Saturday, January 13, 2007


Some Ekphrastic Poems

"The Knight, Death, and the Devil"

Cowhorn-crowned, shockheaded, cornshuck-bearded,
Death is a scarecrow -- his death's-head a teetotum
That tilts up toward man confidentially
But trimmed with adders; ringlet-maned, rope-bridled,
The mare he rides crops herbs beside a skull.
He holds up, warning, the crossed cones of time:
Here, narrowing into now, the Past and Future
Are quicksand.
A hoofed pikeman trots behind.

His pike's claw-hammer mocks -- in duplicate, inverted --
The pocked, ribbed, soaring crescent of his horn.
A scapegoat aged into a steer; boar-snouted;
His great limp ears stuck sidelong out in air;
A dewlap bunched at his breast; a ram's-horn wound
Beneath each ear; a spur licked up and out
From the hide of his forehead; bat-wingerd, but in bone;
His eye a ring inside a ring inside a ring
That leers up, joyless, vile, in meek obscenity --
This is the devil. flesh to flesh, he bleats
The herd back to the pit of being.

In fluted mail; upon his lance the bush
Of that old fox; a sheep-dog bounding at his stirrup,
In its eyes the cast of faithfulness (our help,
Our foolish help); his dun war-horse pacing
Beneath in strength, in ceremonious magnificence;
His castle -- some man's castle -- set on every crag:
S, companioned so, the knight moves through this world.
The fiend moos in amity, Death mouths, reminding:
He listens in assurance, has no glance
To spare for them, but looks past steadily
At -- at --
a man's look completes itself.

The death of his own flesh, set up outside him;
The flesh of his own soul, set up outside him --
Death and the devil, what are these to him?
His being accuses him -- and yet his face is firm
In resolution, in absolute persistence;
The folds of smiling do for steadiness;
The face is its own fate -- a man does what he must --
And the body underneath it says: I am.

--Randall Jarrell


Tiepolo's Hound
XXI: i

Blessed Mary of the Derelicts. The church in Venice,
painted at nineteen, confirms the arch he spanned,

the hound's progenitor, the young Veronese;
a fresco's page arrests my halting hand

but none holds in its frame the arching dog
that has become spectral, a vision

loosened from its epoch; the rustling catalogue
whispers Veronese, but here, as contradiction,

is another print! Apelles Painting Campaspe
is this allegory Tiepolo has painted himself,

painting his costumed models, on the floor, what must be
his mascot: a white lapdog revels in the wealth

of Venetian light. Alexander sprawls in a chair.
An admiring African peers from the canvas's edge

where a bare-shouldered model, Campaspe with gold hair,
sees her myth evolve. The Moor silent with privilege.

If the frame is Time, with the usual saffron burning
of his ceilings over which robed figures glide,

we presume from the African's posture that I too am learning
both skill and conversion watching from the painting's side.

--Derek Walcott


"Cycladic Figure: The Harp Player"
(ca. 3000 B. C. E.)

Body out of whose being
Orpheus stepped,
already you
were a whole, already
you had become perfection.
Your face is tipped
upward in simple, oval listening,
as all of your kind's
were tipped upward --
like a blind cup to the blind sun,
yet something
passing between them.
Your hands are unmoving,
the harp's white triangle
balances empty above your thighs,
it is the same
substance as the thighs,
it is the thighs' singing, shown.
We have grown more modest:
singing comes now through the ears,
the head bends downward
in comcentration,
like pendulous flowers' heads
from long standing in rain,
or perhaps from the weight
of too much seeing, too much seen.
Your marble is
flawless, continuous, seamless.
When I look at you
you do not look back,
your only direction is inner,
everything enters.
And so the Other
had to step out of you,
into desire,
into Orpheus and incompletion.
The earth --
how could you know this,
who had no ears, who had no eyes? --
wanting so much to be heard,
even the broken-tongued grieving,
that instant clamor,
seemed to it plausible, lovely.

--Jane Hirshfield

'That heavy greenness fostered by water'
--John Montague

At school I loved one picture's heavy greenness --
Horizons rigged with windmills' arms and sails.
The millhouses' still outlines. Their in-placeness
Still more in place when mirrored in canals.
I can't remember never having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.

Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the dolcrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten.
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten.

