Vanitas with Negro Boy (17th century, oil on canvas)
I’ll show you a bone made to hold on to. A pip. A dense fire in which once the thinking imagination sprawled like a breathing vine. He would put the skull on the table (And nearest to the worn flowers, sir, or nearer tothe flute?) turned just so so not to be too crude. That was the boy’s job, this cage with a debt in it (And whose boy am I, and what is my name?). Black erasing blackness, body and backdrop: you are not permitted to enter the question light asks of his skin as if it were a field, a mind, a word inclined to be entered. It’s true: his face, his boyhood even (And what is my boyhood, and where is it from?) would fade if not for the rope of attention yanked glittering across that face. Look. This is my painting, my version of the Dutch stilleven. I’m trying to write obsession into it, and can. Open your eyes. Don’t run. Vanitas, from the Latin, for“emptiness,” “meaningless”—but what nothing can exist if thought does, if the drawn likeness of a bone still exists? Why trust the Old Masters? Old Masters, never trust me. Listen: each day is a Negro boy, chained, slogging out of the waves, panting, gripping the sum of his captain, the head, ripped off, the blood purpling down, the red hair flossed between the knuckles, swinging it before him like judgment, saying to the mist, then not, then quietly only to himself, Thisis what I’ll doto you, what you dream I do, sir, if you like it.
89 The Paris-American
Rickey Laurentiis was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. He's the recipient of fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in Italy, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation, and a Chancellor’s Fellowship from Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his MFA. The author of the e-chapbook, Whipped, (Floating Wolf Quarterly), he has been a featured poet in the March 2013 issue of T, the New York Times Style Magazine, and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in several journals, including Boston Review, Callaloo, Fence, jubilat, Oxford American and Poetry.