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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.
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