LVII. On a Bodegón of Zurbarán

From carbon darkness, splendor! Light comes forth.
A painter knew the warm fidelity
Of lemons pointing east and west and north,
And praised the Thornless Rose’s purity.

Two silver patens, oranges enthroned,
A crown of blossoms and ascending leaves,
The rounded basket, finest that he owned,
Whose willow strands the painter’s brush now weaves.

An artist’s gift to the Immaculate,
Not one of image only, but of time;
The liturgy of those who meditate
On all creation’s order and its rhyme.

That cup of water. Take it, now, and drink,
Though all the world stops not to look… to think…


XIX. Scientia

In the amber days, when the pear-shaped lute
Beside the clock, the candle, and the skull,
Was placed, with its ribbons, strings down and mute,
Next to a mirror whose shine had grown dull,

Vanity herself would depose her mask
Upon her tattered table of delights,
With the lusterless jewels, the empty flask,
And every bauble time’s swift passing blights.

For, though life could be still, it was still life,
When men and women knew the proper worth
Of earthly things, and earth itself was rife
With heaven’s gifts to fill our spirit’s dearth.

Knowledge, bestow thy light upon the mind,
Lest pleasures waste and lucent trifles blind.



From Sonnets for Christ the King


Joseph Charles MacKenzie is the first and last American to win First Place in the Long Poem Section of the Scottish International Poetry Competition, Henry M. Austin Poetry Prize.

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18 Responses

  1. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Gautier, Nerval, and Baudelaire—the “writers of the Rue de Doyenné,” if you will, along with Banville—were profoundly engaged in the visual arts. Together, they developed the “transposition d’art” which is a direct borrowing of content and technique from the plastic arts for application in poetry. “La transposition d’art” is the proper term for the totally vague and pretentious term, “ekphrasis,” which I reject since it ignores the French refinement of this practice.

    The “Sonnets for Christ the King” contain at least two examples of “la transposition d’art.”

    Sonnet LVII, “On a Bodegón of Zurbarán” is a “transposition d’art” drawn quite specifically from a “bodegón” by the Siglo de Oro tenebrae painter Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), a masterpiece I had seen as a young man visiting the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles. A “bodegón” is a Spanish still life painting depicting items normally found at a “bodega,” a kind of old-world grocery store common in Spain at the time. The great Tenebrae Painters of the Siglo de Oro elevated what had been a merely decorative genre to a degree of spirituality and self-reflection unsurpassed in the history of art.

    Sonnet XIX entitled, “Scientia,” is based on a general appreciation of a seventeenth-century painting genre know as the “vanitas,” a kind of still life, or “nature morte,” employing symbols of vainglory, the swiftness of time, and human mortality. This sonnet contains a superb pun giving away that it is, indeed, a vanitas in poetical form.

    Please consider acquiring the Sonnets for Christ the King, performed by English actor Ian Russell, for your summer audiobook pleasure at:

    • Bob


      Great stuff! How about visualizing your poetry with moving pictures – like a video? Would love to see your work on YouTube or the like.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        It’s very true about the visual aspect of the Sonnets in general—and not necessarily just the “transpositions d’art..” Yes, there are a few people in different parts of the country who have asked to visualize them.

  2. Satyananda Sarangi

    Sir, images such as these are sheer delight. I have always cherished your sonnets. Perhaps, as per me, you are the best sonneteer at the moment. Everytime that I read you, it feels as though deep profound thoughts as flowers, fall onto my weary head from the heavens. They urge to go on. 🙂

    Best Wishes and Regards.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Dear Satyananda Sarangi,

      Perhaps it is because the sonnets are ultimately about Heaven that they have this effect which I also feel, because you and I are in the very same boat—two fellow readers of the Sonnets.

      There is so very little, practically nothing, of me in these poems that I relate to them in the same way as everyone else.

