FISHING THE CREEK
Too many of us with lines in the creek, cane poles waving,
hooks caught up in trees, on blackwater snags.
Five or six on the creekbank, two on a stump,
two more out on a log. Someone pulls in
a fish but is afraid to touch it, can’t put a foot
on it, flopping, collecting dirt like cornmeal.
Not one of us knows how to run a hand down its back
to flatten fins, hold firmly, detach the hook.
Most of us too little to thread a worm, to hook
a hook in the cricket’s back, its green ooze, the wad
of red worms in the Campbell’s soupcan; crickets
in a wire box. Lines tangled, a fine hopeless mess
of loops and knots. My father moves from problem
to problem, grinning like the boy I wish I was.
APRIL IN PARIS
In the Tuileries’ round pond, the fountain spray
is a mist in the windy sky. It’s April. It’s Paris.
Trees are ready to blossom or leaf out,
tulips about to wake up from their black beds
are pert on tall stems, fat and tight,
Arcs of forsythia already blaze.
There’s nothing to do but watch a piece of the world
which is not the world. It’s all so beautiful here.
Around the pond children wield long sticks
to push wooden boats from side to side.
Girls and boys run to be ready before
their boats bump—they rush to be deft,
to touch tenderly. There’s no anxiety here:
the simple glee of learning what’s predictable
and what’s not, vagaries of the wind in the sails
as the boats race or veer or tangle or tip,
but the wind sorts them out.
Nearby in a stall, an old man who makes the boats
and rents them out is rigging a sail, a blue one
on a red boat. There are green boats and yellow
boats and purple boats too, and the colors of sails
are one color or two or patched many colors.
Children’s jackets are the same colors, and their shoes
laced with strings they have just learned to tie.
Parents, having found a thing to do that’s easy,
that makes everyone happy, relax on benches
around the pond and watch the children.
There’s a kind of settling down here, a balance.
I don’t envy the children or their parents
or even the old man, though perhaps I should.
A kind of miracle these boats, their solid-wood hulls,
and canvas geometry, the mechanism of rudders.
Behind him on a shelf, some masts are broken,
sails in tatters, rudders splintered off. It’s chancy
out there in the weather, and day after day
he takes chances and gives pleasure to the world.
I’m sitting in a state of mild despair,
as if swirled up high above a circus looking down
from a white drift of cloud over the center of Paris—
I feel nothing, or so little.
I watch a boy push a boat with his stick,
a confident red boat with a red sail, that takes
what the wind gives and does what it can.
I know it should be enough to love the world.
THE BOATING PARTY
after the painting by Mary Cassatt (1893-94), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Something difficult is happening in Cassatt’s big painting,
or has already, a family idyll gone wrong,
something oppressive, at least claustrophobic,
three so close together in a small boat.
What’s disturbing is not just the dark coat of the rower,
his back to us filling up so much of the canvas, a kind of navy blue,
almost black, but she too—sitting stiff under her prim hat,
one arm (not shown) bracing against the bow, the other holding
the big sprawling child awkwardly against her stomach—
is staring at the rower. But why?
And the child, prettily dressed in a pink sort of blouse,
stares too. The position of the figures, so confidently painted,
cannot be comfortable, though the child’s face is shaded from the sun.
Some of the story is missing, as is usual with paintings.
He’s lost his job at the factory. He’s a fisher,
in a fisherman’s hat, just back from a long voyage at sea.
She no longer knows him, resents him,
he is so ignorant of what she has been through.
He doesn’t know how to talk to his daughter.
I’m thinking he’s thinking: But so what?
They should be happy he’s returned.
Or it’s Sunday afternoon they’re spending together,
so little time in the working week. It’s awkward.
Neither knows what the other has endured.
She’s done very well by herself, thank you,
though it’s not been easy. How can he
reenter their lives like this and expect a party?
He’s borrowed the boat, which was his idea.
