Friday, May 6, 2011

"How to Paint a Ceiling" by Rachel Claff

I wrote this poem for The Encyclopedia Show: Creation Myths, a special version of The Encyclopedia Show staged as part of Great Books Chicago 2011. The Encyclopedia Show's creators, Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney, pick an encyclopedia topic every month (other topics have included the periodic table, punctuation, spices, and flightless birds) and assign local artists to create original pieces on various subtopics. The final product is a "living encyclopedia entry" made up of spoken word, music, art, and multimedia performance.

I was given the subtopic of Michelangelo's Creation of Adam (in the Sistine Chapel). While I was trying to find an entry point into the topic, I came across a wonderful book called Michelangelo: A Life on Paper by Leonard Barkan, which thoughtfully details the many intersections between Michelangelo's writing and his artwork. Often, Michelangelo would "doodle" artwork while writing poems; other times, he would write lines of poetry on sheets of paper covered with practice sketches. Toward the end of the book, Barkan analyzes a sheet on which Michelangelo has written a rather heartbreaking poem to someone who has passed away, and instead of finishing the poem, he breaks off mid-line and sketches a hand, pointing at where the final words should be. This mysterious pointing hand and the powerful, focal hands of God and Adam in The Creation of Adam, were the inspiration for my piece.

How to Paint a Ceiling

Begin with the hands. Sketch knuckles and nails,
scratch half-curled fists on errant scraps.

Begin with the hands because they are the hardest thing,
Because Domenico made you practice them
in oil, in chalk, in clay, in stone,
Roughing out the hard lumpy buds of fists
until they finally blossomed;

Because at Santo Spirito you once carved a crucifix
in exchange for time among the corpses at the hospital,
sketching the stilled fingers, the cold cupped palms,
until you learned to trade for warmer subjects,
ones with pink fingers that quickened your brush
and your breath.

Begin with the hands because
they are the only part of you
that does not ache or twinge;

High on the scaffold the sack of your body
dangles like an ugly chandelier, useless, throbbing,
and your bones bend heavy as dull brass—
but your fingers stay lit and flickering. All night
they sweep long strokes above your head
as your dim eyes roll back to watch them work.

Begin with the hands because lately your fate
has hinged upon them, the hands of others:

The sharp arrow of an index finger
peppering the air with privilege
while your own palms flatten in false supplication;

Or those same palms streaking carmine, indigo, cadmium
on the palette of your thighs as your assistants
flap hands like disappointed birds, fetch linseed and water,
insist that you clean yourself (as though
you could ever be truly clean);

Or the rough parenthesis that cups your cheek
and later, while you sleep, pockets your silver;

Or the fumbling fist wrapped around a sliver of red chalk
As you murmur patient praise, hoping
for those red fingers to reach out and print your skin
with hundreds of dim and dusty roses.

And how, when it was too late to tell him, you
pressed ink into paper, hard like penance,
flogging out lines of verse for him until you halted,
dumb and dry.

Instead you drew a hand.
Sketched knuckles and nails,
Scratched a half-curled fist in the margin,
A long finger stabbing the place
where the words curdled, where you didn’t dare.

Begin with the hands thinking regret, regret,
but then remember:

How he leaned close over the chalk-reddened paper
and paused, and paused—
leaving an exquisite ellipsis between you,
a space so possible and so perfect
that it transcended touch.

And how you hung there,
hovered there
in an ecstasy of waiting. And how you could have hung there

Then begin with the space.

Begin with the space he left between you,
that small distance between skin and skin.

Begin there
and the rest will follow:
fingers, palms, wrists,
the long swathe of arm
and everything else, everything else will be easy;
wide bold strokes radiating outward,
color and light and force fiercely wheeling around
that inch of nothing,
that pause in plaster,
that space between:

Begin there.
Begin with possibility,
that terrible,
wonderful thing.


  1. The writing is lovely, & your delivery during the show was moving. Thanks

  2. Very potent and moving imagery in your hand poem. Michelangelo has never seemed so real, so human.

  3. Your writing is very lovely. Rachel, your truly a talented person. I'm looking forward for more poems. Good Job!