Join the conversation
Subscribe to Our Emails
Boston Review is a public space for the discussion of ideas and culture. Sign up for our newsletters and don’t miss a thing.
What first attracted me to this group of poems were the two that responded to paintings. In “To Breughel the Elder: For the Tree in the Foreground of The Harvesters,” it was the constant attention to detail—which paid homage to Breughel’s own genius for particularizing—that made me take notice, that and the poet’s claim that the late addition of a tree in the center of the painting was necessary to giving greater reality to whatever surrounded it. The poem, written in very loose terza rima, maintains a cadence in which observation and commentary seem to move together without friction or compromise. I was also interested in “St. Francis in Ecstasy,” (inspired by Bellini's famous painting at the Frick), which attempts to make a case for the value of the quotidian. The moment depicted by Bellini, however, is not so much a moment of ecstasy, but of illumination, perhaps even the moment in which he receives the stigmata. No matter. The poem rightly suggests that the moment depicted will pass, and in this way is vaguely reminiscent of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.” I found things to like in the other poems, too—the easy music of “Concrete Town,” the drift of it, its associative, dreamy progress seeming to reveal and withhold at once, and the serious but never ponderous investigations in “Everkeen” of the nature and location of happiness.
to Mark Craver She says, “I am content when wakened birds,
Before they fly, test the reality
Of misty fields, by their sweet questionings;
But when the birds are gone, and their warm fields
Return no more, where, then, is paradise?”
—Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”
Nobody for a minute saying much, except
the fact, like chocolate cake fresh on the tongue,
lingering, a heavy taste I wondered more,
especially then, about: If when you died
you left it all, and I meant all that you knew:
all memory, all pain, all love and what
we think of as heaven—It was 1965, a trip to church
like any other, Dad at the wheel
and Mom beside, my brother at the right
and me over here on the left—If all that goes
then what's the point of heaven? As reward?
Reward for what you can't recall? It made
no sense, I fully remember. Forever bliss
at the whim of some great spirit who imagined
this everlasting pleasure you, too, could share:
like the TV ad: The Everkeen Wonder Knife,
which that year, inspired, I'd bought as Mom’s
Christmas present. Everyone needed it, sharp
and always ready for the toughest job, including
cutting through steel cans, which I reckoned
all human beings eventually needed to do.
Ever keen. If people died and lost all memories,
then how would floating in those clouds seem
better than years of toiling in the fields, unspeakable
treatment at the hands of ambitious secretaries,
or, for that matter, being told to love your little brother?
This “lost memory” business was not a concept
bandied about on the playground, not that year.
We were busy doing the things we'd soon want
to forget—watching myself, for example, a few
years before, whack the life out of two baby chicks
who'd strayed onto our yard, my baby brother helping
with his feet. Who would not welcome such forgetting
to erase the scurrying mother hen and floating feathers,
Mom in her ever-present apron stepping onto the porch?
And yet, there were more things I needed, even
with blood at the end of my stick, and couldn't bear
the full forgetting death would bring.
Surely if you remembered all in heaven, heaven
would be nothing but a hell of regretful longing
to redress the things you'd messed up, now, forever.
Who needs the old images of fire and griddles
when memory is choked with bloody sticks and pushes?
Who, up there, would care they were forgiven, after
all the years unable to forgive themselves? The answer,
of course, is you must forget. Not just the chicks
but the time your grandfather laughed in his woodshop
because you'd ridden your bike to see him,
or when you'd made it through that Chopin waltz,
and the entire Methodist Church stood up to clap
and say you, most of all, were going places, son.
Often I've attempted simple 2 plus 2, and felt
resolutely cheated, getting only the answer. Once
I smacked a double into center field, and that same game
a wild throw from the catcher broke my nose.
I staggered to the bleachers where I knew my mother
waited, and my brother fainted when I snorted bright red
down the buttons of my Dixie Youth League jersey.
Should I regret a heaven that would have me
part of its plan? What magic of redemption
could put my father, the only reason I played, into
those stands shouting, laughing, anything other than
whining to his colleagues, all working late,
how his eldest son cared little for the game? If only
I knew what to inherit for the next world.
If only great people would die from heaven,
and descend forever to this world.
When the spring itself keeps telling you not
to worry about the next or other worlds—since
the birds have returned as you'd convinced yourself
they never could, and you've inhaled rich dust
and told her where all past years are, and groped
in the fading April light for the edge you must,
someday, grow blind to—that is when some child
gets all your happy yesses, and you've confirmed
that heaven is not the point, that yes, this backseat
is yours to remember, that your father
was your driver and mother giver and brother
fellow traveler in a cloud of guessing
what would forever come, and what brighter life
we'd exit when one day we were drivers.
Happy I can still return to the green house
I was raised in. I do, and the need to change
grows smaller than the change that shows.
My father's chair, wearing on beyond him.
My mother's knife—still in the kitchen drawer
where once she'd placed it on a Christmas day
when all we ever wanted was fulfilled
and all that would be pared from us lay still
in the thousand odd boxes we would ever open.
My birthday, she's remembered the chocolate cake;
her apron, I've thought to toss in in the washer.
These things draw back again the hand
that cupped my mouth, that covered my eyes,
that now descends to feel the ever softness,
the promised sharpness, the hello kiss, the sweet
goodnight, in these same rooms that granted
my doubt its due and never forced instruction.