She’s packed a picnic, which was hers.
As if they could now take a holiday among fashionable
boaters and all the dailiness of struggle disappear.
Says, yes, what a nice idea, how generous.
But the language of the body doesn’t lie.
She looks: do you know what you’re doing?
He has misgivings: was this a good idea,
since, after all, it was mine?
Once I came to the museum and sat on a bench in front of the painting
and studied it for most of an hour, and noticed too the people
who came between me and the painting.
Most stood looking for less than a minute.
I came to expect a woman to take longer, to tilt her head
and look at it differently, as if this were a situation she recognized:
man, woman, child in a boat together on a bright day in blue water;
a black obscuring shape; the bending toward, the leaning away;
the angular and triangular motions of deference and power,
the resentments and dreams and careful hopes
of men and women in marriages.
Maybe it’s just Sunday afternoon and they are happy,
out together, enjoying the day, the ordinary awkwardness
of a family unaccustomed to leisure;
they want to be having a good time,
and so he’s learning how to maneuver the oars,
and so she’s trying to manage their daughter
and follow at the same time his suggestion to shift weight
toward the front of the boat, to steady the rocking balance.
Now I see: lines of the composition aren’t all so angular,
their shoulders curve together, and a piece of the sail floats out top left,
curling in a little wind, and the yellow-green gunnel
curves around them like an arm.
Once I came to the museum and sat on the bench in front of the painting
and wrote a postcard describing the big tilted shapes of the composition
technically, exactly, in tiny script. I filled all the white space up.
There is no sky in this painting, I said,
the horizon where the blue water ends
is a thin black shore with a few scattered houses.
I think I wanted to say:
If you were here, we could talk about it.
You could tell me something I don’t know.
THE BROKEN PITCHER
after the painting (1891) by Bouguereau, Legion of Honor Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco.
The pitcher already broken lies
in brown and green pieces on the ground
near the well where she sits.
Nothing moves, not even the wisps
of her hair which could easily be lifted
by a little wind. The air is still and grave.
There is simply the taint of an old French
passion, something European that compels
story out of stasis. For something has happened
and life as she knew it is over, as surely
as my mother’s innocence was taken
the moment her first lover left her
full of himself. In the distance, a faint tower
and steeple, the village that in ignorance
and error turned her away.
It is after all just a painting of a peasant,
a girl whose gaze is the story’s only verb,
moving and holding the painter’s stroke.
Perhaps he saw her just like this by the side
of the road, and, enchanted,
stopped to paint that look in her eyes,
the loose folds of her brown skirt
another particular achievement,
and the trace of red in the weave of the shawl
and the tones of flesh in her face,
her folded hands, and white feet, arranged
naturally, beautifully bare.
She has moved and held my gazing as if into
heart’s well that will not fill up.
A story I recognize and have felt,
of lovers who left me, whom I left.
A story achieved by stratagems, lies,
the story of my mother, the same eyes.
An odd comfort to me, this painting,
as if someone intimate and good
understood the bewilderment, the guilt
that I have turned sometime into music.
Outside the museum, I stand making it,
a little cold wind in the eucalyptus leaves.
My first collection of poems Mrs. Ramsay’s Knee was selected by Harold Bloom for the 2008 May Swenson Poetry Award and published by Utah State University Press. I have won a Pushcart Prize, the poem reprinted in the Pushcart anthology for 2010. I have a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart anthology for a poem that appeared in AGNI.
I have published poems in AGNI, The Hudson Review, The Nation, The Ontario Review, Paris Review, Southern Review, ZYZZYVA, and others. I’ve recently won the Arts & Letters Prime Award for three poems.
I was born and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and moved to the San Francisco Bay Area 20 years ago when I held a NEH Teacher-Scholar grant for a year’s study in the Classics Department at Stanford University.
I have a PhD (in Shakespeare) from the University of South Carolina; I have an MFA from Warren Wilson College.