--Seamus Heaney


"The Geographer"
From the painting by Vermeer

There. Out the window. They are burning the flood fields.
And the light that touches his forehead
is softened by smoke. He is stopped in a long robe,
blue with a facing of pumpkin. In his hand,
the splayed legs of a compass taper to pin tips.

It is noon. Just after dawn, he took
for his errant heart a paper of powdered rhubarb
and stoops to the window now, half in pain, half
in love with the hissing fields:

mile after mile of cane stalks, fattened
with drawn water. Such a deft pirouette, he thinks,
flood pulled up through the bodies of cane, then
water cane burned into steam, and steam like mist
on the fresh fields, sucked dry for the spring planting.

Powdered rhubarb. Like talc on the tongue.
And what of this heart, this blood? Harvey writes
that the washes of pulse do not ebb, do not
flow like the sea, but circle, draw up to the plump heart.
And is that the centering spirit then? Red plum,
red shuffling mole . . . ?

When the flood waters crested, dark coffins
bobbed down through the cane stalks like blunt pirogues.
And then in the drift, one slipper
and the ferreting snouts of radishes.

He touches his sleeve, looks down to his small desk,
pale in its blanket of map, all the hillsides
and carriageways, all the sunken stone walls
reduced to the sweep of a pin tip.
They are burning the flood fields -- such a hissing, hissing,

like a landscape of toads. And is that how blood
circles back in its journey, like water through
the body of the world? And the great flapping fire, then --
opening, withering -- in its single posture
both swelling and fading -- is that the human heart?

--Linda Bierds


"Mule Team and Poster"

Two mules stand waiting in front of the brick wall of a warehouse,
hitched to a shabby flatbed wagon.

Its spoked wheels resemble crude wooden flowers
pulled recently from a deep and stubborn mud.

The rains have passed over for now
and the sun is back,

Invisible, but everywhere present,
and of a special brightness, like God.

The way the poster for the traveling show
still clings to its section of the wall,

It looks as though a huge door stood open
or a terrible flap of brain had been pealed back, revealing

Someone's idea of heaven:
seven dancing-girls, caught on the upkick,

All in fringed dresses and bobbed hair.
One wears a Spanish comb and has an escort . . .

Meanwhile the mules crunch patiently the few cornshucks
someone has thoughtfully scattered for them.

The poster is torn in places, slightly crumpled;
a few bricks, here and there, show through.

And a long shadow --
the last shade perhaps in all of Alabama --

Stretches beneath the wagon, crookedly,
like a great scythe laid down there and forgotten.

on a photograph by Walker Evans (Alabama, 1936)

--Donald Justice


"Picture of a 23-Year-Old Painted
by His Friend of the Same Age,
an Amateur"

He finished the picture yesterday noon.
Now he looks at it detail by detail. He's painted him
wearing an unbuttoned gray jacket,
no vest, tieless, with a rose-colored
shirt, open, allowing a glimpse
of his beautiful chest and neck.
The right side of his forehead is almost covered
by his hair, his lovely hair
(done in the style he's recently adopted).
He's managed to capture perfectly the sensual note
he wanted when he did the eyes,
when he did the lips . . .
That mouth of his, those lips
so ready to satisfy a special kind of erotic pleasure.

-- C. P. Cavafy
(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)


"Archaic Figure"

Headless in East Berlin, no goddess
but a named mere girl (Ornithe, "Little Bird")
out of the rubble, six centuries underneath
the plinth of what we quaintly call

Our Time, informs the foaming underside
of linden boulevards in bloom, sweet hide
laid open onto -- sterile as an operating table,
past the closed incision of the Wall --

the treeless reach of Alexanderplatz,
paved counterpart of the interior flatland,
halfway across the globe, we'd left behind:
projection, factor, yield, the quantifiable

latitude; malls, runways, blacktop; tressed
conrsilk and alfalfa, drawn milk of the humdrum
nurture there were those of us who ran away from
toward another, earlier, bonier

one, another middle of the earth, yearned-
for stepmotherland of Holderlin and Goethe:
sunlight and grief, the cypress and the
crucifix, the vivid poverty

of terraced slopes, of bread, wine, olives,
fig and pomegranate shade we stumbled into,
strolling the sad northern drizzle, in
the uprooted Turks' quasi-bazaar,

as here, among uprooted artifacts, we've come
upon this shape's just-lifted pleats, her
chitoned stillness the cold chrism of a time
that saw -- or so to us it seems --

with unexampled clarity to the black core
of what we are, of everything we were to be,
have since become. Who stands there headless.
"Barbar," she would have called us all.

