A ROOM OF FOUR ROTHKOS
Shapes, are you enough?
There are grumblings inside me
no food can stifle, no liquor can drown.
Will you comfort me? Outside this room
there are no chairs to sit in;
the sidewalks crawl for miles.
Where are your Christs,
your nymphs that I could romp with
through brooks and yellow fields?
Yet if so much order can be formed
with paint on cloth
between four sticks of wood,
and if order can be formed
by hanging paintings
on these four walls,
then order can be formed
on a page, in a city,
in the mist of a soul.
At the Phillips Collection
My favorite in the box of 64
was Prussian Blue, rich with its hint
of green, blue enough to suggest
an exotic 19th-century
I’d have colored everything Prussian Blue –
except tree trunks, hands, and faces –
but it had to be carefully rationed
lest, its paper cover stripped away,
it would wear down to nothing.
Without it: prosaic Umber and Sienna,
Yellow-Green, the all-but-useless White.
Adult life, I assumed, is when you own
all the Prussian Blue you’ll ever need
to color anything you want.
MY ONE INCH OF FAME
I ran into Bob, whose name
was now different and who now
was a photographer. He took my photo,
then handed me the camera, changing places:
he assumed my pose at the bus stop
and I, in the gutter as he’d been,
almost got hit by a bus,
but I snapped the picture.
A magazine announced Bob’s
illustrated by two photos:
John Cage, taken by Bob,
and Bob, by John Cage.
I found the exhibition, huge room
after huge room – but all the walls
were hung with contact sheets.
I hunted and found us: Gloria Steinem,
Milton Glaser, etc., and me –
all of us famous people
were one inch high.
We all know what Andy Warhol said
about the 15-minute duration of fame;
for the thousands of us exhibited there,
the dimension was one inch.
CARNEGIE HALL, 1960
At 17 I came to New York. The dormitory
was higher than most buildings I’d ever
been in. I ate in a coffee shop
where people never looked at you,
went on a tour of Bellevue
because it was a place, like Lindy’s
or the Metropolitan Museum of Art,
so legendary that being there was magic.
Some New York kids I met said,
“Let’s go to Carnegie Hall.” From Standing Room
we looked down at the Philharmonic
and their TV-star conductor, jumping
up and down on his podium, all creating
wonderful noise that filled the place
and vibrated to the roots of my hair. The things
you could take for granted in New York!
LASZLO Empty Pictures
For three years I didn’t go near
a canvas. Each month I would check
the tubes of paint, make sure
the caps were tight. For three years
the only work of art I could claim
was my love for her. Sometimes
I sketched clouds or made collages
from magazines, just to keep busy.
What remains of years of obsession,
years when an ending was unimaginable?
Beauty I can only remember,
beauty I cannot show. Nothing to sell,
nothing to hang on the wall.
SAM THE PICTURE MAN
We humored him as he made his rounds,
selling candy from a cardboard box
and his shirt-cardboard paintings
of grinning, paisley-shaped animals.
We would mock him, fool or simpleton,
and buy his pictures for a quarter.
Years later I watch with my son
the amazing maneuvers on the campus lawn
of a jugglers’ convention. Sam is there,
as before, but feeble and less coherent.
His paintings are larger, more accomplished,
the creatures peaceful and multi-legged.
Prices are high, he tells me;
“I pay for the cardboard now
and I use more paint. They wrote me up
in the magazine last year.”
He puts his hand on my son’s head
and I pay five dollars for a picture.
That’s cheap for anyone’s masterpiece,
a smiling eight-legged monster
that bears another monster inside,
and cheap for my son, at seven, to be blessed
among jugglers in the springtime
by one of God’s own fools.
The photographer improves on reality
or helps it along. With brighter lighting
on the far side of your face,
he makes you look thinner.
He checks what shines,
adjusts what’s out of place.
Diffused light and special lenses
soften your imperfections. Retouching
corrects the errors of nature.
The resulting photo on your wall
depicts your better-looking twin,
who looks as you would look
if life and your own demanding nature
had treated you more kindly.
IN THE GARDEN OF THE SENIOR RESIDENCE
Jean tells how she’d go to pubs
and meet American soldiers – she’d sing
the latest songs – White Cliffs of Dover,
Berkeley Square – teenager in London
in the war years, time of privation,
of jokes in the bomb shelter. She tells us
in the fading light, surrounded
by wings of the building.
Every night, after feeding all
her younger brothers and sisters (mother
dead, her father an alcoholic),
out she’d go – it was a wonderful
time – “Sing us another one, Jeannie!” –
as well as a terrible time – “The boy
you danced with could be dead
the next week,” she says.
We hear a siren beyond the garden
walls – a resident rushed to the hospital.
An American married Jean, brought her
to Massachusetts; when he beat her,
she had to leave him. A nanny in Boston,
raising other women’s children –
when the husband died, her sons
began to visit her.
