by ambition
        blood or lust
like diamonds we are cut 
         with our own dust
I seek the grail of laughter
        a life that will turn
upon the axle of devotion
        a kiss not singed
by the eventual flame

These are the lanes of death
        where our footfall falls
Here love is a moment
        and pain another
and our mutual friends
        are ash and dust
moth and termite
        here time runs amok
wields a thirsty blade
        cuts to the very bone

John Lyons