--Amy Clampitt


"The Guitar Lesson"
(from The Balthus Poems)

Hand gripping the girl's thigh, pressed nearly upon
what her Bible calls her loins, the girl's music teacher
tries to make her sing. But she will not sing.
She will not play the piano nor even the guitar.
Stretched on her back across the woman's knees,
blue skirt yanked past her navel, the girl pretends
to be asleep, while with her left hand she tugs
at the top of her teacher's gray dress, freeing
the right breast which flops out above her and so
startles the girl she nearly cries out, but she
won't cry out, won't sing, won't play the guitar.
She hates those black notes on the page: the snappy
little eighth notes, self-important whole notes.
Who says she must start at the beginning
and proceed to the end? she wishes to play only
the middles of songs, sing only the half notes --
and so she and her teacher have come to quarrel.

Now her teacher's white breast hangs above her,
as round as a whole note, and the girl knows she
could sing that note if she chose, and her teacher
would be blown away as if by a singing tornado.
The girl thinks of the songs she sings to her dog
or the sounds she makes quacking like a duck.
Her teacher hates it when she quacks like a duck.
For that matter, the girl hates the way her teacher
takes her nice fat songs and trims them to fit
black marks on a page. So she closes her eyes
and pretends to sleep, while her teacher
pulls her hair. the girl doesn't care.
In her mind, she sketches a picture of a mountain.
Then she places herself at the top, wearing
her best blue skirt, red jacket. The girl looks
to the east where the sun is impatient to rise.
So she clears her throat and begins to quack grandly
and the sun climbs into the sky like a fat shopper
on a jerky escalator, for which she thinks her music
teacher and all the tuneless world should thank her.

--Stephen Dobyns


"In the Realm of Pure Color"
after Gauguin's The Loss of Virginity

It is our eyes that lose
their innocence, ravished by
these purples and greens as we gaze

at the woman lying there,
her ankles pressed together,
like Holbein's christ.

She is perfectly immobile,
as if the fox signifying lust
were hardly there, nor the bird

settled on her open hand.
Even the procession that winds
its slow way towards her

is simply a curve of darkness
in the distance. In this realm
of pure color it is the intense blues

of the water that matter,
the soft shapes of the rocks,
more voluptuous than any woman.

And she becomes a flat plane of white
in the foreground, the tropical color
of sand after the sea has receded.

--Linda Pastan


"On Seeing Larry Rivers'
Washington Crossing the Delaware
at the Museum of Modern Art"

Now that our hero has come back to use
in his white pants and we know his nose
trembling like a flag under fire,
we see the calm cold river is supporting
our forces, the beautiful history.

To be more revolutionary than a nun
is our desire, to be secular and intimate
as, when sighting a redcoat, you smile
and pull the trigger. Anxieties
and animosities, flaming and feeding

on theoretical considerations and
the jealous spiritualities of the abstract,
the robot? they're smoke, billows above
the physical event. They have burned up.
See how free we are! as a nation of persons.

Dear father of our country, so alive
you must have lied incessantly to be
immediate, here are your bones crossed
on my breast like a rusty flintlock,
a pirate's flag, bravely specific

and ever so light in the misty glare
of a crossing by water in winter to a shore
other than that the bridge reaches for.
Don't shoot until, the white of freedom glinting
on your gun barrel, you see the general fear.

