El Greco: Espolio

Original Text: 
Earle Birney, Selected Poems 1940-66 (Toronto and Montreal: McClelland and Stewart, 1966): 18. PS 8503 I75A1 1966 Robarts Library
2on the awl and the trick of pinpointing his strength
3through the awl to the wood which is tough
6His skill is vital to the scene and the safety of the state
7Anyone can perform the indignities It's his hard arms
8and craft that hold the eyes of the convict's women
9There is the problem of getting the holes exact
10(in the middle of this elbowing crowd)
11and deep enough to hold the spikes
12after they've sunk through those bared feet
13and inadequate wrists he knows are waiting behind him
14He doesn't sense perhaps that one of the hands
15is held in a curious gesture over him --
16giving or asking forgiveness? --
17but he'd scarcely take time to be puzzled by poses
18Criminals come in all sorts as anyone knows who makes crosses
19are as mad or sane as those who decide on their killings
20Our one at least has been quiet so far
21though they say he talked himself into this trouble
22a carpenter's son who got notions of preaching
23Well heres a carpenter's son who'll have carpenter sons
24God willing and build what's wanted temples or tables
25mangers or crosses and shape them decently
26working alone in that firm and profound abstraction
27which blots out the bawling of rag-snatchers
28To construct with hands knee-weight braced thigh
29keeps the back turned from death
30But it's too late now for the other carpenter's boy
31to return to this peace before the nails are hammered


1] El Greco: nickname of Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), Greek painter of the Spanish Renaissance. His "El Espolio" ("The Disrobing of Christ"), painted 1577-79, hangs in the Cathedral of Toledo. Birney and his wife Esther saw an exhibit of the artist's works in France in 1953 (Elspeth Cameron, Early Birney: A Life [Toronto: Viking, 1994): 408-09). Back to Line
4] despoilings: thievery. Back to Line
5] the dice: the soldier who crucified Christ threw dice to see who got his clothes. Back to Line
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
Special Copyright: 

© the Estate of Earle Birney. This poem is protected by Canadian copyright law. RPO is grateful to Madam Justice Wailan Low, the executor of Earle Birney's literary estate, for permission to publish. Anyone wishing to reprint this poem must seek permission in advance from the Birney estate.