Marc Chagall Cirque au cheval rouge 1968

Marc Chagall The green mare
Marc Chagall ‘The green mare’

The Green Mare’s Advice to the Cows

 George Szirtes

‘It seemed that the cow was conducting
world politics at that time’ – Marc Chagall


What matters is the price of the mare.
What matters is the colour of the street.
What matters is that streets have no colour to speak of
Until we give them colours. The same with names.
What matters is the sound of arguments
and not their content. Arguments are blue,
Which, incidentally, is the colour of the street
(And hence, you see, I show them arguing.)
What matters is the Love of God
And never mind if God does not exist.
You make him yellow, just as Christ is white,
but that damn cockerel keeps getting in,
And cows with their seductive eyes and udders,
And violinists who can only scrape.
It is another music altogether
That we dance to – and it isn’t much
But it will do, believe me, it will do.


Surrender to mere brio? Stiff
Heads float off in disbelief
And fingers multiply in grief.

a clock strikes midnight in the air
In homage to Apollinaire.
Let Malevich adore the square.

Those who are less innocent
Castrate, carve up, dissect, invent
With a much sharper instrument.

A brush is fine. In mute arrest
A country bumpkin cups the breast
Of tender Vacha. Cows are best.

Cows will run the government.
Cows have a delightful scent.
Cows produce their Testament.

You watch the carnival proceed
Down muddy streets. The cows will lead
The moujiks home while altars bleed

With gentle bovine sacrifice,
Both melancholy and precise.
You cannot kill the same cow twice.

You see the calf, you see the child
Within the womb: Vitebsk, a wild
Impatience, dirty, undefiled.

The commissars may rave and row
The housepainters obey you now
And hang the banner of the Cow.

The frozen cow hangs like a star,
And you yourself a commissar –
You start to moo. Yes, you’ll go far.

Remember Grandfather, who stood
Before you with his feet in blood:
‘Now look here, cow, we must have food.’

First grub, then dreams. but Lenin stands
all topsy-turvy on his hands.
what sacrifice the state demands.

The cows will take you at your word,
Advancing on you in a herd.
One cow takes wing, soars like a bird.

But look up there. The dream clouds fly
Above nightmare artillery
And cows are raining from the sky,

Dead cows, contented cows. It pays
To trust their unaffected ways
And leave their ghosts a land to graze.


The Man who is a Cello and the Fish who plays
The Violin are suddenly struck dumb.
The Goat in the Sky grows horns of logic. He weighs
Too much and every puzzle and conundrum
Begins to feel the lack of a solution.
The puritans claim back their revolution.

The poet, no longer cut in pieces, does not lie
Flat on the grass in the formal posture of death.
The egotistic lovers neither kiss nor fly.
The riddled milkmaid sinks down out of breath.
The dead man’s candles cannot light the street
And broken bodies rest on tired feet.

The village processions reverse their steps. They realize
The city they inhabit has always been there, waiting.
The samovar slips off the crooked table. The eyes
Of the dead calf are finally shut. The dating
Couples are dated. The pendulum is still
and time runs down like water from the hill.


Returning to the green mare. She is grinning
At the wild commotion. All those words and colours
Merely confirm her own view of aesthetics:
No artist ever paints quite what he sees.
No artist ever tries to paint his dreams.
An artist only paints what he believes in.
And she is winking, full of self-belief
And green intestines, though she knows the town
Is changing irredeemably behind her.
She tells her cows: your freedom is exciting.
She tells her cows: prepare for government.

Marc Chagall Cirque au cheval rouge 1968
Marc Chagall ‘Cirque au cheval rouge’ 1968

George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a refugee in 1956. He trained as a painter – Chagallian, for want of a more accurate description – at Leeds, and has published six books of poetry, the most recent of which, Bridge Passages, was shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Prize in 1991.