Kathleen Heideman’s poem is a selection from her ekphrastic manuscript, “Work from the Permanent Collection”—named
a finalist for the Marianne Moore Prize and the Aldrich Museum Emerging Poet’s Award. Another poem from this
collection appears in the 2010 issue of Folio (American University).
there was a splash quite unnoticed/ this was Icarus drowning
—William Carlos Williams
Bruegel chose the moment when young legs
closed like a pocket knife into the waiting sea.
Later, someone called it a mundane disaster;
said, “it couldn’t have been helped,” the flash
of a diving bird that turned out to be a boy.
I say this: Whatever suffering there was,
you brought it to the scene yourself.
You chose to be the shepherd who watched clouds
while a hawk studied sheep from the tree.
You chose to be the sleeping sailor, heavy
in the crow’s nest of that harbor ship,
or the fisherman too busy with his worms.
You must have known by heart the plodding path
walked by a horse wearing leather blinders.
And the ploughman, how did he greet tragedy?
Why, he had laid down his dagger and moneybelt
in the shade, and would not leave them unwatched.
He was no hero, he ploughed without swerving
and let one foot step soft into the turned furrow.
And there, in the field already ploughed,
was a spot on the ground, a pale mound
which proved upon closer inspection
to be the white skull of an old man, settling.
If he noticed either sinking body
the ploughman merely shrugged:
the Dutch have a proverb: De ploeg gaat over lijken
—the plow passes over corpses.
He’d become accustomed to such mounds,
the hard sound leg bones make.
He’d merely lift the blade a bit, and urge
the horse with his whip, “push on.”
I knew his whip, and something of suffering.
I was the ploughman’s daughter Bruegel failed to notice.
I dried my little dress on a branch after the quiet rescue.
* After Pieter Bruegel’s painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1558.