--Frank O'Hara



We are not so badly off, if we can
Admire Dutch panting. For that means
We shrug off what we have been told
For a hundred, two hundred years. Though we lost
Much of our previous confidence. Now we agree
That those trees outside the window, which probably exist,
Only pretend to greenness and treeness
And that the language loses when it tries to cope
With clusters of molecules. And yet, this here:
A jar, a tin plate, a half-peeled lemon,
Walnuts, a loaf of bread, last -- and so strongly
It is hard not to believe in their lastingness.
And thus abstract art is brought to shame,
Even if we do not deserve any other.
Therefore I enter those landscapes
Under a cloudy sky from which a ray
Shoots out, and in the middle of dark plains
A spot of brightness glows. Or the shore
With huts, boats, and on yellowish ice
Tiny figures skating. All this
Is here eternally, just because once it was.
Splendor (certainly incomprehensible)
Touches a cracked wall, a refuse heap,
The floor of an inn, jerkins of the rustics,
A broom, and two fish bleeding on a board.
Rejoice! Give thanks! I raised my voice
To join them in their choral singing,
Amid their ruffles, collets, and silk skirts,
One of them already, who vanished long ago.
And our song soared up like smoke from a censer.

--Czeslaw Milosz
(translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Robert Hass)


"My Grandfather at the Pool"
in memory of James Maxwell, 1895 - 1980

This photo I know best of him is him
With pals of his about to take a swim,

Forming a line with four of them, so five
All told one afternoon, about to dive:

Merseysiders, grinning and wire-thin,
Still balanced, not too late to not go in,

Or feint to but then teeter on a whim.
The only one who turned away is him,

About to live the trenches and survive,
Alone, as luck would have it, of the five.

Four gazing at us levelly, one not.
Another pal decided on this shot,

Looked down into the box and said I say
And only James looked up and then away.

I narrow my own eyes until they blur.
In a blue sneeze of a cornfield near Flers

In 1969, he went Near here

It happened
and he didn't say it twice.
It's summer and the pool will be like ice.

Five pals in Liverpool about to swim.
The only one who looks away is him.
The other four look steadily across
The water and the joke they share to us.

Wholly and coldly gone, they meet our eyes
Like stars the eye is told are there and tries

To see -- all pity flashes back from there,
Till I too am the unnamed unaware

And things are stacked ahead of me so vast
I sun myself in shadows that they cast:

Things I dreamed but never dreamed were there,
But are and may by now be everywhere,

When you're what turns the page or looks away.
When I'm what disappears into my day.

--Glyn Maxwell


"The Lady and the Unicorn
and Other Tapestries"

If I have a faith it is something like this: this ordering of images
within an atmosphere that will receive them, hold them in solution, unsolved.
It is this: that the quail
over the snow

on our back field run free and clocklike, briefly safe.
That they rise up in gusts, stiff and atemporal, the moment a game they enter,
held in place, as prey,
by goodness,

by their role in the design. And when they rise, straight up,
to this or that limb in the snowfat fir, they seem -- because the body drops
so far below its wings --
to also fall,

like our best lies that make what's absolutely volatile
look like it's weighted down -- our whitest lie, the beautiful . . . . They rise up in
the falling snow
and yet to see them is to see

their fallenness . . . . And when, each to their limb they go,
their faces taupe and indigo and peeking gently out from under hats like thread
and needle starting to
pull in the simple

fear, it is an ancient tree their eager eyes map out --
playful and vengeful and symmetry-bound: where out of love the quail are woven
into tapestries, and , stuffed
with cardamon and pine-nuts

and a sprig of thyme.

--Jorie Graham


"Utopia Parkway"
after Joseph Cornell's Penny Arcade
Portrait of Lauren Bacall, 1945 - 46

Marble steps cascade like stereoptica
frames of quays along the seine he's ready
to descend, a folio beneath his arm
or yellowed pages wreathed in the aura of French,
a cache or star maps and movie stills, Lauren Bacall.

Parisian breezes siphon off into slight vacuums
left in air by the passage of young men
wheeling racks of suits and dresses toward
the Garment District. New York and the twilit
Public Library steps where each instant spins

a galaxy of signs -- the flushed marquees
and newsboys' shouts fold into hoarse cries, street vendors
of former times when parrots picked fortune cards
from drawers beneath their hurdy-gurdy cages
outside Coney Island's Penny Arcade. Toward

