* * *
The Tumbling Box
As a child
I learned to keep my stories to myself.
Inside they spun
like stones in a tumbler,
one of those rotating drums
amethyst, jasper, rose quartz
to the smoothness of a lozenge
on the tongue.
And so in conversations
I lagged behind.
When pressed to speak
I’d agree with someone else—
to more than that,
who’d want to listen?
Even now I’m drawn
to another’s version
of the tale of a woman
who said nothing
but what she heard first
Her voice trailing
nothing could have been worse
than falling in love
Unless they’d had children.
To this familiar story
what can I add
that hasn’t been said before?
Over and over,
my stones remind me.
Those untrustworthy masters!
Always reversing themselves,
turning toward me,
then away, upside, down.
Never letting me have the last word
with their never ending
end over end.
Is anybody listening?
End. Over. End.
* * *
In “The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons”
J.M.W. Turner may as well have dipped his brush
in the flames racing across a prairie’s acres,
his canvas gives off that much heat,
the same sulfurous haze blurring,
scumbling my Midwest, his Thames,
the blaze that starts, the wind that carries it
until everything’s molten
on the artist’s brush, the fire runs away
from the torch that set it.
Turner’s yellow. Is it any wonder
the artist tried to rein it in,
taming it to gild a river’s surface,
then turning it bronze as the sun
seen through mist?
Bridge, tower, he must have said,
as if to keep from disappearing
what he could still recognize
through the smoke surrounding the boat
from which he watched Parliament burn.
Witness. As he claimed he was later
aboard another ship, in a blizzard so fierce he knew
he’d be swept away if not lashed to the mast.
Four hours he was bound, he said,
not expecting to live, but determined to record it if he did.
What? Not wind exactly or waves.
Not only the jaundiced light about to be snuffed out,
says his brush. Hostage to no form,
what rages at gale force held him.
But longing to make a home for it
in the visible world, Turner called his painting
“Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth
making Signals in Shallow Water,
and going by the Lead.
The Author was in this Storm on the Night
the Ariel left Harwich.”
Thinking of Goethe’s color wheel,
the sun that’s a fireball,
I imagine how Turner must have begun
a painting—needing like me
to burn away what grows up
unwanted, weedy, making it harder
and harder to see the horizon.
With the idea of starting over
I begin as if I were lighting a backfire
that’s slow to catch, downwind,
thinking creek, bluff, road, ditch,
careful to contain the burn.
At this point wouldn’t Turner
still be hearing the carriages
outside his studio windows? A theater
of vendors, clocks striking the hour,
then critics, children
he’d prefer not to remember,
the racket getting louder, then harsher—
who can bear it he thinks—
until the wind shifts
and the Author’s alone with a canvas,
his landscape, nothing to stop
the headfire blazing within.
* * *
Virgin and Child with a Dragonfly
After an engraving by Albrecht Dürer (about 1495)
She doesn’t notice it
And neither do I
Until something starts up in us—
Then suddenly: bronze
Between see-through wings,
The dragonfly flashes its wand.
How ever, she wonders,
Could she have missed
Its look-at-me look next to her hem?
So much else to attend to, of course.
Joseph, what does he want,
Arm slung over the back of her bench?
And the dear child himself
With his little hand at her neck.
Once she’s glanced away from them, though,
She sees it is paradise. One, two, three,
More goldfinches flushed from the grass.
And like a child now herself,
She claps others from hiding:
Surprise! A monarch
Unfolds its fan; the live coal
Of a cardinal glows.
Then just for fun (red, red, another one)
She thinks how like the sour cherry
Ripening the bird is when it flies.
And her mind, freed, flying now,
Sees from the stones the cardinal drops
Each branch of a new tree flare.
Tinder, everything’s tinder
For the dragonfly’s wick, she cries
Before she goes up, goes out.