      Very often I think that I had been allowed to write the Sonnets for Christ the King not for any special virtue on my part, but for the opposite reason, because I am the one soul who most needed their consolation, their peace… For, my head is certainly as weary as any other on this earth. Probably I need the “flowers of thought” even more.

      All good wishes!

    • James Sale

      Yes, Satyanda, I agree, Joseph Mackenzie is writing the best sonnets at the moment – it’s not just the one or two, it’s the consistency across a whole spiritual cosmos that makes his work so startling and powerful. Of course, I have already seen these two in the full collection, and written a review, so I don’t want to say too much here – Mr Mackenzie, though, does deserve a full book on his work! – but, to take just the first one above, that final clinching couplet is just superb: That cup of water. Take it, now, and drink, / Though all the world stops not to look… to think… It does so many things all at one time: most remarkably, it makes us consider the painting of the water real – as if we could really drink it, such is the power of the artist. But simultaneously with that conceit, we have the deeper one: of the Communion where the wine becomes the blood, and everything is transfigured. Which lead on to that brilliant indictment of the world – not just that they don’t believe, but that they don’t ‘think’. And actually, I think that that is such a profound observation – people are too busy, too preoccupied, too emotional, too stupid, or too something else, and thinking is a burden we all want to avoid. But the artist has done it for us – if we will but look. Great work Mr Mackenzie, very great work.

      • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

        For readers, I highly recommend the comments of James Sale throughout the Society of Classical Poets. For, it was not only poetry that modernism attempted to destroy, but also the literary critique.

        What Sale offers in particular is the ability to draw meaning from detail, whereas the majority of contributors to this site lose themselves in a kind of myopia. These are the syllable counters, metrics meters, grammar police, and “scansionists,” if you will.

        But the whole art of the literary critique may be summed up in a French phrase I have always loved for its culinary quality: “To extract the marrow from the bone.” Sale consistently extracts the fullness of meaning from my poems, enlarging his discussion always to larger realms of thought.

        This is partly the result of his own poetic spirituality, partly the fruit of a fine education with many years of experience in the art of lyric verse.

        My message to the younger poets in particular engaged with this site is simply: As you read Sale’s commentaries, consider not only the art of writing, but the art of reading as well.

        The best poets are always the best readers—true men of letters, as opposed to mere mechanics of verse.

  3. J. Davis

    “Scientia” is a still life and a very carefully composed one. I can see the lute and the objects! The poem seems like a critique of the modern world.

  4. Joseph Charles MacKenzie

    Oh, most certainly—and I am very pleased that you were able to detect the pun which has been placed at the powerful “volta” or “turn” traditionally reserved for the ninth verse.

    “Scientia” is one of the intellective gifts of the Holy Ghost. The sonnet is part of a series on the Seven Gifts within the Sonnets for Christ the King.

    While “Scientia” is often translated in our Saxon dialect as “knowledge,” as a Gift it is not to be confused with knowledge in the simple sense of “information.” Rather, it is the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, what is pleasing as opposed to displeasing to God. As intellective, it is extremely powerful among the Gifts, as it indicates both the path to follow and the dangers to avoid in our earthly quest for heaven.

    But yes, the sestet contains a subtle critique of our modern tendency to entertain and distract ourselves to death as we cling to empty material things and allow ourselves to be blinded by crass sensationalism.

  5. David Watt

    These sonnets stand out to me as examples of what a sonnet should achieve. That being, vivid description, depth of meaning, and beauty of form.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      Thank you, David, for your very important comment.

      The modernists, in fact, created an alternative form of the English sonnet which they called the “contemporary sonnet” which simply amounts to fourteen lines of anything at all—any length, rhymed, unrhymed, any meter or no meter. It has destroyed lyric poetry.

      But even well before modernism’s Reign of Terror which, in my mind, began with the Beatniks, the Shakespearean form of the sonnet was considered “unsophisticated,” “passé,” “uncultured.” Even our best American sonneteer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was brilliant in the English form, considered the Italian or Petrarchan form more literary and cosmopolitan.

