“Merry Company,” oil on canvas, by Jan Steen, 1670.

by Ken Massicotte

A head writhing with snakes conveys discord.
An Old Woman Cooking Eggs in the dark cottage
hollow-eyed in the white shawl staring past
the broad-faced boy with cropped bangs, tender hands
cradling the cruet, the orb and cross—
glowing in candlelight, the promise of salvation.
Bat wings appeared when the Tartars came.
My father warned of carnal enticements
strawberries and cherries
a stranger in the park offering treats.
We believed in the devil without horns—
hairy body, hidden hooves.

I wasn’t frightened by damnation, preferred
Merry Company in a Pergola,
Jan Steen’s tavern maid with the cider pot,
red hair adorning her neck and bare
flesh of shoulder blades curving down
the flow of her rounding copper-brown skirt,
turned in grace from the drunken crowd to read
the heedless fat man’s crumpled scroll;
the cherub girl in the red velvet cloak
smiling at us over her fiddle
heralding this annunciation;
a pensive boy crouched down sneaking,
tilting the spout of her pot to his lips.

Who can resist Botticelli’s Madonnas?
But Satan with his pitchfork is hilarious to us now.
We tire of Jesus hanging from the cross.
As a kid I didn’t realize it was human sacrifice,
in the moonscaped backyard of Sudbury
I rode my tricycle into delirium
as a soldier of Christ.
My religion chimerical—
the giant Christopher fording the river;
the first beast a lion, the second a winged cow;
the pale horsemen, the blackened sun, the red moon.

I often dream of bears, the first animal to be worshiped.
My mother sprinkled holy water chanting Satan be gone.
But I passed out in a dirty hotel
searching for a single face I knew;
a red-eyed Rottweiler guarded the door;
I turned but couldn’t escape the foul air,
the everyman sins of the father.
My parents were gone;
I returned to weeks of unanswered mail—
we are sorry for your loss—
bowed to my meal of barley and mead,
the rough planks bleeding
in the late summer sun.

“We Are Sorry For Your Loss” first appeared in Glass: A Journal of Poetry.


Ken Massicotte is from Canada but currently lives in Berlin. His work has appeared in River Poets Journal, Turk’s Head Review, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Quarterly, and elsewhere, and is forthcoming in Ginosko.