Feature: On Caravaggio, The Clash and dilemmas

R.A. Villanueva suggests a range of sources for exploring the theme of the spring 2017 members’ poems competition: dilemma

Of course Caravaggio is at home there in the dark of the basement. Of course you ride the lifts down at the National Gallery, London, to see his paintings in that luminous murk – that shade-thick circuit running through ‘The Taking of Christ’ and out into the grim phosphorescence of ‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’. And yes, it’s only fitting that the exhibition’s last turn invites you into a dimly lit theatre to watch slow pans across the Contarelli Chapel in Rome, its illuminations of life and death, of “Do I go or not? Do I follow him or not?”

I’ve been pinned to those questions for weeks now. Not just because the National Gallery’s exhibition Beyond Caravaggio is a haunted and visceral survey (it is); and not just because I’ve watched that short film of Rector François Bousquet in Rome reflecting on ‘The Calling of Saint Matthew’ over and over again on YouTube (I have). The truth is, those kinds of questions feel amplified and ever-contemporary, inescapable and inexhaustible. Like Caravaggio’s work, like “To be, or not to be” and “Should I cool it or should I blow?”, they are urgent and unsettled. They speak to the risks laced into everything that matters.

So rooted in all that, here’s what’s on my mind: paradox and revelation, tension and confrontation, intimacy and chiaroscuro, double-binds and daring. In other words: dilemma.

Consider this an open invitation to court contradiction, to explore the unresolved (and unresolvable). To wonder aloud. To go ahead and dare to disturb the universe. To let a plumb line down into the danger and to reckon with it.

For fear of being too prescriptive and to let you get to writing, a final couplet:

1. Here are poems that mean more and more (to me) each day: ‘Ghazal for Becoming Your Own Country’ by Angel Nafis; ‘Bringing the Shovel Down’ and ‘Again’ by Ross Gay; ‘M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School’ by Philip Levine; ‘Look’ by Solmaz Sharif; from “The Black Maria” by Aracelis Girmay

2. From visual artist Maskull Lasserre, thoughts on uncertainty and discovery: “Relationships that are easily harmonised, ideas that have completeness in my mind, don’t need my intervention in the material world. The things that are unclear but resonant, the relationships that only reconcile through motion and matter, these are things that need to be made… I try to hold open a moment of jeopardy.”

Visit the members’ poems competition page for full details on entering the competition.

Judge: R.A. Villanueva

R.A. Villanueva’s debut collection of poetry, Reliquaria (Univ. Nebraska Press, 2014), won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. His work has appeared in Prac Crit, Poetry, The American Poetry Review, Guernica, The Wolf and elsewhere. His honours include a commendation from the 2016 Forward Prizes, fellowships from Kundiman and the Asian American Literary Review, and the inaugural Ninth Letter Literary Award. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he lives in Brooklyn and London.

The exhibition Beyond Caravaggio continues at the National Gallery, London, until 15 January 2017.

This article was first published in Poetry News, Winter 2016/7. © The Poetry Society and the author.