Dr Tom Masters

Unstill Life


‘He painted a Divine Love who subjugated the Profane…’


                                                                               ~ Giovanni Baglione, Life of Caravaggio




The City of Valletta, Malta, 1607



At first the light is subtle.

It doesn’t cut the skin,

doesn’t preach a definition.  Rather

it mates with the shadows,

too soft to be holy, smooth

like goats’ milk.


And I think, perhaps,

that here is peace.

The peace of not knowing

nor needing to know.  The peace

of abstraction you can’t understand. 


There are no angels here.

No apostles, no priests, no martyrs,

no whores.

This isn’t Jerusalem, Emmaus, or Cana –

            it’s not even Rome.

You can’t see Lazarus, Matthew, or Christ.

            There is no God.

At first the light is subtle.


Then it cuts the skin.

Its blade is almost tender like a mother’s

breast –

            it suckles out form.

And slowly there emerges,

from the strangeness of this cataract,

a semblance of  reality.

A painting of lines,

sinuous, knotting to the features of a man –

            a mirror-mask of pain.

You can almost taste the moisture of his


those bewildered, frightened, depths of light.

Taste the moisture of his eyes,

and know they catch your own.


Half-glimpsed, his veined hand twitches,

fumbles for a hold.

Fabric weaves like brushwork,

flows like velvet down the tautness

of his frame.

Each muscle screeches silence.

            And the blood is almost beautiful.



“If my Lord would keep still.

The light.

Thank you.”


Stupid sod. 

Why does he think he’s standing there? 

Alof de Wignacourt.

Alof the fucking bore

Still.  I like his money. 

I like his castle more.  Nice, thick walls. 

A man might almost be safe in here. 


Is anyone safe from God? 


At least he’s not the Pope.


I am tired of running. 

Running and running and running,

grinding the pigment of the earth.

You’d think I’d scrape some hole,

some deep forgotten nowhere

where life grows thin.

Some grave in which to hide. 

            As if I could hide.


There’re no graves for the living.

No shadows to caress the sunlit

            guilt of living.

There’s no redemption for the damned.

Everything I’ve done,

everything I am

is breathing,

will go on breathing,

breathing when my skeleton haunts

            my skin,

when worms make love to the sockets

of my eyes –

            a vain mortality. 


     So much for death. 

So much death.


Look at him. 

The Grand Master of the Order of St. John. 

Bred on worship. 

Fat with the poverty of Christ. 

Nice, isn’t it?


Where were you, my Lord

when God laughed at Milan?

People stinking in the fever

of their homes,

raw with the weeping sorrows

of their ‘sins’.


It’s said the city

reeked of prayer.  That from San Giovanni

to the Northern Gate

you could smell the pitiful stench of tears.


Their bodies drowned the river.

Skull-lit faces ghosting her light.

Dead eyes haunted by her waters’ sun.


I remember my father


            (I’m not sick, Michele)


sick in his eyes.  The drawn lines

cutting down into his face,

laughing at his skin.


You, my Lord…you stand rude

in your health.  Flesh

swelling your armour,

the cold comfort of your steel

a less tender kind of skin.


He died.


But of course he died.

They all died.  Go on dying.

And the pity of it is…I didn’t cry.

Couldn’t cry.  Not even when

they took him, shrouded, my father,

bereaved of light.  Even when

they took him I couldn’t cry.


“Quicker if you’re quiet, my Lord.”


And still.  For fuck’s sake,

stand still.  If the boy can do it,

why can’t you? 

‘Siege science’?  God…


That summer…  That summer,

when the lime trees sang down from Caravaggio,

their leaves stroking the ache of their fruit.

And the ripening shimmer of your thigh,

smooth in the grass,

soft with the dimpled kissing

of the breeze. 


Chiara.  My gypsy.  So far from Giotto.

The dirt of your hands etching your life,

stained fingers staining the motion

of the sky.


I remember the dark smell of your hair,

its black touch moistening the virgin earth,

trembling dew,

the warmth of your breath

blushing the sunlight…


So far away.



I wish I could sleep.

Each wakeful night

sweats black without the stars.

Faces on faces, dead like moonlight –

unholy ghosts breathing my room’s stale air.

            They all hate me. 

Baglione, Cesari…Tommasoni…yes…

and I know I should be sorry,

and I am sorry.

But it’s too late.


Where does it begin?

My heart?   My mind? 

Or in the movement of my hand? 

Painting is like touching,

but the touching is so cold. 

I can see the bodies in the canvas,

they spark and crack like a goldsmith’s forge…

But their terrible beauty

melts into nothing –

            the unfeeling masks

of Bacchus and Christ.


My life’s a rotting basket of fruit.

It ripens the eye, but turns the stomach –

each painful stroke

a testament for flies. 




To think my life has brought me here.

To you, my Lord

and all like you.  The rich.  The vain.

The fat.

Fear, my Lord…  It’s fear, my Lord

that teaches men to crawl, 

to barter, to worm,

to bastard their respect –

it’s fear, my Lord

            that whores them to deceive,

each smile, each kiss

the chancre of some dream –

it’s fear, my Lord –


And I am afraid.


Oh God, I am afraid.


My prayers choke through the darkness…

But God doesn’t listen.  He knows what

an evil thing I’ve done.

            There can be no light.

I’m like the Baptist, chained in the bowels

            of Judea –

my gory head Pope Salome’s prize.


Death loves me.

He is my muse.

I paint him and paint him, but he never leaves.

He’s been a boy with flowers,

a weeping girl,

Judith, Holophernes, a den of vice…

When I see him in my glass

he smiles my name.

He wears my skin and a crown of weeds.

Death loves me.


I must get back to Rome.

I need to breathe the Tiber’s rank, brown air.

I need to wash in her filth…yes…

‘cleanse’ my body of my immortal sins.


Even if I could go back

there’d be no peace.  There’s blood,

like memory, in every stone –

in each darkened turning

that lurks from the sun…


I remember Filli and Duto, grinning with wine,

the tang of their laughter

wounding the night.

  I remember how

we’d gutter through the streets,

through the drunk illumination

of a painted scream,

like sunken angels,

moist with guilt,

            the suck and thrust and stench of guilt

a fist of hunger

tears of glass




…the tenderness

of flesh and steel…



It’s always you.  My archangel.

My demon.


I can feel your laughter in my ear.

The licking tongues of Medusa’s hair,

teasing me


(Look, look)


And I know what I’ll see,

what I always see

when the light cries out




Then our faces merged by shadows –

pushing together,

tearing apart…  Our pulse

quickens…  And we

turn...  A single movement, smooth

yet sharp…  Lines kiss…

Agile words stretch into silence…

Judith screams…  Magdalene

weeps… Water glimmers

in a dark carafe…


The lizard bites.


As Tom reads from
Unstill Life