I never once believed that we were chosen.
There's much I've taken out of context: the piano
bright sky of winter afternoons, the grass
that buoyed balls, later left its blade impressions
in her back, the cars that I could count until his
pulled into our driveway. And only recently
I've understood that no one else has missed them,
that no one ever noticed in the first place
they were gone, each in its element, remaining
just as fresh for all comers new and old,
each setting, each color. I am no less afraid
of forgetting, of dying, of stepping someday
into my mother's home and wondering
where I am. Yet in this small picture, years ago,
before we'd guessed there'd never be an answer,
there is something, certainly, anyway,
something certain in its asking.
Concrete Town, Richmond, Virginia: 1955
On a barge stuck fast in the old canal
a man is pounding his head onto the gunwale.
Where the river bottoms through this town
and the hillside leans and buildings do not fall,
and the dreaming, perilous outside, is an always-
raining camouflage, of windows and an ordinary sky.
And how, in so much wind how can they make it
on those catwalks between buildings,
and on the hillside leaning, sliding, and the cars
all driving. I am seriously leaving, he is thinking,
a town of chipped concrete, not dreaming,
where once his father's eggs sold door to door
and remembers driving, bursting golden igloos,
each sarcophagus his basket and no one coming, no one
answering his knocking or his knowing is this
something money can erase. In the cabin
his aunt is smoking, first as children by the river
then his fear of when the war would get them
up into the cloud, remembering the turkey
plucked his toenail hanging years before
in the gray light by some buildings. And on
the old road to the country, his mother went on telling
the story, tired of walking and of reading, and never
too much meaning. Stuck fast and always crouching,
to be pounding on this sinking barge, the husk
of concrete scraping at the bumper coils of hemp.
The Ocean Was Filling Up My Shoes
And who would take my place when I left town
their eyes asked, habitually, raised up and staring
deeply into mine. Each shook his head.
Who could? I must have done a thing or two
they prized, but what, not one had said.
Twice a day the levies swelled that kept
that little town so dry, and twice as the buoys
rang and bobbed, each day they would stop by.
I sat, and yet they paced, and on the sills set cakes
and teas, and left, each one a sadly shaking head.
It was they encouraged me to walk out farther
through the breaking waves, past the buoy then
the crab pails, past the nets and chains. Not even
the ocean can fill his shoes, they said, and I was most
obliging out of sight, a deeply nodding head.
St. Francis in Ecstasy
To admit that starting over is precisely what you're doing: that's
a pleasant move beyond the static. In Bellini's famous painting,
the monk most certainly will not stand outside his cell like that
all day, but soon grows tired of staring upward at the sun,
a blinding that is no good, by the way, for starting over. His
falls back into a hard place for beginning, a cell of shoes and
a skull placed to remind him that the skill lies not in knowing
when to seize the ecstatic moment, but to go back
and keep doing monkish things, not waiting for the shining thrill,
the next one. To take instead one's ecstasy along with the plain
fun times to feed the mule, to pat the canary, gently, to stare
into black sockets on your desk and say, if it should come to this,
how no one moment—such as when the sun, and did it?, shone
is better than the donkey's doing everything you ask him,
the turnstile suddenly swinging free and who, after all, needs
To Brueghel, the Elder: For the Tree in the Foreground of The Harvesters
Your apocryphal ability to see each leaf distinctly
at two hundred yards, then place the entire
tree in a symbolic context, is not what fascinates me
about this particular painting. It's a scene as familiar
as my uncles at midday, bending beneath
the work of wheat, while their nephew lugs a crock of water
from the creek. Timeless enough for us both
to work from memory. The sky at upper left
is hazy in a permeating heat no leaves worth
their paint can shield, and it's only a few minute's rest
these wives and daughters in drab-brown muslin
bring with bread and bowls of gruel at lower right. Addressed
in motion, each act betrays your technical compulsion
for rendering the whole through each exemplary part:
the way the shafts are severed as they're pulled in,
or how her hand spreads to hold the loaf she's about
to slice at an awkward angle. The syntax your eyes
developed lays these remembered facts from right
to left in an almost ordered progression, so the scythes,
already ancient, move beyond the eventual razing
of this field—like those two doves, escaping back to sky.
What makes the scene believable, though, is the thing
that wasn't in your memory: a tree we both know
rarely survives a working field like this. Placing
it later, in the middle of the foreground, you
apparently didn't use much paint: now, the perennial
black trunks of background trees show through.
While critics note your trees are filled with medieval
symbology, this one reveals a more transcendent
element of your aesthetic: that the real
becomes more so when centered by what you invent.
Beneath this tree, your women have gathered bales
to sit on. Your foreman, shameless with his pendulant
codpiece half unstrung, has some place to close
his eyes, your nephew reaches the end of the long path cut
through the wheat. So this tree, which you chose
to add after the foreground was complete, does what
the moment you remembered could not: insert
a reason for itself, why the sweep of a pale, hot
sky can be halted at this angle, the whole harvest
slowed down enough to be presented in such detail,
illustrating how observation is often the surest
when showing us what isn't there: a tree, still
serving many years from this moment
as a welcome obstruction in a productive field.
...we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox
Readers Also Liked
Printing Note: For best printing results try turning on any options your web browser's print dialog makes available for printing backgrounds and background graphics.