Chagall Before the Fall
The artist half-floats on dreamt air,
holding aloft a three-prong candelabrum;
an autumnal ash, lit from within, points heaven-ward.
The bride and her groom soar, too, as in dreams,
her white train like a comet’s tail -
a long cloud anchoring her to firm earth.
A peacock-fiddler and cockerel silhouette the blue sky;
below, a domed-and-crossed-church;
the tree holds a red carpet, high in its branches.
Did Chagall dream such a scene, or is this serene
structure for us to live his visions, through painted life?
The artist lives in dreams of couples, marriage, trees;
the animals of field and farm, his spirit heirs; soaring -
love and colour, his palette bright, soft, clear…
Vitebsk, from far-off Paris, painted with such vision…
Yet, for all its softness, its delicacy, its lightness of touch,
a threnodic note sounds like a bell through distant woods.
His wife, dead these four years, mourned, floats skyward,
slipping through his fingers as surely as any comet around the sun.
What melancholy could he not express, if he painted parody,
no longer aspiring to prayer, or the highs and lows of loss?
Chagall, bereft, outlived Bella by forty summers; each year
her wraith spins aloft like mist burning in the sun.
No revolutions left, only memory - the thick padding of painted oil.
Marc Chagall – The Tree of Life, 1948.
The author is indebted to Kay Larsen’s review in The New York Magazine, 27 May 1985, for the title of this poem.