Home > Poetry > To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel
Translated from the Italian by Gail Mazur
Published: Thu Oct 15 1998
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
To Giovanni da Pistoia When the Author was Painting the Vault of the Sistine Chapel


I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
swollen up here like a cat from Lombardy
(or anywhere where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles the paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself,
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

And because I’m like this, my thoughts
are crazy perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

See what's inside AGNI 48

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564), Renaissance sculptor, painter, architect, and poet, painted the Sistine Chapel from 1508–1512.

Gail Mazur is the author of eight books of poetry, including Land’s End: New and Selected Poems (University of Chicago Press 2020), Forbidden City (University of Chicago Press, 2016), and They Can’t Take That Away from Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. Zeppo’s First Wife: New and Selected Poems (2005) won the Massachusetts Book Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She is founding director of the Blacksmith House Poetry Series in Cambridge, a center for the poetry community since 1973; serves on the Writing Committee of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown; and was visiting faculty in Boston University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing from 2016 to 2020. She has twice been a fellow in poetry at the Radcliffe Institute. She lives in Cambridge. (updated 10/2023)

Mazur’s The Common was reviewed in AGNI 42 by Jennifer Clarvoe.

Mazur’s They Can’t Take That Away From Me was reviewed in AGNI 54 by Peter Campion.

AGNI published A Tribute to Gail Mazur in AGNI 78.

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