Poem of the Week | February 01, 2016

This week we’re delighted to offer a poem from our new winter issue, 38.4. Sandra M. Gilbert has published eight collections of poetry, most recently Aftermath (2011) and among prose books Wrongful Death, Death’s Door, Rereading Women, and, in 2014, The Culinary Imagination: From Myth to Modernity. Eating Words: A Norton Anthology of Food Writing, coedited with Roger Porter, appeared in 2015. Gilbert is currently at work on a new collection of poems, Saturn’s Meal, and with Susan Gubar, she is coauthor of The Madwoman in the Attic and coeditor of The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, along with numerous other volumes: the two received the 2012 Award for Lifetime Achievement from the National Book Critics Circle.

Author’s note:

This poem is part of a series of ekphrastic/culinary poems–poems meditating on paintings of people eating or cooking–that were at least in part inspired by my recent book The Culinary Imagination: From Myth To Modernity (WW Norton, 2014). Needless to say, representations of Jesus and his disciples at the critical last supper, especially Da Vinci’s, are especially enthralling, & especially difficult to write about. I found some quotations from Da Vinci himself illuminating and even incorporated a few in the poem itself.


Leonardo Da Vinci’s Ultima Cena


In the great white barn of the refectory, where clicking
electronics speed blurs of color
around the world, all gazes still


converge on the youngish man with the madonna
face as he muses on future
treacheries, while


his comrades jostle, churn, exclaim,
at the edge of calamity:
one who has been drinking has put down his glass


and turned his head toward another. . . another
displays the palms of his hands and shrugs his shoulders. . .
struck dumb with amazement—


cry out but none distinguish the poor doomed
villain who moves so casually to dip


his hand in the dish of evil,
nor does the princely one inveigh against him though
slowly the event takes hold, the night wears on, the tempera


crumbles on the wall & the company
of the sacred floats high, inaccessible
behind the white bar of the supper table.


Below, their eyes straining, the humped monks
spooned up centuries of gruel
in holy silence.


(Note: comments in ital. from Leonardo)