Charles Cantalupo

Editor's Preface:

To isolate one detail from Charles Cantalupo’s ekphrastic poem: 

Drawing the moment of stillness when the insect and reptile 
Caught by the glistening fruit catch my eye drawing in my mind

The stillness produced here seems to be a kind of equilibrium where the expression turns back upon the force that expresses it, where will and expression seem to switch places, to inhabit the other’s space, and in doing so, create space. In this act of consumption, the thing that is represented overtakes the one who does the representing

An image, for Cantalupo, is perhaps this: what straddles the boundary between the “here” and the “there,” something both present and absent, investing those terms with meaning, creating a dynamic process, a vicious, even cannabalistic circle, that maintains space, but that also maintains the consciousness of being in life.

Perhaps the poem is less a self portrait, a notion which establishes a clear line between the representation and that which would be represented, then it is a picture of creation itself, out of which the portrait forms itself before our eyes, and which gives form and life to its creator: a paradox by which an image precedes it being by giving it form: the movement perhaps, of meaning itself.

Only the images matter.  What they really represent?
I don’t know.  Only the images.  What’s there.  Or not.  That’s me

"Images" permit a dialogue between what is there and what is not, the here opening up out of itself. There is an exchange that takes place in the image that seems to be able to contain the absence, the uncreated, the fragmentation of an unfinished world. Because seeming is everything; seeming is in between here and there: nothing really makes sense until it becomes an image, until it takes on some nothing.

“The universe would not exist if we did not create it,” writes Paul Fournel. The danger against which this perhaps daring poem warns is not just in the interdiction of images, but in the refusal of the meaning that is found in images, the refusal of their tradition: the destruction of the equilibrium between the one who sees and the thing seen: the end of seeming, of possibility. Possibility: the space between things, the demi-thing that opens the world up to the uncreated, and that makes room for creation before the world gets destroyed by its own fragment.

The destructive scene that Cantalupo offers us as the poem begins, becomes a ruse as it gets placed, turned into image, when the background appears in the second stanza, the one that begins with “still:” a word that holds over, tells us what is already there, and helps us to discover ourselves there amidst it. It is that background out of which the discourse of the poem seems to emerge, out of which the images get created, out of which the writer himself seems to emerge. 

And the writer is the one who creates the world, the minor hero who creates the world by living, and that perhaps less minor hero who re- creates the world by seeing it; as this image complex builds on itself and creates the thickness of our experience. Where is the protection then, as a new (perhaps not really new, but still always new as death is always new) force comes, from in-from beyond-the painting?  From an image that does not know it is an image?

“And as the words heal,” writes Jack Spicer, “I didn’t mean the real God.” We find in this poem something similar: the universe re-creating itself in the act of an impossible contemplation.

                                                 -Noam Scheindlin



Self Portrait (Artist Unknown, Florence, ca. 1471)

Death cults and mothers who lick their dead sons’ wounds.  All sides have them.
Weapons shoot point blank.  The beaten, pale corpse God to be worshipped,
Bloodshed and cruelty venerated, beauty demolished –
What else is new?  Not the slaughter of the innocents, killers
Wading through bodies and swilling blood to nothing except force,
Prospects of force, and no other comfort sweeping us away.

Still, there’s a background:  that orange grove and foxes in the fields….
Minor, heroic, not major – even minor when major,
As in the everyday, whatever hounds chasing the prey; 
One story after another, more and more to be revealed –   
Constant, continual, taking long and many times to see:
Images – all I do, et iterum…over and over.

What is unrecognized in the too familiar I find here?
What was it forty-three years ago I saw as a young man?
What is it now that I’m old?  Come back and still wanting to see?
Only the images matter.  What they really represent?
I don’t know.  Only the images.  What’s there.  Or not.  That’s me – 
What I believe, minor figure not quite lost in the background.

