On the Theft of Edvard Munch’s ‘Skriken’ – John Watts

The George Crabbe Memorial Poetry Competition
1995 Crabbe Memorial Competition – Third Prize
Adjudicators: Jeni Couzyn and Lawrence Sail

If it were just as easy as all that –
leaning a ladder on an outside wall,
smashing a pane and, in one minute flat,
snatching the well-known painting, frame and all,
by snipping the wire that held it into place,
then out again, with hardly any trace,

if that were all it took us to assuage
this shriek that echoes down the years,
stifle this Mona Lisa of our age,
this icon of our angst and deepest fears,
how simple it would be for us to smother
the horrors we have caused for each other :

the carnage of the Battles of the Somme,
the gulags, the extermination camps,
the rapes, the torture, and the nuclear bomb,
the reptile violence of hate that stamps
its mark on children round the globe –
all touch our nerve-ends like a cattle probe.

She clasps her face in terror, and the thieves
will find there’s no way to dispose of her :
there’s not a dealer living who relieves
such pain; Herr Doktor, we reject your offer,
psychoanalysis is no solution
and no confession’s granted absolution.

There’s no way out of this – they cannot burn her,
or dig a grave and bury her alive;
nor will they find a channel to return her;
whatever they attempt, she will survive.
They’re stuck with her, just like the rest of us;
she is The Universal Hag, the Succubus.

The many versions that Munch painted tell
us how he knew we all are haunted nightly
by ghosts that human science can’t dispel.
He looked at his own agony, and rightly
judged that inescapably we share
that opened mouth upon a bridge to nowhere.

Copyright © John Watts 1995




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