A Painter’s Thoughts

- 1950-

I want to paint in a way that the “I” disappears into the sky and trees
The idea of a slowed down, slowly unfolding image held my attention

Variations on a theme are of no interest. A bowl and cup are not ideas.
I want my painting to be what it contains: it should speak, not me

The idea of a slowed down, slowly unfolding image held my attention
I paint things made of clay, just as the pigments I use come from the earth

I want my painting to be what it contains: it should speak, not me
Brown and ochre stoneware bowls beside a white porcelain pitcher

I paint things made of clay, just as the pigments I use come from the earth
I place the pale eggs on a dark, unadorned tabletop and let them roll into place

Brown and ochre stoneware bowls beside a white porcelain pitcher
The dusky red wall is not meant to symbolize anything but itself

I place the pale eggs on a dark unadorned tabletop and let them roll into place
I want to paint in a way that the “I” disappears into the sky and trees

The dusky red wall is not meant to symbolize anything but itself
Variations on a theme are of no interest. A bowl and cup are not ideas.

Music from Childhood

You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits
Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.”

You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths
A row of yellow windows and a painting of them

Your mother informs you “moon” means “window to another world.”
You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows

A row of yellow windows and a painting of them
Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship

You decide it is better to step back and sit in the shadows
Is it because you saw a black asteroid fly past your window

Someone said you can see a blue pagoda or a red rocket ship
I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water

Is it because I saw a black asteroid fly past my window
The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling

I tried to follow in your footsteps, but they turned to water
The town has started sinking back into its commercial

The air hums—a circus performer riding a bicycle towards the ceiling
You grow up hearing two languages. Neither fits your fits

The town has started sinking back into its commercial
You begin to hear words mourn the sounds buried inside their mouths
 

Overnight

            In Memory of Paul Violi (1944–2011)

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition

You most likely would have made a joke of it
Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft

I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open

Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft
You might call this the first of many red herrings

The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open
The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream

You might call this the first of many red herrings
The shield you were given as a child did not protect you

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

One by one the words leave you, even this one
I did not realize that you were fading from sight

The sword is made of air before you knew it
You most likely would have made a joke of it

Russian Letter

It is said, the past
sticks to the present

like glue,
that we are flies

struggling to pull free
It is said, someone

cannot change
the clothes

in which
their soul

was born.
I, however,

would not
go so far

Nor am I Rembrandt,
master of the black

and green darkness,
the hawk’s plumes

as it shrieks
down from the sky

Related Poems

Study of Two Figures (Ignatz/Krazy)

You have written truth, you friends of the “shadows,” yet be not harsh with “Krazy.”
He is but a shadow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein.
We call him “Cat,”
We call him “Crazy”
Yet is he neither.
At some time will he ride away to you, people of the twilight, his password will be
the echoes of a vesper bell, his coach, a zephyr from the West.
Forgive him, for you will understand him no better than we who linger on this side
of the pale
            —George Herriman, Krazy Kat, June 17, 1917

1.

The smaller figure is rendered as a grouping of ovals: head, torso, ears.

The roundness of the ovals suggests a kind of plenty—a trove that the line wraps around protectively like a mother’s arm or like an electrified fence.

A circle is similarly bounded, but the radial symmetry of the circle suggests safety, stasis.

The oval, instead, is restless, pushing against its boundaries, seeking escape or release.

The line is necessary to contain the oval or to defend it.

The ovals of the figure evoke the pads of a prickly pear, tapering where they join together.

The prickly pear defends its precious hoard of water with its long straight spines.

The figure has no spines.

Instead of spines, the figure has sharp straight lines that make up its arms, legs, eyebrows.

The figure uses these lines to convey hostility—kicking, throwing things, expressing scorn or rage.

We understand these violent actions to be defensive, motivated by fear—a belief that the cherished contents of the ovals are somehow under threat.

But the ovals of the figure contain nothing.

Nothing, that is, except the underlying blankness of the page.

The lines of the figure separate the blankness inside the ovals from the blankness outside the ovals.

We are told to read the figure as white.

In order to read the figure as white we must read the blank background as white.

We have often been told that blankness means whiteness.

But this does not help us understand what it is that the figure fears.

 

2.

The larger figure is rendered as a continuous solid.

Most of the solid is filled in with closely spaced lines.

These lines are known as “hatching” or “hatchmarks.”

We are told to read these hatching lines as blackness.

We are told to read the figure as black.

The figure has a white face.

I say “white face” although the face is blank because we are told to read these blank spaces as white.

The mouth and eyes are rendered as lines.

Were the hatching lines to cover the face, the expression of the eyes and mouth would no longer be legible.

In order for the expression to be legible, the face must remain white.

The hatching lines are pulled tightly back from the forehead like the wig of a founding father.

The exposed forehead, arching over each wide eye, suggests the possibility of enlightenment.

Enlightenment is rendered as a form of blankness, the unhatched space.

In order to achieve enlightenment, the hatching lines must be kept at bay like saplings rooted out to clear a field.

The hatching lines are “beyond the pale.”

That is, the hatching lines are beyond the boundary line that separates what is clear from what is not clear.

We are told that the larger figure is also “beyond the pale.”

We are told that the larger figure is drawn to the smaller figure.

We are told that the smaller figure is not drawn to the larger figure.

The smaller figure keeps the larger figure at bay.

If the figures were to encroach upon each other, the blank spaces would fill in with hatching lines.

These spaces would read as black spaces

You would not be able to read the lines of arms or legs or features against this black background.

That is why they never touch each other because you wouldn’t be able to read it.

A Table in the Wilderness

I draw a window
and a man sitting inside it.

I draw a bird in flight above the lintel.

That's my picture of thinking.

If I put a woman there instead
of the man, it's a picture of speaking.

If I draw a second bird
in the woman's lap, it’s ministering.

A third flying below her feet.
Now it's singing.

Or erase the birds
make ivy branching
around the woman's ankles, clinging
to her knees, and it becomes remembering.

You'll have to find your own
pictures, whoever you are,
whatever your need.

As for me, many small hands
issuing from a waterfall
means silence
mothered me.

The hours hung like fruit in night's tree
means when I close my eyes
and look inside me,

a thousand open eyes
span the moment of my waking.

Meanwhile, the clock
adding a grain to a grain
and not getting bigger,

subtracting a day from a day
and never having less, means the honey

lies awake all night
inside the honeycomb
wondering who its parents are.

And even my death isn't my death
unless it's the unfathomed brow
of a nameless face.

Even my name isn't my name
except the bees assemble

a table to grant a stranger
light and moment in a wilderness
of Who? Where?

The Bed on the Wall

After Robert Rauschenberg’s “Bed,”
oil and pencil markings on pillow, quilt, and sheet, 1955

So garish: the arc of his interior
thinking. So red,

so deceptive. The coordinates of this project fall
between sheets and box spring:

the command of horizontal passage.
The bed soaked

with the overlapping tongue
of his brushes, with pattern interruption, the departure

from edges. Let’s say he is within
his composition. Inside

his story. As he tips
the paint, the objective can be taken

altogether away until he detects
only desire: a rough strike

of purple
censured from exuberance. The room remains

with the weeping wreckage
all around, and the panels

in the corner
beaded with aggressive desperate skins.

Below the window, the dirty
city, its permanent

tensed distances, its hungry
catastrophes, its bare

windows. His pillow is creased. It tells everything
we need to know. Each drip, directionless.