War or at peace, man or woman, God or nature on its own;
Only their images made by someone, sometimes even me,
Seem to reveal what they are a lot more than they can themselves:
Images so true I want to kneel and do, beholding them
After what feels like a lifetime, maybe two, and I’ve come back – 
She who gives birth to the one God, still here, healing as ever:

Vulnerability, presence, and devotion her technique.
Images pour out like flowers from her mouth instead of words.
Giving, receiving, returning, bliss and wondering so deep,
All I can find is a gesture:  “Can you hold that a moment?”
Where is my gold sky and blue with joy and cries of light torn through?
Scrolling back to the beginning from the judgment’s point of view,

Let me make animals as a lonely animal in them – 
Come back to life when I’m young – and any other sacred thing
Equally recognized:  green and spirit totaling water;
Peacocks and rabbits born out of any geometric lines;
Drawing the moment of stillness when the insect and reptile 
Caught by the glistening fruit catch my eye drawing in my mind:

Reading it like an old book well worn and marked with lots of work…
Basic, familiar as bread – I mean the kind that is enough,
Feeding the sparrows and finches, too:  enough that drawing them,
I get confused as if they are drawing me in tangled vines,
Garlands and pastoral landscapes all to one mysterious
Scale comprehensive and easy as a glass of wine to drink.      

Maybe too easy?  A “come to me in bed” down the road from
Blossoming handfuls and waving palms as far as I can see,
Three thousand years of the local cultivation to consume,
Certain to end in an absolute catastrophe and soon? 
What’s in the bowl by that beauty?  A decapitated head?
Yes, must I say it again that only images matter?

What they’re of?   Who can control or really change without a 
“Thou shalt not make to thyself a graven thing, nor the likeness?”
It would destroy me.  Without my images, I have no God.
I have no way to survive the beauty – much less what is not.
I might as well be beheaded, and my family with me,
If they’re not sold into slavery, raped and starved to death or burned. 

I might as well be thrown off a roof without my images.
Otherwise seeing the martyr roll her eyes in prayer as she
Unsheaves the scimitar from her open dress…what would I do?
What will save you from the executions…when all sides have them:
Banners all black with a scrawl I translate into “Time Does This,”
Charging that eye contact with a hand draped loosely on the throne

Must mean “Iniquity” and “Impure” to justify one saint
Crushing his heel in the face of someone else’s saint, although
Both read the same book on circumcising dogs or not?  Save me,
Images and my lush colors from this one reality:
Generals scouring the landscape of all life since they’re lonely.
This world and she who gives birth to one God – no other I draw.

Liberta, Magdalen, Francis, Stephen, Catherine, Lucy,
Fabian, Damian, Cosmos, Agnes, Agatha, Martha,
John, Anastasia, Thomas, Paul, Perpetua, Gervase,
Mary, Cecilia, Clare, Sebastian, and Felicity;
Massacres, elderly, children, corpses, breastfeeding women,
Trapping and ravaging, crucifixions, and millennial

Storms of my images – nothing more indulging the moment
For an eternity – silk scarves nailing me to the true cross.
Not mere reality but the millefleur of my images,
Whether they float or are floated in the swastikas of fear,
Overcomes force with compassion, sorrow – purging any tears
Whether the images matter or what they might represent.


Charles Cantalupo’s memoir, Joining Africa – From Anthills to Asmara recounts his years of literary work in Africa, particularly in Eritrea from 1995-2005. His newest book will appear in Spring 2016, Where War Was. His translations of Eritrean poetry include We Have Our Voice, We Invented the Wheel, and Who Needs a Story, and he has written War and Peace in Contemporary Eritrean Poetry. He conceived and co-chaired Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century, a seven-day conference devoted to African languages and literatures held in Asmara, Eritrea in 2000. He also is the writer and director of the documentary Against All Odds about the project and a co-author of the historic “Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.” He has books on Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Thomas Hobbes, and two collections of poetry – Light the Lights and Anima/l Woman and Other Spirits. Cantalupo is Distinguished Professor of English, Comparative Literature, and African Studies at Penn State University. His poem “Self Portrait, Artist Unknown, Florence, ca. 1471,” like “Non-Native Speaker,” also in Warscapes, is from a book in progress, Minor Heroics. Rooted in everyday language and experience, the poems of Minor Heroics are written in a variation of English hexameter based on classical heroic or dactylic hexameter. The poems originate in global conversations, equally desirous of the foreign and / or local within a cultural construct of correspondences not polarities within European, African, and American contexts – yet always on a continuous axis of minor heroic hexameter lines.  


Feature Image:

Anselm Kiefer, The Shape of Ancient Thought, 2012
Electrolysis on photographic paper on lead
307x440x4 cm
©Anselm Kiefer
Photo: Charles Duprat
Courtesy Lia Rumma Gallery, Milan/Naples