When I pick up my 90-year-old father-in-law to drive him
to the early service
at Galilee Church, where he has gone for the last quarter

century, he hobbles
out through the two automatic doors of the retirement home
on his flimsy wood

cane. He has lost weight so his blue suit hangs loosely around
his stooped frame.
He has smeared on his cracked lips the white cream that Dana, my wife

and his daughter, has given him
so he looks like James Ensor’s grinning white-faced death’s-head
with lipless mouth

and a black top hat partially wrapped in green crepe paper
in the lower left corner
of the oil painting Christ’s Entry into Brussels in 1889.

The 14-by-6-foot
canvas shows a carnivalesque parade of partygoers—
caricatures of Ensor’s

acquaintances, relatives, and enemies—all marching down a boulevard
to celebrate
Christ’s second coming. The small haloed figure of Christ,

who rides a donkey
and is a self-portrait of Ensor, is lost in the crowd of masked,
mugging, guffawing,

or unmasked, leering, squinting faces. They carry banners and placards
that announce

(Doctrinaire Fanfares Always Succeed), LES CHARCUTIERS

(The Butchers of Jerusalem), and COLMAN’S MUSTART
(Colman’s Mustard).
None too subtly, Ensor implies that if Christ came back, we

would co-opt
the miracle to promote our own agendas—political reforms,

product advertisements. Christ would be ignored. When Erwin
and I enter
his church, the well-dressed parishioners who presumably know him

turn away.
They don’t want to associate with an old, dying man whose suit
is unpressed and stained,

as I now notice, with brown spots that might be splattered tomato sauce.
I want to rise up
from my pew and shout, “Fuck you, frozen chosen!” So what

if only yesterday
Erwin, after a long phone conversation about his Volvo which had failed
its annual inspection

and has to have new tires and brakes, asked me, “Don’t I know you
from somewhere?
What’s the name of your organization?” Momentarily shocked,

I opted
for the flip rejoinder–“My organization is codenamed DANA.”
I want to explain to everyone

that he’s only an old man with Parkinson’s and mild dementia
who is trying to brave out
his last days and go to church as if nothing untoward

is happening
to him. We listen to the gospel in which a disciple
tells Christ, mobbed

by his followers, “Your mother and your brothers and your sisters
are outside, asking
for you.” He replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?”

and gestures to the crowd,
“Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does the will
of God is my brother

and sister and mother.”  Everyone around us nods sagely, but keeps
everyone else
at arm’s distance, pretends Erwin and I and death itself

are invisible.  In his sermon
the priest says that Christ was liar, lunatic, or Lord—
the only three

logical, mutually exclusive, alternatives.  “But why can’t he
be all three,”
I want to ask him, “just as Erwin is your father and brother

and a doddering
old man unrelated to you?” In Ensor’s canvas, the mayor perches
on a reviewing stand

next to a clown in orange and blue pants, who bends over
to show us
his large ass. Ensor’s people have bulbous noses, crossed eyes,

and bloated cheeks.
They gossip, fart, curse. Their faces are Halloween masks of lust,
greed, gluttony,

hypocrisy. A man and woman suck each other’s tongues
like pink popsicles.
Emile Littré, atheist social reformer with a red-brown bird’s nest

of a beard and a drunkard’s
red nose, wears a bishop’s miter, waves a drum major’s baton,
leads the rabble

forward. Why should I expect anything different outside
Ensor’s great
painting? One placard says of Les XX, the group of artists

who refused to exhibit
(Hardhearted Belgian

Vivisectors). Ensor knew firsthand that to be ignored is to be
cut open while still
alive and then eviscerated.  Next to the top-hatted death’s-head

a big-mouthed clown
frowns. The man with wiry black hair laughs.  A military brass band
marches ahead of Christ,

drowns out whatever he has to say. The band leader’s khaki shirt
is studded with war medals.
Erwin and I are part of this parade. We too are entering

Brussels, City of the Second
Coming. Only one gray-haired man stops to wish Erwin well
when he leaves

the church, shuffling through the dark double doors into sun.
I hold his hand
like that of a child too young to cross the street by himself.

His fingers are rough,
warm, clumsy. It’s like holding a lump of dried clay. I tell him when
he has to step down.

DONALD PLATT’s fourth book of poems, Dirt Angels, was published by New Issues Press in 2009, and his fifth, Tornadoesque, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. He has been awarded two individual artist’s fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and three Pushcart Prizes. He teaches in the MFA program at Purdue University.

Donald Platt
Latest posts by Donald Platt (see all)