By David Lehman
February 7, 2017
This week everyone was encouraged to visit an art museum—or, if that proved difficult, to go to the website of New York’s Metropolitan Museum, the National Gallery, the Barnes Foundation, or some other great institution—and write a sonnet about the painting you name in your title.
The wonderful works that came in re-confirmed my belief that what we are doing is not a weekly competition but a weekly challenge—and that we are all what Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront wanted desperately to be: contenders. We are also, it turns out, what Marianne Moore in a celebrated poem calls “critics and connoisseurs.” The exchanges and comments made each week are a model of civil discourse at a time when that is rare. No anger, no snark, just insight and enthusiasm—a collective commitment to an esthetic ideal and to the joy that comes with the territory.
The gold medal goes to the unrhymed but tight sonnet Cheryl Whitehead wrote after she “went to the Met Breuer website and studied the Kerry James Marshall exhibit.”
Silence is Golden
(after Kerry James Marshall)
Silence is golden. You hear? Might keep you alive
or maybe you die. Black on black background, gleam
of white teeth & whites of black eyes. Shh! Black fingers
censor black words. Each raucous-thought black man
might tighten your throat with rope. The night. The howl.
The owl, the torch. The char of the forest floor.
The fire of white headlights winding through the dark
in Birmingham or elsewhere a tired black man
walks home where his wife & two small children wait.
The stroke of dusk of brush a black man paints
himself. A door into the night of his own
interior volition. Smoke shimmers in star-light.
Yes, he’s a riot of teeth & contrite eyes.
Black man, what fires do you suppose might loose you?
Powerful stuff. Ricky Ray, our unofficial critic of the week, observes that the image of the door in the night of volition “puts just enough musk into the abstraction to taste it.” I wonder whether the poet means “lose” or “loosen” with the last verb in the poem.
Second-place honors go to Courtney Thrash, whose rhymed sonnet was inspired by a Maxfield Parrish from 1908 on view at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas:
The Lantern Bearers
“Who are you?” said I. “Sorcerers? Sideshow?
Are you all one or all six that I see?
And how your orbs glow! What do they carry?
Galaxies? Goddesses? Surely they don’t!
Listen to me talking as though you won’t
remain silent, just oil on canvas, the
stairs made of strokes and reflected wavelengths.
Oh, jesters! Pray tell, how do your orbs glow?”
“Tis true,” said they, “that we are what you say:
magical, hanging whole worlds on a bough;
we are what you see, one and twice three; though
you ask for the end, we show you the way.
Please do not worry your head about how.
We bring light, and that is all you need to know.”
I admire the staggered rhymes— not until line eight do we confront the rhyme for line one, and then it returns victoriously at poem’s end. If it is objected that the poem is artificial in diction, I would concede the point but plead that it is too splendid an example to dismiss. Perhaps because I have Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” on the mind (“So twice five miles of fertile ground”) I was charmed by “we are what you see, one and twice three.” I have taken the liberty of adding the infinitive (“to know”) to the last phrase to make more apparent the allusion to Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian urn.” Ricky Ray praises the “double-rhyming in bough / though and how / know.”
Impossible to overlook Angela Ball’s lovely appreciation of a painting by Pierre Bonnard at the Tate Gallery in London:
Incunabula of Marthe Bonnard in the Bath
We know she is reticent, thirty years keeps secret
her true name and age. The pair’s domesticity inviolate,
Bonnard stands painting her in a bath so constant it seems
one, interrupted by a joint of ham, some cheese and vin
rouge, after which Marthe returns to its relief, its expanse
the blue-green-yellow of striated sky, of amplitude and seclusion,
of a body featureless but for divergent nipples, navel,
and labia’s unwavering statement. In time,
the bath bathes Marthe’s ancestors: scullery maids
naked to save fabric; beggars who wore fake
eye patches and corpse-robbed uniforms; artist’s models more regal
than any royal. The bath swells beyond its station, bathing even its own paint—
but at the crucial moment it stops, baffled
by Marthe’s persistence, her lunar, impassible face.
Ricky Ray’s take: “The sky line had me view the tub as a stretch of sky under an open window, the ancestral bathing suddenly brought Eliot into the experience, and the bath bathing its own paint sent me down a delicious, in-turning spiral simultaneously inhabiting and shedding forms.”
Nor can I leave unacknowledged Berwin Moore’s superb ode to color in general and blue in particular:
Picasso’s “Woman with a Crow”
Not cobalt, azure, or lapis –
there is no word for blue like this,
binding woman and bird in a rigid
embrace. Maybe the cold blue of heaven
shrouds them, the woman’s face the color
of a corpse – but there is no death here.
Her fingers, like talons, stretch across
the bird’s dense black; its head, turned
like hers, bows into itself, wings in mute
submission. All that separates them is color:
the cold blue moan, the hushed black caw,
the pale skin veil. It must be their kiss
that transforms me. They are not woman
and bird. They are not two – but one crow.
Like Ricky Ray, I warmed to “that lovely triad of triple stresses: ‘cold blue moan / hushed black caw / pale skin veil.’”
Honorable mention: Paul Michelsen twice over, for “The Persistence of memory” (Salvador Dali) and for the charming Frank O’Hara-ish “On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware’ and Then Reading ‘On Seeing Larry Rivers’ Washington Crossing the Delaware’ by Frank O’Hara,” the title of which is itself a poem. Both are keepers.
Michael C. Rush’s “Wanderer in the Storm, 1835,” after a painting of that name by Julius Von Leypold, ends brilliantly with this “melancholy fit” (Keats): “the day is spent / in discontent / with the wind / around this pond / until the storm /I wait for comes. Again I’m with Ricky Ray: “I swear I’ve taken that walk.”
Finally, Millicent Caliban shines new light on that dark favorite, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” imagining that the couple at the counter saves their quarreling for when they are home and wondering about the fellow, “not quite depressed,” who “drinks all that coffee and cannot rest.”
As next Tuesday is Valentine’s Day, how about a poem in the spirit of the Rodgers and Hart song “My Funny Valentine”? If you don’t know it, listen to Sinatra’s version, or Chet Baker’s, or Ella’s. or Miles Davis’s, or all of these and more. Or just let the title take you where it will.
Deadline: Sunday, February 12, midnight wherever you are.
David Lehman is a poet and the general editor of The Best American Poetry series. He teaches at The New School in New York City.
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