Time Square, streaming taillight weave nets of connections
carmine as Bacall's lips ticked pout in Screenplay
, and the whole bedazzled city's
a magnificent arcade one might arrange in a cabinet,
those amusement-park contraptions worked by coins

or tinted wooden balls traveling runways
to set into motion compartment
after compartment, a symphony of sight and sound
into fantasy, into the streets of New York through
Oriental skies, until the balls come to rest

in their tray releasing a shower of prizes:
a milliner's illuminated display of hats,
the stamp hat tilted over Bacall's arched eyebrows, filings
spread across the inspector's desk, her sullen gaze.
On Utopia Parkway, in his workshop, Bacall's

dossier's lain for months untouched among springs
and dolls' heads, ballerinas arcing through
charted celestial spheres, that music.
Hoagy Carmichael's heard offstage as he threads
the rush-hour crowd. A typist's crooked stocking seams

recall with affection the actress on her way up --
the modeling jobs, ushering in New York. The box will work
by a rolling ball wandering afield into childhood,
an insight into the lives of countless young women
who never knew, may never know, any other home

than the plainest of furnished rooms, a drab hotel.
The drama of a room by lamplight, hotel neon
in To Have and Have Not. Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues,"
blue glass like the night-blue of early silent films --
an atmosphere of cabaret songs, "How Little We Know."

Fog, the boat scenes, and each compartment becomes
a silver screen. Offstage music, and now we hear
the music in Cornell's eternity as the actress
takes her place among the constellations,
Cygnus, the Pleiades, one of the Graces.

--Lynda Hull


"Reading a Large Serving Dish"
(Greek, ca. 400 B. C., Art Institute of Chicago)

Persephone white-face
carries her vegetal cross
on a stalk perpendicular
over her shoulder as she heads
up & out for home
& mother, her brilliant mother.

Closing, Hell's house lies behind her
(and, of course, opening, before).

Four creamy horses
implacably processional
are hauling her chariot
-- red-orange on black ceramic --
toward her spring turn of sky.
They head for the edge
of the dish of plenty that honors
her style of exchange (exile for exile)
and her game of rounders (no winners, no losers)
her poverty her plenty.

the dish itself is Demosthenes' age.

Its suave lines issue its invitation,

open-ended, a strange attractor.

It tells you it will

if you eat from it teach

your deepening night to brighten

at the depth where no gesture

is straightforward or false,

and you do not need to expect

you can rise beyond suffering.

--Marie Ponsot


"Two versions of 'Knight, Death, and the Devil'"

Under the unreal helmet the severe
Profile is cruel like the cruel sword
Waiting, poised. Through the stripped forest
Rides the horse unperturbed.
Clumsily, furtively, the obscene mob
Closes in on him: the Devil with servile
Eyes, the labyrinthine reptiles
And the ashen old man with the hourglass.
Iron rider, whoever looks at you
Knows that in you neither the lie
Nor pale fear dwells. Your hard fate
Is to command and offend. You are brave
And you are certainly not unworthy,
German, of the Devil and of Death.

There are two roads. That of the man
Of iron and arrogance, who rides,
Firm in his faith, between the ta8nts and the rigid
Dance of the Devil with Death,
And the other, the short one, mine. In what vanished
Long-ago night or morning did my eyes
Discover the fantastic epic,
The enduring dream of Durer,
The hero and the mob with all its shadows
Searching me out, and catching me in ambush?
It is me, and not the paladin, whom the hoary
Old man crowned with sinuous snakes
Is warning. The future's water clock
Measures my time, not his eternal now.
I am the one who will be ashes and darkness;
I, who set out later, will have reached
My mortal destination; you, who do not exist,
You, rider of the raised sword
And the rigid woods, your pace
Will keep on goiong as long as there are men.
Composed, imaginary, eternal.

--Jorge Luis Borges
(translated by Stephen Kessler)



About the size of an old-style dollar bill,
American or Canadian,
mostly the same whites, gray greens, and steel grays
-- this little painting (a sketch for a larger one?)
has never earned any money in its life.
Useless and free, it has spent seventy years
as a minor family relic
handed along collaterally to owners
who looked at it sometimes, or didn't bother to.

It must be Nova Scotia; only there
does one see gabled houses
painted that awful shade or brown.
The other houses, the bits that show, are white.
Elm trees, low hills, a thin church steeple
-- that gray-blue wisp -- or is it? In the foreground
a water meadow with some tiny cows,
two minuscule white geese in the blue water,
back-to-back, feeding, and a slanting stick.
Up closer, a wild iris, white and yellow,
fresh-squiggled from the tube.
The air is fresh and cold; cold early spring
clear as gray glass; a half inch of blue sky
below the steel-gray storm clouds.
(They were the artist's specialty.)
A specklike bird is flyinjg to the left.
Or is it a flyspeck looking like a bird?

