Seen Through a Temperament: a Poem and a Painting
In the light of Seamus Heaney's remark that poetry is life as seen through a temperament,
I would like to give a glancing account of a single poem of my own, a poem initially about
art rather than life, about a particular painting as seen through one writer's
temperament. It pleases me that "temperament" seems like a painterly word, its
first three syllables naming a kind of paint.
On the dust
jacket of one of my books, X. J. Kennedy generously describes me as a
"yea-sayer." Though there is certainly a strong current of assent (if not
celebration) in my work, there is a dark undertow as well; and, as for my temperament, no
doubt some of those close to me are still shaking their heads in amused befuddlement at
Kennedy's depiction. Let me elaborate by way of anecdote. One afternoon years ago,
somebody ran into my car in a parking lot. Those were the days when you got the money
straight from your insurance company and either fixed the car or didn't, depending on how
you felt about it. In our case the damage was only cosmetic, so I persuaded my wife that
we should leave the car alone and throw a cocktail party with the money. When my old
friend Tom Molyneux was asked what the occasion of my party was, he replied, without
missing a beat, "Somebody ran into his car." Now there was a man who
understood my temperament. My wife, whose profound talent for happiness has never kept her
from sympathizing with those of us less gifted, also knows that temperament well. She
proved it once by making me a gift of a painting by John Winship, whose work I have
admired since I first saw it featured in a magazine ten years ago. More often than not,
John's paintings have people in them, and they sometimes suggest those darkening
photographs of family groups, porches, yards and automobiles from the 1950's. My painting
is unusual in that there's nobody in it. It's called "Late December," and it
features an empty chair in a room in winter. The room and the chair look abandoned rather
than expectant. I looked at the painting for a long time, in different lights and from
different angles, and this is what gradually emerged from that study:
While it's true that some conspiracy of stars
Persuades the eye the lumbering clouds are green,
That's beyond the pane, in the outer darkness.
Here the only green thing going is the spindly
Spiderplant at the window, and it looks cold.
Or look again: Is there a caught breath of green
In the curtain we may have just seen stirring?
It's not breath enough to quicken an ember.
The room is entirely lit by ice or snow,
Whatever sends that blue glaze through the window,
Furrows of snow or else the scraped sheen of ice
On a pond abandoned even by shadows.
The fire's gone cold that was in another room.
The man who sat here while it died was reading,
Lear it could have been, and he wanted weather
In view when he lifted his eyes from the page.
Now the shrill metal chair, brought in from the lawn
At summer's end, is empty, an odd blanket
Lapped over it like a mantle of snow
Or the folds of his last thought as he sat here:
In order to make believable Lear's cry
When he draped the cold Cordelia in his arms,
One consummate player sealed his civil tongue
To a scrap of dry ice, then emptied his throat
Of the sound the tearing away brought out of it.
In writing those lines, my conscious mind was largely focused on looking, on the
visible details of the painting and how I might somehow get them down on the page. Where
King Lear and the dry ice came from is a bit mysterious, but I probably owe them to a
misremembered anecdote about the strategy Laurence Olivier used to bring forth his Oedipal
cry of anguish. It seems he deliberately thought about the way ermine are trapped, patches
of salt spread out on the ice for them to put their tongues to.
Even after writing that ending, with its obvious vocal elements, I held onto the
impression that the poem (unusually for me, I thought) was concentrated more on sight than
sound. Then I got a letter from my friend Tim O'Hara, who had seen the poem in a magazine.
He had no way of knowing that a painting had sponsored it, and he was keen on the other poets
he heard in the background. He mentioned a poem by George Herbert called
"Employment (II)." It contains the lines, "Man is no starre, but a quick
coal / of mortall fire," and it comes to this chilling conclusion:
Oh that I were an Orange-tree,
That busie plant!
Then I should ever laden be,
And never want
Some fruit for him that dressed me.
But we are still too young or old;
The Man is gone,
Before we do our wares unfold:
So we freeze on,
Until the grave increase our cold.
I saw the parallels, and I was flattered indeed, but I couldn't accept the credit since
I knew the Herbert poem vaguely if at all. O'Hara's next remark, however, struck home.
"Here and there your beloved Frost pipes up wryly." Frost! Well, of course.
Although he had never once crossed my mind in the writing, the mere mention of his name
called up a particular poem almost immediately:
An Old Man's Winter Night
All out-of-doors looked darkly in at him
Through the thin frost, almost in separate stars,
That gathers on the pane in empty rooms.
What kept his eyes from giving back the gaze
Was the lamp tilted near them in his hand.
What kept him from remembering what it was
That brought him to that creaking room was age.
He stood with barrels round himat a loss.
And having scared the cellar under him
In clomping here, he scared it once again
In clomping off;and scared the outer night,
Which has its sounds, familiar, like the roar
Of trees and crack of branches, common things,
But nothing so like beating on a box.
A light he was to no one but himself
Where now he sat, concerned with he knew what,
A quiet light, and then not even that.
He consigned to the moon, such as she was,
So late-arising, to the broken moon
As better than the sun in any case
For such a charge, his snow upon the roof,
His icicles along the wall to keep;
And slept. The log that shifted with a jolt
Once in the stove, disturbed him and he shifted,
And eased his heavy breathing, but still slept.
One aged manone mancan't keep a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It's thus he does it of a winter night.
My debts are too numerous to catalogue, but they would have to include my "outer
darkness" and Frost's "outer night," the cold stars against the
window-pane, the house apparently empty of all but one man, the fire (burning more
effectively for Frost's man than for mine), the movement from room to room, the occasional
resort to a plain or even homely locution, and so on. In the end Frost's poem is surely
more sanguine than mine, and so, no doubt to a lesser degree, is John Winship's painting.
I had a letter from John after he was shown the poem, concluding with this observation:
"I hadn't sent my painting out into the world with the injunction to go forth and
multiply, yet there was [your] poem... After the dark leap into the last stanza, I look at
a photograph of the painting that I've clipped to the poem with amazement."
I thought maybe John was conveying his surprise at the intensity of the darkness in the
poem, but in a later note he corrected that impression: "I feel that there's a
darkness in my paintings (or most of them), and I was moved that you'd elicited that
quality by other means. That was my amazement."
Thinking back, although I'm not exactly sure how the particular kinetics of that
"dark leap" came to me, I have been made to realize that I must have been
listening intently as well as looking before I leapt.
TCR October 1999 Feature