Monthly Archives: February 2012
Rembrandt, A Portrait
There is a portrait by the man in Kansas City,
a minor portrait, a dashing of genius, exuding the light
he is known for, caught in the brown curls of a noble
young man who bears the face of my father.
We saw it there some years ago, when we wandered together.
That was surprising. Seeing John there,
in baroque garb, splashed out in oils,
his face nonetheless, and my father beside it,
smiling like a lottery winner, in awe of discovery.
The same brow-ridged forehead, same
brown crescent eyes that can’t help rejoicing.
The nose both splayed wide, and fleshy
above sensuous lips that fit me well, being a poet,
but lend the look of something earthly,
obscenely vulnerable to the face of a man
dedicated to the service of God.
There is little chance that we are related
to this Dutchman, if he is Dutch. Our blood
has been mingled from other sources;
German mostly with Native American and a fragment
of English and, for me at least, a dousing of scotch
courtesy of the blood of my mother.
But people traveled more freely then,
if they had the money. Without visa or bureaucracy
to bind up their hands. With the right accent, the gold
no one from that century would have had the trouble
I did, staying with my English husband;
The months of waiting and distress.
They took their gold and settled with it,
crossing oceans just discovered or well known,
bought the papers which held the land, and let
their roots grow into new soil. It was a time of adventure,
as this painted light wildly tells. For those with the gold.
John bought a print of this painting in the gift shop
of the Nelson Atkins Museum, titled: Unknown.
He hung it up in the guest room of their new house
in Louisiana, a place called Monroe. We call it
his Unauthorized Portrait. It is mounted beside
A real painting, done decades ago, in Rembrandt’s style,
new venturesome light, cast in amateur oils
which he commissioned from an artist in Virginia
at the start of his ministry, when he was younger
than I am now.
It has traveled across four seas; from North America,
to Scotland, the Philippines, and back again
by way of California and China,
traveling on bootstrings, voyaging in spite
of his straining threadbare wallet. Other belongings
lost, Broken or stolen, furniture smashed
so that only this portrait remains, carried across
the time stream. By now enough waters have flowed
out of his grasp that there isn’t any wonder
at the fact that neither portrait really looks
much like him at this late date. But when I stand
between them on my infrequent visits,
people who don’t expect much wonderment in life
have to lean hard on chairs, and suck in their breath
at the hard shock of recognition, gasping
at the works of the Masters, Old and New,
who I have joined in creative amalgamation,
recording and recorded, noble and artist, both ends together,
who cast their images on the seas of the world.
Caught in the Teeth
‘It happened like this, Elaine, I came down
this morning to open the Book,’ Popie wags
his bald pate at the Bible on the cabinet, not noticing
the mistake of names, though Nana bristles by the sink,
‘and I felt something in there with my tongue tip, kind of catching,
like a piece of popcorn kernel, which they tell me
I can’t have anymore. But never mind.’
He takes another sip of paint stripping coffee,
being careful with his lips against the rim,
mouthing the china like a horse would, after
getting hold of a fresh, sweet carrot. Nana
hovers between us and the stove, fiddling
with nothing, there is nothing to cook.
She has always been frightened of mortality,
or evidence of it. She sees this as proof
that even her best china, her silver plate,
will pass away. The fact that we will is beyond her.
She jumps just this way when she catches
herself replacing my name with that of her daughter.
‘Anyway, I set to digging at it with my tongue,
it felt real strange, half disconnect, half pressure,
and the next thing I knew, they’d all spurted out.
All of them. The whole top row.’ He smiles now,
and it is ghastly; the heart of rotten fruit,
flyblown road kill, an aged, toothless mouth.
‘Like I was spitting seeds.’
Nana sucks in air, to draw time back, in recall or fact.
‘Did it hurt, Popie?’ I look at dark oak table top,
at blue plastic placemats, at the glass dish
red-streaked, glistening, left from the baked apples,
anyplace not his mouth. He reaches out with worm-veined
warm hands, to touch me. His voice a rumble, with a lisp.
‘No, no. I didn’t feel anything. Just wonderment.
‘The feeling you get when you’re out hunting
and you see something; an eagle, hawk or a snow
white fox, something too good to shoot,
running through winter-light, so clear and so blinding,
that you feel lucky enough to have lived to see.
It should have been awful, but it wasn’t.’ He smiles again,
but not for effect. Covering time’s most recent wound
with fingers and thumb.
‘Anyway, I cannot get your Nana to look
at me, so it’s a good thing the dentist called me back.
They can see me Monday morning. While you’re
at the gym. I asked if I should bring the teeth,
thought maybe they could mount them in resin,
glue them back in. The dentist- she’s a lady
weightlifter. Ever hear such a thing?
But she’s pretty enough for all that- said that I should
just chuck them out before they spoil. I can’t quite do that yet,
can’t go around divesting myself of myself
without thought. So I’ve set them in a dish
in our bathroom. By the sink. They’re kind of pretty,
after you get used to them. Your Nana doesn’t like it.’
I am not quite sure how to answer; I take a sip
from my cup. Nana is standing in the light
of the window. Florida spring-light, golden and green
through new leaves, clothing her in radiance
that clings to her skin. She smiles to see it,
thin hair glimmering, she smiles at her man.
‘There are different kinds of pretty.’ She tells him,
laying her lips on his cheek. She cannot, yet, bring herself
to kiss that changed, that well-loved mouth.