Tears in her eyes as we speak – there’s
a new director of the residents’ choir
who won’t let Jean sing solos,
so she’s quit the choir. “My heart
isn’t in it anymore. They all
like my songs – I know the words
of all the old songs – but she
doesn’t want me to sing them.”
Sing for us, I ask, sing
White Cliffs of Dover. “Here?” she asks.
“Here and now?” Please, I say,
and she sings – her light, clear soprano
reminding us of bright nights
when life was waiting for everyone young
to bite huge chunks and down them with beer
before the sirens wailed.
KLOR VEIS TZIGELE
(hearing Martha Schlamme sing “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen”)
Time goes only forward, and that is why
we step in only one direction.
Maturity’s a game of manners,
not to spit at asses, not to cry,
not walk out of offices;
not say these things aloud,
but on this paper.
Would I a hundred years ago have been content,
in those grandfathers’ villages
of blushing, dainty Chaveles,
nailing together on market days
my rickety square table,
selling by cupfuls my little heaps
of raisins and almonds?
There was never a tiny white goat
beside my crib, to grow with me,
to help me sell, or keep me warm.
Now, in times of terrifying manhood,
I’d like to, sleeping, feel
his sparrow’s heartbeat
beneath my blanket.
klor veis tzigele: pure white little goat
rozhinkes mit mandlen: raisins and almonds
Chavele: girl’s name
Written in 1968
THE LAST SPRING
And no more watch the buds break out,
the children, brown and pale,
shrieking in their dragon-hunts.
Young leaves are hung
on all the branches.
So much wet – the gray, the black skies;
the drenching wind, the mud.
This is the most green springtime,
greener than springs remembered
and all imaginary springs.
The ocean’s rhythm is slower now.
Black waves slide up the beach
and scatter foam
that seeps into the sand.
The wind is smoother now,
the ocean’s rhythm weaker
in this wind. And this,
the last spring, ends soon.
All man’s ways speed the turning
of the world toward death.
The world is cold, as the sun
drops below the orange sky.
If this spring’s to be the last,
let’s burrow into the sunlight.
Come live with me as a butterfly
and we will spurn the flowers,
to fly above the waving grass
and drink the tears of antelope.
For Susan Lenoe
“There are a few species of noctuids
found in Asia and Africa which live
on the tears of antelope and cattle.”
(Corti, Butterflies and Moths)
The library was almost a shack –
a two-room white clapboard building
with a little of everything,
an oasis of literacy in the town.
They had a few LPs of classical music
and I always took out the limit
of two at a time.
When I was leaving for college
the librarian had me recommend
new records for purchase; she had
$200 of fine money to spend.
I gave her a list and she followed it
exactly – my taste at the time, my sense
of the beautiful, the worthy, and the outrageous
from Beethoven through Ravel to Stravinsky.
The library is gone, replaced
by a proper brick edifice;
I assume the records have been replaced
by CDs and cassettes.
But that was my first opportunity
for cultural influence, at least
in a two-room clapboard library.
I watch the full moon through
the telephone wires;
six cords are stretched between
the wooden poles;
the moon sits within them,
a whole note in a stave of music.
When the birds are silent for a moment
and the wind stops rustling the leaves,
purple dusk hums
with the music of the moon.
The photo store has a machine that makes
old photos look good. You can zoom in
and crop on the image. It will save what’s curled
or losing emulsion. I’ve copied a few
for my mother; she wants help to remember
her dead. My grandparents pose as though
expecting to be deported. The images fade
like memories, dimmer each year.
I never take pictures, don’t like
imposing a camera on what I do or watch.
A whole year in Africa, I shot one roll of film.
Maybe I miss a lot. Sandy insisted we take
pictures of our trip to France. It was my idea
to have her pose in a field of poppies.
That’s why we have her in her flowered dress,
surrounded by Impressionist coquelicots.
Instead of photos I rely on a mental album,
with sections for good and bad memories.
The images fade but the feelings remain
and no one grows old. There are words, too,
that capture time better than chemicals
or pixels. Sometime I may write about
a smiling face in the pink dusk
of a French field of coquelicots.
A strange, somehow dangerous beatnik place—
some of the customers were barefoot—the waitress
with her long, straight hair was dressed in black.
The drinks were exotic—bitter espresso,
Constant Comment tea. We were 17.
Singers in rubber sandals pretended to be hillbillies—
since this was Boston, they sang of a “broken haht.”
Then a woman sat at the mike with her guitar
and sang songs from Vanguard albums:
The water is wide, I cannot cross over
and we held hands, poised at the edge of a bay.
And neither have I wings to fly
We breathed her fingers’ rhythm on the strings.
Give us a boat that will carry two
And both shall row, my love and I
Would anyone ever love me that much?
Why not us? Why not us, sitting in the smoky light
of a beatnik coffee house? Along the broad shore
the water would shine forever.
And both shall row, my love and I