Halfway to Toledo

[homage to El Greco and Nikos Kazantzakis]

by Martin Burke



Not night, not yet, yet I gather sight and speech to speak against the dark; night’s-owl that I am watchful from tree-branch and turret or battle-steeple; non-neutral observer, partisan of that radiant dark deeper than night roots into. Not night, not yet, yet what gathers against me is already gathered -tidal pressures, red coral resisting the biting salt-waves.  Death is patient and we are marked -but it is not night, not yet



That it should be so and not other is good. That it should be unknown before it is known  (Surprise waiting to ambush me with delight) is true delight. Not one who knows the road before he steps onto it, who with a slate-clean and chalk-free mind, comes that it be filled to exquisite fulfilment and I be richer thereby; which in a poem would is a breath approaching utterance, or in a painting can be no other than standing before the Cretan who prefigures what we know in equal measure with what we infer.

What do I know? What do I infer? Why do I cherish empty space walked into for the first time? And the satisfying difficulty of standing before his Dream of Philip II in a manner no foreknowing can condition. Yet of such (and moments equalling this) let there be abundance, and if clouded peaks are not visible in the Pyrenees then I will see them where I will -but this, this king’s dream –what is it?

His? Ours? Some other implied beyond the frame but pertinent to it? And if elsewhere cherished heavens are open why is the whale of hell an equal presence? And which is the focus of this royal eye? And who inherits such Greek and Spanish grandeur now that we are spectators rejecting that we are participants though we are prefigured here and elsewhere to ourselves -the whale’s eye eying the nuclear core and its attendants, hell’s crimson gullet open before it mutated into Hiroshima fire (As was always its intention) the painter’s eye prophetic, we his attendant necessities that we see what we are nor turn denyingly away?

No unknowings now. Yet run but the image follows (The mirror is empty and will remain so) a shadow you can’t shake off nor outpace. There at your side, there before you, there behind you, stopping when you stop, running when you run –the shadow you can’t shake off nor outpace

A country behind and a country ahead: crossed shadows like swords on a crest displayed to warn-off intruders that we are not to be toyed with but also to show that strange annunciation where even God Himself is whale-engulfed and we like-wise are seeped and transfigured -but into what transfiguration?

His world our world, where we are witness and participant; geometric forms approaching pure abstraction held in an epiphany like clouds on a crest of shadows, swords and flame

The nuclear eye to the nuclear form eternal, unforgiving and unwavering (no coy refuge in a mannerists’ art) but the sparse, pared-down soul-nudity of a Cretan’s steady gaze at the shifting world.



Soul is memory

Composite form

A necessity unto ourselves

Beyond which we have nothing  to offer

Are human because we would be more

By which, with unremorseful laughter,

We might laugh at the abyss.


For (and from) such numinous nudity

Our breaths approach utterance,

Intractable but without malice

Like voices saying

Long life to you on the earth of Greece and Spain



Only the crickets broke the silence of the mountain air, and then there was silence in which that rock-formation was an outline of mummified star-gazers unable to look at the stars; the landscape beyond them inferred by distant lights, the pleasing dark embracing me, bringing his voice to my table


Who told you I was digging for art?

 I shatter every form created to show the Cry within which cries

I am a worm –grant me wings!

Domenikos and Nikos -two names become one name, minds fused to one mind so whose voice was speaking on the wind where no other voice was speaking the irrefutable cry at the heart of the world and its fire?


Earth-mole into silk-worm weaving

Flowers on the dung-heap’s fermentation

Landscape as sacred desolation

The inhuman cry that would be human so as to cry again

Soul that makes us human to ourselves.

Bright flame from mouth to mouth

Another might light his flame by

That the murderous become the marvellous

The slaughter-house become the sanctuary

Fire in the eye by whose light I write here on the vine-laced terrace


Heat of the Pyrenees

Like a weight to be carried to an unspecified destination

Was already too much for me


What then is the weight of an art

Carried from Crete to Toledo

And set above the city as a judgement


Or do I misunderstand

Mistaking the haze for the horizon

The fire as death’s harbinger


When it was Pentecostal  –

Gift to the city transmitted to time

A weight to be carried some steps before we fall?



Predict the future by understanding the present

See a shadow extend across the rising slope of a field

Follow as far as you can with your eye

Then close your eye to see what you cannot

Mesh with it in love’s divine obscurity



After three days of mountain air

And unchanging sameness

I wanted to be away


Darkness fell too sharply and suddenly

And I could not resolve

The arrogance of the landscape with the sweetness of its fruits


I had come for this

Yet part of me was holding it at arm’s-length

Like an offer of love too tempting to acknowledge



In the shade I scribbled and imagined abstract shapes and forms too cunning to be held by whatever skill I could call up. Yet to work within limitations was not enough to answer his challenge where his forms grew from rock and sky and his eye alight with fire -as mine was with that dancing flame I could not hold nor name