      Even those who pretend to practice the English form tend to distort it with modernist content and quite a number of formal modifications.

      So, the question for me, a sonneteer who absolutely believes in the English sonnet, was simply this. If I were to write the Sonnets for Christ the King using Shakespeare’s form in it purity (granted even Shakespeare deviates from his own idiom from time to time), but without slavish imitation, indeed, if I were to push the very limits of the form in a way which is purely aesthetic and for a theological end, would it, could it, work?

      And I think, following your comment, that the answer is a resounding yes. And what I have found is even more remarkable. I do not know, at this stage of my life, that Shakespeare’s sonnet form actually has any limits. In the Sonnets for Christ the King, there is every conceivable use of this form: dramatic, ascetic-mystical, theological (dogmatic and moral), narrative, ekphrastic, elegiac, amatory, and much, much more. Some of the sonnets are outright prayers. There are all the Catholic liturgical forms represented: hymns, sequences, antiphons.

      But none of this has anything to do with me. One has merely to place one’s confidence in Shakespeare’s wonderful innovation, trust it, enter into its music, befriend it in all humility, and let it have its way that you may have yours.

      • Charles Southerland

        You have my ear if you mean the rending vats full of free verse drivel which has been spilled and spewed, permeating the very air we breathe.

        You’ve lost me though if you mean we should go back to horse and buggy. I suspect most formal poets today are Modernists. If by your definition of contemporary sonnets as modernist verse, count me guilty as charged. Fully 90% of the poetry I write are sonnets, Shakespearean, Petrarchan, Spenserian and combinations of those forms. There are over a hundred forms of the sonnet now in play, most of which I don’t ascribe to. I use substitutions from time to time, inversions too. Sometimes my meter is tortured, but no more so than Donne’s.

        I see a lot of thees and thous around here and I am pleased to see it, however, I know of no one who talks like that in real life, so for me, communication has some importance here. I see some poets in some journals who could care less about regular established meter, resolving instead to wrench the language so that their emotionally politically driven poems will make sense instead of adhering to some semblance of regular meter. That bothers me more than just about anything. If one can’t find a decent end rhyme to follow his/her stated train of thought, then perhaps one should go back to the drawing board and fashion a proper line— exceptions noted.

        Striving for excellence, perfection should be our goal. There are a good many wonderful sonneteers writing poems out there these days. All of them I know are “guilty” of modernism, if contemporary sonnets are the standard definition of modernism. More, not less, says me.

  6. Edwe Bleca Ruís

    Mr. MacKenzie’s “On a Bodegón of Zurbarán” is a remarkable sonnet. I can think of no poet in English literature with such a clarity of vision. Though his line is not as fine as that found in, say, Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard,” still every single word scintillates in his sonnet, as does each object in Zurbarán’s painting. Mackenzie’s coup is that he brings a touch of glow from El Siglo de Oro into the New Millennium. Tangentially, the Postmodernist poet whose sonnets I most admire is the Argentinian poet Jorge Borges, whose sonnet-critiques of poets, like Americans Edwards, Poe, Emerson, and Whitman, has yet to be surpassed.

    I like Mr. MacKenzie’s Stevensesque title, and how the techniques used throughout the poem compliment the poet’s meaning. The word “carbon” is a brilliant and alliterative stroke; he uses just one, perfectly placed exclamation mark; he handles well the contrast of short and long sentences; the rhymes are not overly obtrusive, fidelity and purity, Immaculate and meditate, thematically concise, and nice; the verbless third quatrain, lacking movement, coincides with the extreme stasis one finds in Zurbarán’s painting, etc.

    Of course, though there are tiny flaws in the poem one could point out, as I have found many are prone to point out in my works both here and on other sites, I will demur in that and in MacKenzie’s rejection of the etymologically Greek “ekphrasis,” which I think is a superior term to the French “transposition d’ art.”