She needs time to adjust.
I have seen photographs
describing a fragment
of the way they were then,
my uncle and father,
Danny and John.
The doctor of not-yet,
the future minister,
dressed country presentable,
more fifties than sixties,
with scrimped hair cut high and tight,
spiked by their grandfather
who couldn’t stand a handbreadth of locks
on the head of a boy.
It was their first year in Florida
inhabiting a home I came to know well,
when I lived there, half gray-blue wood,
half brick and painted cinderblock;
that wide, sprawling yard of hibiscus,
mertyl, orange trees- still replete
with elephant ear that Popie had not vanquished-
ferns, the square rose garden in the corner
their father never gave up on,
to spite the environment, that light sandy soil
so different from mountains
where if the land was sweet, where
you’d drop a flower and a shrub would flourish,
fed by unseen source.
The boys were curious, a little too daring.
I have no idea where they found
the magazine which sold Army surplus.
I’ve no idea where they came up with the cash,
but somehow or other they scrimped it together,
along with stamped envelope, an address card
messily filled in by dyslexic hands.
I could not have stood the waiting they endured,
all those weeks of processing. Their little card
filtering through the guts
of some vast company,
denuded of its sweat stained,
green florals. Knowing my father’s
life-long impatience he probably hounded
the postman to ruinous depression ,
wondering out loud, when the poor man
showed his overheated adult face,
if the package had been missed.
Eventually it came round,
as all things do,
wrapped in brown paper,
addressed by hand.
Danny was older, his privilege to open,
sliding his knife blade scalpel-like through twine,
revealing a small round can,
the kind home-movie film came in,
sealed off tight.
John was the one to uncover the sacrament,
And what shone there alone in the bottom,
religious awe and adoration.
It lit up his face like a Mosaic veil
and made brother Danny
fall back as though stricken.
John sucked in his breath.
A small disk of incredible radiation,
a glowing light that could never be
extinguished or hidden,
that the boys, or anyone,
could never make dwindle
or in any way diminish.
Light without heat, that anyway
a host of slow poison to hold on the palm.
They stood alone together,
made isolate by silence,
Hands of the same size and substance
clasped, impressed with sharp nails
that could belong to either of them.
They never really played with it.
Popie came in from his job
reclaiming the neglected, placing the broken,
the brain damaged, deranged
in jobs that they could handle,
according to capacity.
He saw the light, and knew what it was.
He did not yell, or strike them.
He did not even cover it with can-lid.
He knelt down,
hands that struggled at nurturing
settling down on twin curvatures of spine.
He laid out the danger
there on the table, home to toxic feast
and familial rite of pleasure at meals.
When he had finished
describing his horror
my father reached out,
white cheeked, trembling,
his eyelids glistening,
raw and bright.
He closed the lid tight.
There was already treasure
in that yard.
They added worth
by burying this surfeit.
The boys dug down
deep to plant this seed,
until they hit the water table.
They set it down,
like Hebrew priests
the location of the Ark,
willfully forgetting that power
such as this
has a way of seeping out.
The light, Springish,
like the sun seen through leaves,
never went out.
It is glowing still, somewhere,
waiting to be found.
Eventually, when I lived there,
I would seek it out.
In the places I looked I found;
a roundel of imported flint,
a similar chunk of rose quartz,
the soggy remains of Popie’s first garden,
the spilled ancient slag
of a conquistador foundry,
the skull of a large dog,
a horse tooth,
five ring-neck serpents, still alive,
and the rusted husk
of a Volkswagen side mirror.
I am still looking,
still scouring the depths
for that dangerous light,
which I have never seen,
though I have felt its intimations.
I have faith I shall do,
when the time is right.
In the meantime I will pray
for the recovery of light.
There are two endings to the story of myself;
none other is possible, no other seeming
is ending at all, but resting place on the path
of ascent or plummet, of pinnacle or fall,
these implacable twins.
Either gravity is training for its own slow breaking,
either it shall relinquish its hold
and this force of weight I feel,
ever downward dragging,
the slow growth of hunger in my lungs for air,
prequels eventual fulfillment.
If the taste of something sweeter
than the air I know will follow
the acquisition of new-earned strength, my eyes
will reveal the world that always waited,
beautiful and new, above the earth’s fell scrim,
needing only the slow death of my body
to purchase revelation.
Or else the struggle is prequel
for inevitable plummet,
that long, slow fall to the only place where safety is,
that level ground where there can be no glory
in the ruins of my bones, but then no further pain.
Gravity is a law, and we do not understand it,
but I know what it is to fall.
A moment’s satisfaction
-well this is the worst-
followed by a swift cessation, and no half-loved
half-dreaded Face to greet me in sorrow
or joy when I finally breach the stony crest.
Knowing this, always, my hands still seek out flaws,
the narrowest of crevices, to splinter my nails
and draw me ever up. Though I am exhausted,
my muscles starved and twitching
in insatiable twin hungers
for oxygen and the brief splendor of the fall, forgetting
for a moment that I have already fallen once,
my shoulders bear my body, struggling, bloodied,
as though weighted with cross-beams,
forcing my flesh continually skyward.
Is it any wonder that
I am so tired, though other hands
have sought these bloodied fissures
and used this force to bear
their fragment bodies up?