And Another From the Manuscript
ON MARTIN JOHNSON HEADE'S
APPROACHING THUNDER STORM (1859)
“This is a beautiful country.”
-John Brown, remark as he rode to the gallows,
seated on his coffin (December 2, 1859)
The top of the canvas spread with charcoal-gray clouds.
Beneath, a dove-gray meant as distant rain, falling
across darker hills, beyond the larger part of a lacquer-black bay.
Dead center, a white-sailed catboat has either made the far point
of the inner harbor, and will be safely home before the sky opens,
or the catboat has not made the point and must come about
again, meaning the sailors will not come safely home.
How the odd sunlight reaches––the creamy bloom of the sail,
a catboat moving too serenely––the light, startling the far-left point,
the one the sailors must make, then circling to fire the grassy greens
of the closer point. Do not fear for the man in the rowboat,
who has made the inner harbor and pulls for the green shore.
Do not fear for the silent man in the yellow straw hat, red shirt,
tan vest; seated in the foreground, his back to us, smoking a pipe.
No fear, either, for the dog facing the water––a yellow lab, I’d say––
perhaps the earliest depiction of this breed in American art.
But what of the man you can barely see? He is no more
than a cross of rose madder and flesh, standing
at the sole of the catboat, facing the mouth
of the inner harbor and the seated man in the red shirt,
tan vest and yellow straw hat; that ardent yellow lab.
In the left foreground, draping a rock, the shroud of a larger sail
the captain did not take when he left. Everywhere––
the water is luminously black, the sea, so eerily calm.
The catboat is not yet up on its heel, the sailors have not begun
to work for the point. It seems they never will.
This poem was originally published in Arts & Letters.
In the Heade painting, there actually is a man standing on the catboat. He is not visible in this reproduction. The bottom illustration is taken from a mural on the walls of the Kansas state capital building, painted in 1941-1942 by John Steuart Curry.