Pining for Flemish rain

As much as that child with his plastic wind-mill

Pined for the absent wind


My heat-fever passed -the morning was cool and I could see for miles -clouds’ puffed-whiteness as he would have painted them, where I felt to be his representative come to witness and acknowledge such necessary beauty until he would come

Where the day was waiting –not to be justified by pronouncement but vivified in a second life conditioned by yet outliving the first

I holding my ground (though it was not my ground) keeper of landscape and sky-scape albeit for a while till the clouds be relieved of their sentinel duty when he, the Cretan, would come



This cannot be but is -and thus we are abstract and representational in the world we occupy

Quiet at the world’s disquiet yet calmly he paints the evening air, drapery folds telling a human anguish, angles and flame-like forms speaking a narrative not otherwise told, colours delivering themselves to interior conclusions without requiring our approval. Then enter these dark auroral lines and plummet like a plumb-line to their core. Speak only what is allows you by that art’s permission and never by whim as you step back to the world he paints with such disquiet and care and in the gathered light become his heir


Where the light gathered seamlessly

Two fields from the door I looked from

Was itself a place of light


Holding my eye (and thus my mind)

To a world which said I am


After which there is only repetition and substitution

Lesser indications

Fingers pointing in a direction we hope

Another might contemplate, or follow


And what if he does and what if he does not-

How will that add or take from the world?


Where the light gathered was two fields away

Yet the place I looked from suffered nothing of a dwindling –

Was sub-text of a vivid text

Seamless shadow cast by seamless light


Cherish the Way (writes Tsung Ping) respond, clarify the mind, note objects and forms; the landscape of earth is the landscape of every heaven, virtue allows you to walk there by insight, wisdom is a good brother in this. But the lovers, the true lovers, are led solely by its form(s) because even my faltering words which fall among rocks because they are not enough may be some help to others. Thus let the eye give forms their form, appearances their appearance –for the mind is true brother to the eye and so eye and mind approve. Done skilfully the spirit divine is felt and truth attained in a painting



This world my joy, and the homeland not beautiful but harsh, austere form –and that is its beauty; where at the crossroads of three continents  alluvial mud was shaped to naked splendour. And the past a wind blowing over the mind, a wind full of colour with a pulse, also with harsh and beautiful demands because beauty struggles to be beauty against the opposition of history and oppressors –

Wheel-hub of radiant spokes where humankind is kept alive, earth and stones absorbing blood, forming a clay the old ones made their houses from, into which we were born to an inheritance asking no permission to lodge in us.

And the wind penetrates past our bones to the deep within as it might in a saint’s ecstasy of a liberating frenzy and death is familiar not feared and salvation begins at the peak of despair as you drink the precious waters of the homeland


Then what of the living and what of the dead

And those newly gone among them?

I am ill but that is minor –

A clumsy patient doctoring to myself

Yet this isolation fortifies me –


Necessities’ vagabond, industrious hermit

Look-out from the crow’s nest

Of this and many a turbulent city;

My mind a wind-gauge

My eyes unflinching at the new brutality

As forerunner of the new beauty

(Minotaur is pounding the earth and we are his children)


So, do I come with a banner of peace?

I do not

Do I come with a sword?

I do

Merciless and banishing love

That love may return unsullied

Where the icons of Christ are faced to damp walls

From which the paint is peeling.


And so they clash –the hunger, vice, and cynicism

Against those students singing outside my window

As if by a song they might leads us to the great dance


So what is my joy? This world is my joy –

Meeting it head-on with a strong breath

And bliss in the absence of hate;

And if there is wretchedness on earth

There is none in my heart

So that even death can be faced with a tranquillity

That might kindle hearts, unite common concerns

Bring brethren souls together

Like a baptist in the desert announcing a redeemer

So that our agony will not die that the soul not die

When the body falls.


So what news of the living and what of the dead

Here where the ground is ripe for their enrichment?

The earth a vineyard become battleground

Yet in this responsibilities begin


So what are we –two-legged crawlers of vice and song

Destroyers and builders

A contradiction to ourselves and the stars

Some furnace-fire attracting us

Promethean in our thoughts

But the species crucified to a rock

And what further appointments are waiting

Under the ruined moon?


But the older fire still burns  –pristine Greece

Not beautiful but harsh and that is its beauty;

As slowly like a butterfly I translate what I am

Into what I must be –

Caterpillar I for the sake of my country

But not my country only

And not for the gods of any creed which says

I am but you are not


The new élan rooting in the human forge –

Divine and horrifying in marvellous chaos

God the merciless fire advancing through mud and blood

By some invisible breath

And not even hope halting it within us for a moment –


So where should I live but in the reality of my time

And where find my responsibility

But in flame-opened song-lines

And with what should I cooperate

But the surviving powers of light

To advance man’s burdensome destiny

A little

So that if my grief is deep my joy is also –


Homeland and freedom surviving through those

Who exult for the light



What does the Burial of the Count of Orgaz tell us about Guernica?

