Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Paintings and a Poem

There are several poems in my forthcoming book that deal in some way with paintings. I don't think it quite proper to call them ekphrastic poems, because none of them is primarily concerned with the description of a work of art, although in this case, A Summer Night by the American artist Winslow Homer (1836-1910) is described in some detail in the final section of the poem. I thought Sonnets at 4 A.M. might be a good place to bring a poem or two together with the paintings.

Winslow Homer painted A Summer Night in 1890, in a burst of creative activity that followed more than three years in which he did not produce a major work. According to William Howe Downes, who wrote a biographical study of Homer published in 1911, the painting is:

"...a virtually literal transcript of a scene which Homer saw in front of his own studio at Prout's Neck [Maine]. The platform is the only part of the composition which did not exist in the real scene. The girls were dancing on the lawn. As usual, the artist painted exactly what he saw. The group silhouetted at the right, on the rocks, was comprised of a number of young people belonging to the summer colony, and included several of the Homers."

There is an oblique reference in the fourth section of the poem to Homer's Winter Coast (1890) which was the first painting the artist finished following his three-year creative hiatus. Winter Coast has been described as " its details virtually the polar opposite of A Summer Night, substituting day for night, winter for summer, huge waves breaking against the rocks for a less turbulent sea, and a solitary hunter for the dancing couple."

A Summer Night is in the collection of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. Winter Coast is in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The poem appeared several years ago in The Southern California Anthology.


In his seascapes, [Winslow]Homer depended on narrative structures that would, just as they began to suggest a normal unfolding, deflect the viewer from obvious and easy interpretations.

-Notes from a catalogue

Driving the winter road
that falls through the blueberry field.
Rows flicker as I pass, red letters
igniting a page of snow,
with my house, that gray paragraph
on the left. The road is aswirl, snow
so thick I might fall under its spell,
and will--my inner ear's infected.
I step into the drive,
let go the car door, the cinders blurred
with ice. And then––
the howl of wind, a too slick sole,
my body saying, I am not cured.


In the old cartoons, when a clown
is struck with a mallet, the birds twitter
around his head, rising and falling,
the way the swallows rose
that summer evening, you and I
in the gathering dark. They were so close––
their wings arced, then beat into a vast open.
We walked out into the field,
the moon alive and everything luminous––your face,
my hands––one dancer balancing another.
That night, your body pulling mine,
the simple hunger––your small
bird-like shudder, a swallow fluttering to leave
the lip of her nest.


To the unconscious mind,
any leap is possible––
the drunk stumbling along a cliff,
or the soul, harp in hand, lifting away
from the fallen clown––the music sweet, so sweet
we catch our breath and turn
as the soul-clown strums and wavers,
deciding whether to go on.


The snow begins again––
what the painter would not paint
until his last years in Maine––
snow swirling and a man along a cliff,
the howl of wind through dead sea-grasses,
all his options in the air. The seasons whirl
and turn on themselves, the planets slow
but spin back,
so many china plates set awhirl on wobbly sticks
in a show I saw as a child,
never falling until the juggler,
glittering in his beaded tights, said,
They must. I could hardly catch my breath
for the motion and shine of it. Last week,
ear howling, reeling as I haven't reeled
in ten sober years,
I circled the shed I meant for a studio,
my books inside and tables I might work at.
The glass caught fire in the day's last light,
snow adrift against the door,
wanting someone to open it.


Coming to, my lungs chuff to open,
waves pulling the empty suck,
gasping and then gasping again.
In my good ear, it could be crows,
who dance in the field
and do not trust the sea––
my lip numb and a taste of blood,
the sea salt and metal, where my face struck the ice.
What story could I have told, rising on one elbow,
casually looking out into the red-lettered world,
even as the world slowly turned to white?


I kept the catalogue you gave me
from the museum in Boston.
It says that in the dead of winter,
Homer began A Summer Night:
two girls dancing along a cliff,
their hands so delicately assembled
and bodies circling––
a song one can almost hear and the sea,
breaking, out among the kelp and limpets.
The moon isn't shown, though its light
is fully arrayed,
and the bodies of those who watch––do they watch
the dancers or the sea?--are silhouettes along the edge.
The sky is deep indigo, but here and there, and then
in great swatches, moonlight renders the waves
a cerulean blue; it fairly swirls across the page.
And the dancers glow, back-lit,
in perfect balance with the waves.
For months, he reworked the canvas,
finally adding the floor they dance on.
It is an odd detail.
Does he mean to keep the dancers safe,
though moonlight lifts the waves
and the bodies along the cliff
lean back, vertiginous, forever falling
toward the sea?


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