Bruegel’s Harvesters

Poem by Wilmer Mills

The tree is central, though slightly to the right,
And partially conceals the village kirk
In foliage and limbs. Today, we might


Assume that nothing meaningful could lurk
Along that line where earth and heaven meet.
We drift below where men are hard at work,


Scything the summer into sheaves of wheat.
That’s what we do, believing less and less
In anything from “demon” to “paraclete.”


And even Bruegel was a great success
By painting the peasants for the peasants’ sake,
Not glossing principles that Popes profess.


But look how the steeple and horizon make
The crosshairs of a transit lens, a joint
Of intersecting planes. Was that a mistake?


Does being hopelessly down-to-earth anoint
Amnesia or a willful ignorance
Of any elevated vantage point?


The only way that Bruegel could have once
Conceived of all this panoramic scene
Was by a similar reconnaissance;


He must have been in a tree himself and seen
The diving vista with a bird’s eye view,
Leveling skyline and windows in between.


If anything, those windows hold a clue.
Imagine you could zoom in close enough
To see what isn’t bidding God adieu.


You’d see reflection call the painter’s bluff.
You’d see perspective vanish back across
The field and through the leaves that luff


Above the women who, without a boss
In sight, have stopped to catch a little rest.
That man who seems completely at a loss,


Asleep beside them, his head and shoulder pressed
Against the tree, what is that by his head?
Is it a pillow, or a palimpsest


Where Bruegel drew and then redrew the head
A little lower? It’s like a shadow, or a ghost
Of where he was, and both of them look dead.


The old head faces up and back to the coast,
That world, governed as it was and named
By what the Church said happened to the host.


The other’s eyes are shut, but his face is aimed
Exactly at the place where, like a stare,
He looks at Bruegel, where the scene was framed.


His line of sight and Bruegel’s eyes would share
The focal point projected from that spire.
It begs the question: Was Bruegel really there?


Or is he in that steeple, eyes on fire,
Gazing away from everything he knew
To something promising and also dire?


What is the painting then? If this is true,
Then Bruegel and that sleeping harvester
Are looking from these oils right at you!


We are the painting! a vision, as it were,
Subjunctive mood turned inside out to show
The painter more than waking dreams infer.


For good or ill, we shape our own tableau,
An industry of steeples made from hay.
We reap the world and whirlwind as we go.


We draw our own conclusions every day.
Our only faith is the measurement of Time.
Our towers never call us back to pray.


The belfry cloche that churches used to chime
Became the clock that told the marketplace
What makes a figure whole and what is prime.


But when we’ve traded everything but Grace,
When artistries of Man have run their course,
The only God will be the human face


That’s unafraid of horsemen or the horse,
Unless we turn and look at Bruegel there
Behind the glass of our forgotten source


Where something spirals up and down the stair
Between a matin and a vesper, free
And timeless, singing a hymn, a living prayer


That’s still defining everything we see.