The figures lengthen
like agonizing bodies on a wheel,
each flesh-spot shimmering in unnatural light;
yet it is light, dry-brushed and luminous in an ecliptic noon.
Snakes slide out of the shadowed rock
with their slim bellies bluish white,
too small to squeeze someone to death;
they kill with spews of poisonous breath,
stretching the bones under the tightened skin.
There must be many in that earth
under the town’s close hidden streets
sloping in spectral patches of magenta dirt,
the sky dark indigo like bruised lead,
no telling the living from the dying dead,
the colors strained into cross-torments of themselves.
Or maybe they have slithered out of the serpent clouds
or from the mud-gray towers amid a barren green
to which the horse returns, his labor done.
You cannot take the city by a trick. This isn’t Troy.
The blue Aegean is muffled in the frightened eyes,
far from the sunny ruses of the Cretan sun.
You can only stand and look, like the sidelong figures bound
in casual equipoise—Cassandra and Apollo? Adam? Eve?
Some grand inquisitors watching the penitents, their stories,
writhing on the ground,
hung high in darkened corridors
and inside chapel walls that gleam in lurid light the candles make
so we can see them flicker through the dark,
the monstrous unfinished work of snakes.
Editor’s note: The poem is based on Laocoön, the painting by El Greco. The painting (oil on canvas, 1610) may be viewed online.