Heavens, I recognize the place, I know it!
It's behind -- I can almost remember the farmer's name.
His barn backed on that meadow. There it is,
titanium whte, one dab. The hint of steeple,
filaments of brush-hairs, barely there,
must be the Presbyterian church.
Would that be Miss Gillespie's house?
Those particular geese and cows
are naturally before my time.

A sketch done in an hour, "in one breath,"
once taken from a trunk and handed over.
Would you like this? I'll probably never
have room to hang these things again.
Your Uncle George, no, mine, my Uncle George,
he'd be your great-uncle, left them all with Mother
when he went back to England.
You know, he was quite famous, an R. A. . . .

I never knew him. We both knew this place,
apparently, this literal small backwater,
looked at it long enough to memorize it,
our years apart. How strange. and it's still loved,
or its memory is (it must have changed a lot).
Our visions coincided -- "visions" is
too serious a word -- our looks, two looks:
art "copying from life" and life itself,
life and the memory of it so compressed
they've turned into each other. Which is Which?
Life and the memory of it cramped,
dim, on a piece of Bristol board,
dim, but how live, how touching in detail
-- the little that we get for free,
the little of our earthly trust. Not much.
About the size of our abidance
along with theirs: the munching cows,
the iris, crisp and shivering, the water
still standing from spring freshets,
the yet-to-be-dismantled elms, the geese.

--Elizabeth Bishop



On the third day I went with Seymour Leichman
to the Museum of Modern Art, there to see Picasso's
Guernica, and the woman bearing a lit lamp burst
through the casement at the upper left-hand corner
of the canvas; the disemboweled horse screamed.
Swift sleight of hand; Basque woman dropped fire
in the niche Coltrane split with the lip of his horn.

Turpentine top notes, base notes of linseed oil; scent
of painters' studios can cause salt to wash my eyes.
It was originally my ambition (that is why I'd come)
to become a maker of most marvellous pictures.

So I apprenticed for a time in the studio of Brachman,
and then under master painter Jacob Lawrence. Great man.
Don't look to right or left, just do the work, do the work.
Slip past those petty guards at the Metropolitan's gates
who'll seek to dispatch you on their fool's errands and
do the work good, Jacob said, just do, and do the work.

Catch me running with that city rhythm. Up in the morning,
take bus to the train, take train to West Fifty-Seventh Street
to the Art Students League. After classes take the A train
to filing job on Wall Street. File, then take train to Greenwich
Village, there to cashier at the Rugoff's Fifth Avenue Cinema
between Twelfth and Thirteenth. So train and paint and train

and file and train and cashier and so see the second half
of a movie. I saw the body of work of Akira Kurosawa
in parts. Swords of Seven Samurai, claw-foot Throne
of Blood, round about midnight, rode the night train home.

Winter vespers in a Village church, I offered up prayers
ti St. Jude, invoking as litany a Beatles song. Home came
the boys in body bags to be replaced with fresh live ones.
I am that I am, and I am beauty, intoned the Black people.

Imagine if you can, the entire population of Jamaica
can be accommodated on Rhode Island; and my first
white Christmas spent alone in a Queen's apartment.

Here is a secret I learned from experience: there is
a finte number of times that one can descend into
a New York subway. Should you exceed or overstep
your ride-quota, the New Lots train will station itself
in your head. To be rid of its iron-squat, you must
get brain washes in warm Caribbean sea water, or
you'll sit by Grand Central station and weep, or fall
off at Brooklyn's last exit. I confess: I looked behind
as I left, the wide sky over the Hudson was burning.

--Lorna Goodison


"Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids"
Oil on canvas, 1943

Who is that man in black, walking
away from us into the distance?
The painter, they say, took a long time
finding his vision of the world.

The mermaids, if that is what they are
under their full-lenght skirts,
sit facing each other
all down the street, more of an alley,
in front of their gray row houses.
They all look the same, like a fair-haired
order of nuns, or like prostitutes
with chaste, identical faces.
How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,
their hands in laps that betray nothing.
Only one has scales on her dusky dress.

