Using Black to Paint Light: Walking Through a Matisse Exhibit Thinking about the Arctic and Matthew Henson
“The light range was so narrow if you exposed film
for a white kid, the black kid sitting next to him would
be rendered invisible except for the whites of his
eyes and teeth. It was only when Kodak’s two biggest
clients—the confectionary and furniture industries—
complained that dark chocolate and dark furniture
were losing out that it came up with a solution.”
—Broomberg and Chanarin
“When a contradiction is impossible to resolve
except by a lie, then we know it is really a door.”
I keep referring to the cold, as if that were the point.
Fact. Not point.
Forty-below was a good day. “In short, fine weather,” you wrote once, before cutting out blocks of ice and fashioning another igloo for the whole crew each night.
But it isn’t the point, that it was cold, is it?
How many days before arriving did you sit on the deck in that chair, staring out to sea, wearing a coarse blue shirt, the lost, well-mannered rhetoric of your day spiraling beneath a blue hat—concertina (at your ankle) outside the placid frame?
Thank you, whoever you are, for standing behind the camera and thinking “Matthew Henson” and “photograph” at the same time.
The unanticipated shock: so much believed to be white is actually—strikingly—blue. Endless blueness. White is blue. An ocean wave freezes in place. Blue. Whole glaciers, large as Ohio, floating masses of static water. All of them pale frosted azuls. It makes me wonder—yet again—was there ever such a thing as whiteness? I am beginning to grow suspicious. An open window.
I am blue.
I am a frozen blue ocean.
I am a wave struck cold in midair.
The wave is nude beneath her blue dress.
Her skin is blue.
To arrive in a place.
And this place in which you have arrived finally: a place you have always dreamt of arriving. Perhaps you have tried—for eighteen years—to get there, dreaming of landscapes, people, food. Always repulsed by your effort, unable to attain the trophy.
And then finally somehow you arrive one day and are immediately stunned because you realize more than anything, it isn’t the landscape, food, the people. That thing which most astonishes you is the light, the way the air appears, how the sunlight hovers just before your eyes.
And you—then—wanting nothing more than to spend the day indoors watching the room. The vast ocean always nothing more than an open window. So you stay inside and choose to watch the same wall turn fifty reds, then later: slow, countless variations of blue. Blues you have never seen. There is a black beam overhead on the ceiling. Without it, the ability to see such light would disappear. The light is toying with you, and you like it. All of this because the darkness is now always overhead. That. That is what arriving means.
I want to say the same thing in a variety of different ways. Or I want to say many different things, but merely one way.
Perhaps there is only one word after all. Beneath all languages, beneath all other words: only one. Perhaps whenever we speak we are repeating it. All day long, the same single word over and over again.
Choose something dark. Choose a dark line to hang above you. If you want to see what light can do, always choose the dark.
Out on the ice, the light can blind you. The annals laced with men who set out without the protection of darkness. All finished blind.
Blackbirds, black bowhead whales, the raven, the night sky, the body inside, blue ink, pencil lead, chocolate, marzipan. Like us.
All water is color. But what does that have to do with you and me, Matthew?
Maybe life is just this: walking with each other from one dark room to another. And looking.
Sometimes the paintings come to life. Sometimes you just love the word pewter. Sometimes the ocean waves at you. Sometimes there are goldfish in a jar. A bowl of oranges. Sometimes a woman steps down out of a frame and walks toward you. Sometimes she discards the white scarf, which covers her, and reveals her real body. Sometimes she leaves, moments later, covered in a striped jacket and leather hat.
Our lady of the dressing table.
Our lady of the rainy day.
Our lady of palm leaves, periwinkle, calla lilies.
Our lady of acanthus.
A garden redone three times.
Sometimes someone you love just falls through. Gone. The blue massive ridges of pressure shift, float away, move. Sometimes the ice breaks open. That’s it. Sledge, dogs and all.
I fell through once. I’d grown cold, so I stood up and walked to get my coat. I was told it was hanging on the far wall of a very dark room. Because it was dark, I could see, really see—for the first time—how a particular gold thread sparkled on the collar. I reached out my hand. But before the wall, there was a large hole where stairs were being built, which I could not see. I walked into air and landed on my head. Underground.
Everything then turned a vivid black.
I wonder, Matthew, when you were out on the ice for years, trying very hard not to fall through, I wonder whether—like me—you ever thought of the same woman over and over again, whether you ever imagined her draped in a loose-fitting emerald robe, seated in a pink velvet chair, engulfed by a black so bright it was luminous?
Sometimes I lie here in bed before the fire, unable to move—this cane, this hideous cane, this glorious cane, cutting cane—and imagine that one particular curl falling forward toward her forehead. I imagine the same curl at this angle, then that. A recurring dream. When my bed becomes a vast field of frozen ice the color of indigo, and I cannot move, I begin to see her face. Each strand of her hair becomes a radiant small flame, twisting and burning so quietly. Then I look at your picture, you out on the ice, and I wonder if you ever feel like that, Matthew?
Like a woman, faceless and flung over
a desk, at rest or in tears, exquisite
quickly drawn ruffles about your shoulder,
halos of wide banana leaves
hovering just above your head?
Were there images you could not fling
from your mind? Events that clung
to you, coated you, repeating
themselves in a series: movements
or instruments in a symphony?
Objects that would not let you go:
an avocado tree; a certain street
at night where someone exceptionally kind
once took your arm as the two of you walked
along a wet sidewalk; trying
to remember the light on that certain gait:
your mother twirling a parasol, also walking
through a grove of olive trees?
Did you begin to find comfort
in the serial, the inexplicable and constant
reappearance of things, people, sensations,
every moment symphonically realized
and reentered. The way the days begin
to rhyme. Every moment
walking into the room again.
Sledge after sledge.
I fell through, into a hole in the floor. I landed far below, on my head. Sometimes I still forget my name. Sometimes I forget yours. Sometimes I forget how to spell the. Regularly I am unable to remember Adam Clayton Powell. Or how to conjugate exist. Sometimes I lie in bed and cannot feel my legs. It’s like something quietly gnawed them off while I was in the kitchen making tea. From the knees down: this odd sensation, not nothing, but something, just not legs. If ice were not cold perhaps. Or the memory of a leg. I cannot feel my legs, but I can feel their memory.
In conversation, my face goes numb. It starts at my mouth and spreads out. When I am quiet it recedes. Why is numbness ascribed the color blue? It’s not. It’s red.
By the end of the day, my left hand has disappeared from the end of my arm. I ignore it. Hold my pen. Smile at you. What year is it, darling? I once lived where? With whom? Where is she now? What was her name?
I remember nurses. Their faces. Someone very, very kind—a woman—began to tape a pen inside my hand. I remember being suspended in a harness. Being lowered down into a warm blue pool. All the other patients there were very old. Here is how we all learned to walk properly again. Underwater. Blue.
Once I fell through—into the dark.
Braces and casts.
Being told not to write.
Being told not to read.
Forgetting someone I once promised I would never forget.
Remembering her finally, one year, then forgetting her again, the next day.
Remembering not remembering I’d forgotten.
Forgetting them completely.
When I look at photographs of Matisse, unable to walk, drawing on the wall from the bed, his charcoal tied to the end of a very long pole, I stop breathing.
Him, I think. Yes. I could marry him.
I could slip into his bed.
We could talk about real things.
I could be his dark line hovering above.
We could watch the light turning the room every color.
From Gulf Coast 29, no. 1 (Winter-Spring 2017). Copyright © 2017 Robin Coste Lewis. Used with the permission of the poet.