You left the crying baby, small apartment,
walked down the hill to the train across the Bay;
then, alert to angles, vistas, movements of
a city on the water, cut across
to the old Monkey-block, gone now, even
the name, and that studio gone. No war,
no slum — places like memories just get blotted out.
Then Walnut Street complete with walnut-tree,
pot-belly stove — demolished too — and the studio
on La Vereda, which translated as “path,”
or — in another idiom — “the sidewalk.”
All the New York spaces, huge and freezing
Fourteenth Street — and when you returned later on
to pay back rent (yes, then you were punctilious),
the landlord brothers, who wore long shawls and beards,
reached down sweet wine and poured you all a toast.
There was that tiny place you called the “bedbug-farm,”
the one on 23rd St. where you painted moons,
the loft with plants the borough then tore down...
So many studios — turned homes, till the word “home”
itself was lost beneath strata of paint
and longing, the wedge and scrape of palette-knives,
beneath the colours which wooed and pleaded,
terre verte, alizarin, cadmium orange...
Eyelids flicker. Pain is bred in the bone.
We want to love — all we want is to love.
You want to cry, look down. Renée doesn’t
understand, is afraid to understand,
she who grew up in a fairy-tale where
her folks loved each other and their little
princess and they all lived happily in
a little shingle house up from the Bay.
She doesn’t hear, blindly insists, I don’t know
what’s wrong with you. Forget him. Anger isn’t Nice.
And the innocuous word gathers weight —
moral overtone. Eyelids flicker, flicker.
Both of you refusing to see — And pain
bred in the bone, mother’s milk... You slam off,
seize charcoal and sketch a forest of black
curves, strokes, jabs, a woman — beginning to see,
yes, of course — who becomes a pot-belly stove.
Painting now... if the strawman tilts just so —
You are five years old, having breakfast with Dad.
You like getting up early, the two of you,
having breakfast together before he leaves.
Today is special, April Fools, and you’ve put
salt in the sugar-bowl... Your eyes sparkle
as he sprinkles salt across his Corn Flakes,
stirs two spoonfuls in his coffee. His rage
knows no bounds; he spits, and screams at you, and screams.
Eyelids flicker. By seventeen it is you
who are screaming, hurling chairs through windows.
He wants you to play football, work in his shop,
not hang around with those fairies — he rattles
his paper when your sister’s practising.
Who needs Chopin? It’s dance music they want.
In the museum
The sun’s a white eye — it cuts through night,
hacks like tin. This is war, the war you longed to fight.
So clear the huge wrong, so clean the right —
you were ardent with dreams of fighting black with white.
A horse shrieks, bull stares; torch casts tin light;
blades break. This is the war you wanted to go fight.
The women lunging with rage and pain...
You stare. This is the war you longed to fight in Spain.
You thought you could leave your own civil war,
own rage and pain — not take it to Spain. Eyes stare.
You light another cigarette, stand back,
survey the nude on the easel, full frontal,
twisting forward, as if on a pink chair...
something about the articulation
in the legs... But you glance at your watch, late
for class, again. You grab a clean turtle-neck,
sweep a handful of change off the bureau-top,
dash food into the cat-bowl, and lock up,
not forgetting (security New York-style)
to leave the radio on and call back,
“It’ll be at least ten.” But it’s later,
much later, before you roll in happy-drunk
from a party at your landlord’s. You wadge up
an old envelope for the cat to chase
across the studio floor. Ah — those legs,
it’s that shadow-pink... You reach for a brush.
When the museum closes down its school,
a vital scaffolding drops away. You
slowly free-fall down, down into that nightmare
pain bred in the bone and the whole world hurting,
become your Dad; it threatens, talks money, money.
Your colours rage brazen, brushes jab.
Why aren’t things better organised? Organised
for artists? You venture out chiefly for scotch
and Saltines, kick out the dealer invited
to see your work, pour another glass, stare at
the canvas, where born of the glance of light
on wave... Yes, this was your use of memory,
not for liberation but civil war.
Painting dreams in cobalt, viridian,
ochre, terre verte, painting love and desire,
and too, on giant bicycles, their huge
thighs pumping over a next hill, women
shrieking or singing or swearing, women
bearing your pain away over a hill...
While you drank and raged, why does he want rent?
He’s a millionaire. On the floor above
your landlord built a handball-court. Thud. Thud.
Hospital’s safe. So wondrously safe. Eyes
close as you sink back into a velvet
darkness. In my beginning is my end.
Unless eyes clap their hands and sing, unless ears —
You swim up through your tubes, hearing a step
by the bed, open your eyes on legs, long legs,
how pretty this young nurse stepping off
the too-white canvas... You sink back into
the comfortable black underworld where no
bird sings money, money and there’s nothing
for a poor artist to pay... And the care,
it’s warmer than scotch, like having sympathy
on tap. You lap it up, push far away
the unpleasantly nagging awareness
that this is the underworld: it is your task
to come out the other side. You don’t like
tasks, they smack of your Dad. You call the nurse,
inquire fretfully about a sleeping-pill.
It’s hot, and your studio on a top floor
off Market Street is hotter. A Balcony
Woman gazes out over a cool sea,
but no breeze fans the Calligraphic City
on the opposite wall. It takes an act
of God to get you out, but then you can’t
stop looking. “Green,” you murmur in the park,
“I think I became an artist to paint green.”
Sun riffles the gingko leaves. “What about
that trip down the coast? You up to it yet?”
I wonder. “Mother’s eager to come too,
and there’s an open invitation to lunch.”
The wide white beach has hardly changed —
your eyes drink in bent cypresses, kelp festoons,
the shining sweep where dunlins peck between
the suck and fling of breakers. “Remember when
the soles of your feet got sunburned?” Mother smiles.
You want to find the rocks south of the point
where you’d set your easel up among tide-pools
alive with white crabs, starfish, anemones.
“This was the sea I was always painting,”
you tell friends over lunch, eyes drinking the view,
forgetting Long Island, and the rocks off Maine —
or maybe there only is a first sea.
You are sitting in the patio, this
brick patio you laid forty years ago;
sometimes you visit now, when you can get
a lift across the Bay. You love the light
on La Vereda, falling through pepper-trees —
it makes a kind of shadow-beaded curtain,
dancing, not still... You enjoy a sandwich...
Today you and Renée discussed at length
whether to have egg salad with scallions,
or avocado and bacon on rye,
and then a long time later she came out
with lettuce, cheese and tomato on whole wheat,
sliced diagonally on a blue plate.
She always did make food look beautiful.
You smiled. “Tastes delicious!” Her black cat appeared,
and you began remembering aloud
Black Venus in New York, how she fetched,
you’d throw a paper-wad, she’d bring it back —
Renée’s face is so young when she’s laughing...
All we want is to love. When she brought that
cappuccino milkshake to the hospital,
you agreed to put the past behind you.
You admire the peonies together,
talk of her class in botanical drawing.
Even your parents are fading... They were
children, benighted children, afraid... You
go back to The Lemons, and the angle
of light has changed, the shadow’s easier now,
won’t need that alizarin you don’t have.
You reach out for Cadmium Yellow Light.