Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales

by Ella Standage

after Hendrick van Anthonissen’s painting ‘View of Scheveningen Sands’

for Sionna

we stood on the shore for a century at least,
waiting for something to happen. when paint
dries it leaves a ghost of the liquid sea;

time exists as space; we watch the enormity
of your absence. the past goes extinct. it’s like
being suspended underwater: as the varnish

darkens we all share one dream, where in
the Natural History Museum the whale skeleton
falls from the ceiling and scatters ribs across

the tiled floor like harpoons, and when we wake
the sky is melting in a chemical haze. the scalpel
slides under the scab, and the blanket of paint

peels away like blubber, until the whale below
is left shivering beneath so many eyes. long
dead, this ugly grey corpse with a heart

the size of a child. long dead, this lump of grey
that knows the colour of the cracked sky
from a mile beneath the surface.

we measure the length of its spine and find
four centuries’ worth of vertebrae, a skull
full of light. we are as meticulous as

conservators in our post-mortem of the whale:
it swells up like a sail, or a canvas. it could
explode any second. standing on the shore

we pick up gobbets of oil paint for days,
as in the gallery the chunks are carried away

by the hungry seagulls of each visitor’s eyes.