Marat At Wookey Hole


1

Two in the afternoon.
Marat, Citizen, crooks his body
to squint at the ceiling.
Cool and collectable, he watches the crowds
trolloping off for a strop.

Tested on corpses, impartial,
he stretches his crippling body
to soak in the porphyry bath. Today,
he will scribble some warrants
with a tatty quill.

Let them in! The will of the people
demands that they play the machine,
and lose. Marat calls for more kaolin,
feigning the absence of pain.

Two in the afternoon.
A visitor stands at his elbow,
watching the clumsy turban of cloth
which he wears to relieve
the scrape and itch of his skin.
It looks as if he is modelling
a revolution in bathwear,
as if catalogue artists await him.
His caller's a child.


2

There's a cyst on the side of his face,
a horrible wen. His mouth
looks almost too ugly to sculpt.
Marie, he says, make a cast. Now.
He claps at the gabble surrounding the shoe:
they part like a ripple of lips.

A kitchen knife juts from the chest,
replaced in the martyr with
arty precision. There is no chance
of an error: the body's been lodged
like an entry in destiny's ledger.

The toe of the bath is the snout of a pig.

Tiles have been mopped, and bandages
flung to the floor in the bedroom.
Spasms. No speech. His head
looked wrong on the bloody pillow. It lolled.
Marie, he insists, and how could I paint him
anywhere better than here?
He tugs at the sheet. She slaps on the plaster.

3

He gazes, inquiring, uncertain.
And he's freezing, his jaw in a lock,
the teeth round the wedge of an answer.
His gob has been smacked with a spatula,
a neat screech. The knife.
The blade. The scribble of blood
on the smarm of his skin.

4

Citizen Marat, convivial, careless,
dangles his arm from the bath.
The evening is less of a bitch. This girl
knows all about Normandy. Traitors.
He grimaces, letting his thoughts
sidle away like a column of ants.

He soaks in her voice. The long day
scratching the orders, his skin flaking:
and now the loyal balm of the names.
The smell of fresh bread. From the bath,
he can glimpse his pistols, the map,
mementoes of struggle. Her chair
nudges the edge of his elbow.
He gazes, inquiring, uncertain,
as she jolts herself suddenly forward.

5

Their eyes meet like thin beams of light.
The haft of the knife is already
deep in his breast. It strips
the age from his flesh like a film.

There are no scales. The Citizen
wakes from his daydream of vengeance,
unable to hear himself howl.

He knows he should sink. That the blood
should come hush from the gash,
in terrible slivers. That a posse,
blathering platitudes, will burst
this pantomime silence and hurl their metal
words through the stifle of room.

This is death, and there's nobody there.
His hands are squawking at last,
but his mouth is irresolute, pressing the plain
pane of the afternoon air.

6

David dusts the body with powder. Marie,
he remarks, we'll show him at rest.
But Marie is away, she is cradling
the lopped-off heads she must cast.

They cut Marat's tongue. It is tucked
in a cranny of cheek, free from the pain
of invective. His right arm's replaced.
Part of the show: the eyes address
how the hand still clings to the quill.
He doesn't look much like a waxwork.

The body turns bad in the heat:
his winding-sheet must be canvas.


7

The child is four. His eyes are loaded
with blobs of terror. He is sculpted
to the floor, stone, an impression
of what he'd be like as a waxwork.
Convincing. Behind him, a guillotine
snaps at a head. An arrow
points to a penny arcade, to rows
of elderly one-arm bandits.

I touch him, and he is my son again.
Two in the afternoon.
It's only a model, I tell him,
it isn't real. It's a waxwork.

He sighs, expelling a squash of air
from his throat. I look at Marat,
the lead lids, the smooth nonsense
of his carefully moulded head, the way
he cranes to look at his killer.
And the cheap knife stuffed in his heart.

David made the handle ivory, painted
the backdrop in shadowy olive.

Two in the afternoon. And Marat
thrashes the water, flailing. They lug
his screams through the heated evening,
they wrench the butcher's knife from the artery,
drenching themselves in his death.

He holds my hand as we leave,
laughing. We look
for fists of disposable copper.

From the book Robinson Crusoe's Bank Holiday Monday

[Marat's murder, in his slipper bath, was famously glorified in David's painting. Another artist, Marie Grossholtz, was ordered - by David - to the scene of the death to model Marat's head. It was exhibited to the acclaim of (amongst others) Robespierre, whose head Grossholtz also later modelled, as indeed she modelled the head of Marat's assassin Charlotte Corday, after the guillotine. Marie Grossholtz later became famous as Madame Tussaud, and her waxwork of Marat was - and is - an item in the Chamber of Horrors. But, during the 1980s, the waxwork of Marat was amongst those on display to all comers at Wookey Hole in Somerset. Just beyond it was an exhibition of old fruit machines.]