    Although “Scientia” is an English sonnet, in subject and structure, it reminds me of the sonnet by Mexican poet Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “En perseguirme, Mundo…” especially in its conclusion,”…en mis verdades/ consumir vanidades de la vida/ que consumir la vida in vanidades.”

    Mr. Sutherland brings up an important point, when he points out the horse and buggy days are over. Though generally few publishers like to publish scientific poetry, I think poetry must embrace science completely, from the micro to the macro Cosmos. That is where I agree with epic poet Frederick Turner: “The science and technology of our time is…essential to our epoch.” Of course, where I part company with Turner is in his insistence on science “fiction”; and that is why, Poe’s short stories and his sonnet “To Science,” for example, are, despite all of their all of their excellent qualities, disappointing.

    Finally, I do think those [undated?] sonnets of Mackenzie that I have read, make a fine contribution to New Millennial poetry written in English.

    • Joseph Charles MacKenzie

      I believe Mr. Ruís possesses the necessary breadth of culture to speak of my poems. The uncanny and most insightful observation of the “glow from El Siglo de Oro” is extremely important. Both of the poems posted here are children of the same Golden Age which has only ended in social, artistic, and political terms, but continues until the end of time in the divine and Catholic faith of all who possess it.

      For, indeed, I am truly a regional poet, a Nuevomexicano. I have an address, a place—a world where my ancestors have been for over four centuries. The sonnets in question are informed by the spiritual history of La Nueba Mexico.

      Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, as it happens, is one of my great heroines, a poetess of singular virtue whose ascetic disregard for the things of this world hovers over the Sonnets for Christ the King—although she was painted by every great Mexican artist of the Baroque. Her sonnets, to include the jewel-like “En perseguirme, Mundo…” indicated by Mr. Ruís, cannot be translated into our unfortunate Germanic language. Sor Juana’s poems alone are a reason to learn to read the noble language of Holy Spain.

      I absolutely share Mr. Ruís’s notion that clarity of vision is difficult to find in our English tradition. I have had little, almost nothing at all to do with English for many, many years. It holds almost no interest for me whatsoever. Indeed, I had originally planned to write my sonnets in French, and would have, had not the one, true Church, through the authority of her few remaining clergy, commanded otherwise.

      If Sor Juana has interceded for me, as I believe, then I have also beseeched the prayers of a holy abbess, more or less her contemporary, who is even more a part of my interior world: María de Jesús, Abadesa de Ágreda. This latter’s life is intertwined with that of the second father of our New Mexican history, Fray Alonso de Benevides. Her Mariological masterpiece, “La Mistica Ciudad de Dios, Vida de la Virgen María” is a profound aspect of my life.

      “Scientia” is not necessarily English in substance, however. I had been greatly privileged to behold some of the great Spanish masterpieces of the “vanitas” genre. If the trend had been initiated by the Dutch, the painters of the Spanish Netherlands would soon import it to Spain with even greater success.

      But I am deeply grateful to Mr. Ruís for his “unmasking” of the two “transpositions d’art” here presented.

      For, it is true: The “glow of El Siglo de Oro” illumines all my works. Spain is the mother of us all.

  7. Edwe Bleca Ruís

    Here is a poem of 1981, which is inferior to Mr. Mackenzie’s.

    Still Life: After Francisco de Zurbaran

    Four yellow lemons rest on a shiny platter
    of pewter, one hoisted up by the three below it,
    at the left, the direction from which a smatter-
    ing of rather bright light comes. In the center sits
    a finely woven basket filled over the brim
    with or’nges, decorated with a blossom sprig.
    At the right is a rose positioned on the rim
    of a pewter saucer upon which is a cup
    of water. Beneath the platter, saucer, both slim,
    and a basket is a table that holds them up,
    long across the horizontal plane of picture,
    narrow in width, defined against a black background.


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