It is 1943; it is Europe,
and nothing fits. The one familiar figure
is the man in black approaching the sea,
and he is small and walking away from us.

--Lisel Mueller


"Matisse: Blue Interior with Two Girls -- 1947"

. . . he lived through some of the most traumatic
political events of recorded history, the worst wars,
the greatest slaughters, the most demented
rivalries of ideology,without, it seems, turning a
hair . . . . Perhaps Matisse did suffer from fear and
loathing like the rest of us, but there is no trace of them
in his work. His studio was a world within a world:
a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years,
produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced

Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

Outside is variable May, a lawn of immediate green,
The tree as blue as its shadow.
A shutter angles out in charitable shade.
It is a world of yearning: we yearn for it,
Its' youthful natives yearn for one another.
Their flesh is firm as a plum, their smoothg tanned waists,
Lit through the fluttered leaves above their heads,
Are rubbed and cinctured with this morning's bangles.
Yet each, if we but take thought, is a lean gnomon,
A bone finger with its moral point:
The hour, the minute, the dissolving pleasure.
(Light fails, the shadows pool themselves in hollows.)
Here, in the stifling fragrance of mock orange,
In the casual glance, the bright lust of the eye,
Lies the hot spring of inevitable tears.

Within is the cool blue perfect cube of thought.
The branched spirea carefully arranged
Is no longer random growth: it now becomes
The object of our thought, it becomes our thought.
The room is a retreat in which the drone
Of the electric fan is modest, unassertive,
Faithful, as with a promise of lemonade
And other gentle solaces of summer,
Among which, for the two serene young girls
In this cool tank of blue is an open book
Where they behold the pure unchanging text
Of manifold, reverberating depth,
Quiet and tearless in its permanence.
Deep in their comtemplation the two girls,
Regarding art, have become art themselves.
Once out of nature, they have settled here
In this blue room of thought, beyond the reach
Of the small brief sad ambitions of the flesh.

--Anthony Hecht



No protected world . . . Just behind the wall the noise begins,
the inn
with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, the din of bells
and the insane brother-in-law, the death-bringer we all must tremble for.

The big explosion and the tramp of rescue arriving late,
the boats preening themselves on the straits, the money creeping down in the wrong man's pocket
demands stacked on demands
gaping red flowerheads sweating premonitions of war.

And through the wall into the clear studio
into the second that's allowed to live for centuries.
Pictures that call themselves The Music Lesson
or Woman in Blue Reading a Letter --
she's in her eighth month, two hearts kicking inside her.
On the wall behind is a wrinkled map of Terra Incognita.

Breathe calmly . . . An unknown blue material is nailed to the chairs.
The gold studs flew in with incredible speed
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been other than stillness.

Ears sing, from depth or height.
It's the pressure from the other side of the wall.
It makes each fact float
and steadies the brush.

It hurts to go through walls, it makes you ill
but is necessary.
The world is one. But walls . . .
And the wall is part of yourself --
we know or we don't know but it's true for us all
except small children. No walls for them.

The clear sky has leaned against the wall.
It's like a prayer to the emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
and whispers,
"I am not empty. I am open."

--Tomas Transtromer
(translated by Robin Fulton)


"Four cut Sunflowers, One Upside Down"

Turbulent stasis on a blue ground.

What is any art but static flame?
Fire of spun gold, grain.

This brilliant flickering's

arrested by named (Naples,
chrome, cadmium) and nameless

yellows, tawny golds. Look

at the ochre sprawl -- how
they sprawl, these odalisques,

withering coronas
around the seedheads' intricate precision.

Even drying, the petals curling
into licks of fire,

they're haloed in the pure rush of light
yellow is. One theory of color,

before Newton broke the world
through the prism's planes

and nailed the primaries to the wheel,
posited that everything's made of yellow

and blue -- coastal colors
which engender, in their coupling,

every other hue, so tht the world's
an elaborated dialogue

between citron and Prussian blue.
They are a whole summer to themselves.

They are a nocture
in argent and gold, and they burn

with the ferocity
of dying (which is to say, the luminosity

of what's living hardest). Is it a human soul
the painter's poured

into them -- thin, beleagured old word,
but what else to call it?

Evening is overtaking them.
In this last light they are voracious.

--Mark Doty


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