Bio Note: Writing poems can sometimes feel like a solitary beguilement. Which is why the bulletin board that I see, should I look up from the screen, includes photos of Melville, Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf (among others) – also a photo of Little Gidding, a pin from Keats House, another from the Montana Book Festival 2017, and bookmarks from Broadway Books, Foyles, and Salmon Poetry. A near shelf holds a rounded pebble of red jasper, a fossil scallop half-embedded in stone, a nickel flattened by a rail car, a chunk of white quartz next to a piece of coal coughed up by the Thames, a crow feather, and two mugs full of pens. Talismans, all. A new book, Unlooked For, is due from Salmon Poetry in 2021.
Picture Too Large to See
—Las Meninas, 1656 Archaic, monumental – why look at this canvas Diego Velasquez court painter and subject has painted himself into, wherein he has just stepped back, a palette of wet colors in hand as now he studies us, as though we might yet be part of his subject on that canvas twice his height, held taut by two stretchers in its frame. We see what he's not painting. He stands in a room, airy and high, figures to his left resplendent in the lace and frills of the Spanish court. Royal and God-anointed is the center front girl, her ivory gown best lit by the window right, her days no spontaneity, no wish unmet, and no one could know how young she would die. Commentators will tell you more of who is who and what what, but really it's too tall, too wide to see all at once. You have to face it, let haste go slack – you have to choose how to look: what's not there, what is, this person or that, the way an intricate ribbon in bows attaches a sleeve, a conversation you’ll never hear, a sated dog, farther back, a door, a stair, someone coming, going, ever turned to see who you are. Nine feet across and ten feet tall, a painting like this must have asked days, months of patience, mixed colors, attention to space, shadow, object, detail, each brush stroke a decision to make, unmake… Better, Velasquez thinks. Palette set down, soon he will need to eat. He rolls his shoulders, goes outside, looks up: lead white, bone black, red ochre, azurite blue.
Lines Composed after Four Days of Steady Rain
A complicated place, the past— it tasks us: be other, and better. Design by sun, by leaf and feather, morel, chanterelle, and bee, and finback, right, gray, bottlenose, and sperm. Make habit not for profit’s catastrophe but story ongoing, as now this gray iambic rain reminds me of Grasmere, its little green square sodden, St Oswald's yews and churchyard sodden, the River Rothay's risen sound hurrying past the Wordsworth graves – William's and Sarah's, sister Dorothy, daughter Dora, and Thomas, age 6, Catherine, ever not yet quite 4. And though it's not exactly the bliss of solitude, nor emotion in tranquility recollected, you can in words and fact go there, walk that rocky track to Rydal under rain, trees shedding, flat water pewter, brief silver, the stone you awkward tread a channel braided loud with what gathers and waterfalls – such trail the Wordsworths and Coleridge knew – waxed canvas coats, who knows what sewn shoes. On rock not far distant they carved initials formal as cut lead, and sat nearby in sun, and tried, each and together, to listen, intuit, look and think and say what time had brought them – a moment, this, the next, how earth reveals itself in cloud, rain, sun, chill, warm; in leaf shape, oak poise, heathered, brackened, slaty ground, and fruit seeds in a green linnet gut – such admirations found, born into, their conversation not science merely, nor sympathy, nor philosophy nor health, but all of these, beauty—until at last they sat quieted. Clouds blew in. Leaving apple cores for birds, they started back, not as they had come, failing, minutes later, to out-walk the rain then, which is not and is this rain and ours. So the past that tasks us may love us yet.“A very rainy morning.” “Very rainy all the morning.” “A very rainy, or rather showery and gusty morning.” “A rainy day.” Dorothy Wordsworth, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, October, 1800
Life is, Soberly and Accurately, the Oddest Affair
—Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary, Sept. 30, 1926 With Mrs. Dalloway we walked London streets and parks, remarked on flowers, and heard the chiming hours sound, and found the blue-marked Stephens house. And from the hill of Talland House, St. Ives, we saw her same view down – a girl at the window that day more interested in sky than bay. We saw the River Ouse curve swift and deep— we crossed it on a swing bridge at the Southease stop, and through hay fields walked the slender road up past the tiny church unlocked, and so the path to Rodmell, food at the one pub there, and then to the house, the room Virginia and Leonard and so many others sat at supper, low beams, tile floor, Vanessa's paintings (a harbor, a portrait) on the walls. Yes, we found the outdoor loo, and having entered the room with her bed amid all its books, from that green door we followed bricks to zinnias, red asters, mums—September's garden profusion overgrown, the orchard, clipped lawn for bowls, the lodge she wrote in, cliffs in the distance white as she knew. By the dew pond with lilies, quick colors, a gentle breeze: we sat on a bench. And last resolved to better get thought and feeling right, we walked the stubble fields back.
©2021 Lex Runciman
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