It tells us death is various, multi-faced, a salvation or damnation but that it is always death

That bombs descend as quick as saints but not to the same intent

That heaven and hell exist on earth as they no doubt do in whatever heaven or hell is there for our credulity or disbelief

That for every mending there is a shattering

That the cry of man or beast in pain is the self-same howl

That the world may be fractured beyond repair

That every weight has its counter-weight, echo its counter-echo, that of both there are believers and doubters

That the world breaks down under the weight of hate but rises by the yeast of love

That sorrow is endless and ancient and new

That we are also shattered birds with broken feathers

That what we see in colour is also possible in black and white and grey

That Spain is our crucible (if we be Greek enough to see it)

That whatever seeps into the earth colours the earth and daubs our eyes with its tints

That what has happened before will happen again and already, somewhere, is

And the View of Toledo –where do we place this, not just in history but within the liniments of ourselves?

Ah yes, the indefinable answer because no answer is final

The colours accusing and consoling

The sky telling of things which are and which will be

The various greens and the various blues

The absence of a single figure –the singular one I expect to see on the ridge whenever I see this painting

The swath of clouds befitting the St Francis series

The judgement and the challenge

The fierce pride of execution and the serenity of achievement

The painting contradicting then reconciling itself to itself

Nor passive observation permitted

The spontaneous cry of the eye which says City my city

The answering voice which says Yes!

And in the Disrobing of Christ we are all rendered naked

Nor do we understand the Breaking of the Fifth Seal (no more than we do the preceding four)

For we are, again, where we ever will be -on the ridge above Toledo seeking Toledo light



Tell the story twice by telling it once to the two worlds and those listeners, show how meaningless a border is by showing how it can be crossed, show the land of the dead to also be the land of the living, choose one without denying the other

And history meets the private intention disguised as public fact in the story within the story, and the painterly eye crafting its tenets within the Inquisitional city so that by telling it once it is told twice and Philip’s departure from Toledo a  turning away from The radiant intellectual capital of Europe towards a churchly totalitarianism


Then earth-mole into silk-worm weaving

Flowers on the dung-heap’s fermentations

Bright flame from mouth to eye

To many another mouth and eye

Of the flame within the flame

(Ah my sweet heretic it is thus that I love you)

Showing a mind’s isolation so as to show

Its many moving waters


And of that rainbow-will let there be celebration (As there is and will be here and many an elsewhere) and the city be grey to outward appearance if the eye be monochrome though fire burns within the ramparts and the forges

So come, let us be the city’s subversives –the enemy within because we are its lovers, our soul’s dark not of a dark conceit but of that auroral deep so deep only light can reside there

Sowho told you I was digging for ‘art’?

Holding my breath before the Burial, releasing it thereafter in sigh and celebration and the possible dream found only in the impossible dream (As Cervantes could have told him had they met)

And if one man sailed from Crete a second followed and they became brothers and Odysseus becomes Everyman

The god-flame fades but new hands stoke old fires with firing rods and brandishing irons -so who then is Christ or Buddha to his time but the transdental man of necessity and pilgrimage?

God-fire only in a living word or the paint’s extension from the first world to the second to beat the god-killing force down

Thus out of Crete two brothers sailed to beguile us with their eyes and pilgrim-notes


And the flesh transmuting

And the spirit transmuting

Dark reason becoming dark matter and mass

Furnace-flame and seed-house

Dream’s doorway

Surgical renditions we cannot refute


For we are on the canvas, terrified and enchanted, or are the solitary figure on a drifting ice floe drifting….


Their eyes hold our eye to no other possibility –workers in an unlit mine, midnight’s breath trembling us (Are we leaves some hand brushes aside to see the mountains more clearly?) defying the anarchy of night with god-anarchy as our goodly weapon (Pounding on the walls till truth appears?) being commanded thus to Turn sunward to Crete beyond illusions and phantoms for Freedom and holy isolation

So Who told you I was digging for ‘art’?

And the rock-shapes disturbing

Stirring us to some half-recognition

We must complete within ourselves

Or be the lost lords of a sunken city,

His moon is above us

For he would have us translunar

Lunar to sunward, ascent and transformation, eye to his eye, mouth to mouth pressed, one story told twice –murderous and marvellous, slaughter-house and sanctuary, the disquiet evening air painted orderly and held. Incompatible contradictions, things that cannot be yet here by pain and page Are in ecstasy and aspirationbecause it should be so and not other



An ending? No

A pause? Perhaps

But not a conclusion


Domenikos and Nikos holding me

As one mind holds another

But there is much I do not understand

Two voices become one

When two minds became one mind

Thus no endings but half-way conclusions

Map-marks and directional arrows

Always towards Toledo

And towards Toledo light


Two brothers left Crete

And have entered my mind

As one cone of flame

To burn insistently

With a flame’s prerogative


Halfway conclusion


Tentative arrangements

But no more than that

When half-way to Toledo



In whatever light

The second half lives

My shadow will fall behind me.





Halfway to Toledo

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