At the Temple of the Mind

Albert P. Ryder, At the Temple of the Mind, 1885

At the Temple of the Mind


Green Animals, a topiary where I walk, is across a river

from an isle of desolation: a willow, Temple of Apollo,

mist and burnt pages from a prose poem by Baudelaire,

a broken epithet, a lone, cracked tomb in the shadow

of three graces who’ve thought my art is too temporal,

fleeting and imprecise for the routines of everyday life.

The cold is a color that takes me from a dream of ants


to a world of cuckoo clocks, smudged ledgers, where

the task of language is to talk. A grotto fountain leaks

into grass, a ruined image that can never be forgotten,

just as words, hidden in a picture, are etched in stone.

Overhead a star’s on fire as it crosses the Milky Way,

as a parade of Noah’s beasts meanders down a valley,

a flank of auks a bright taboo against the end of time.



Lord Ullin’s Daughter


Blue sky over Scottish waters, a chill is spreading

to every bracken fern-- to each fleeting thought

a boatman has as he poles Lord Ullin from one

spot to the next, looking for a daughter who’s

eloped with a stranger from the coast of Ulva,

where billy goats scale rocks just to get a view

of the bottom of the sea. The king stares into


the whitecaps that graze and batter their dory.

His daughter, as if guided by a star, makes sure

not to look back at Hades, as she sees it, because

the king, having raised her as a child, must now

put away the past. The ocean will be her suitor,

the chieftain with beard and dreadlocked hair

a part of the rime of the sea and a heaving land


beyond it, which is what she’s after. Her hair is

in the arms of squid, the tide that’s running out

is her heart’s companion. No matter how hard

the boatmen pull at oars, they can’t catch her,

a child of the land of snow, drifting to worlds

where the dead sleep with open eyes and youth

peers into the blistering face of the morning sun.

Pegasus Departing


The day begins with Ceylon tea, hard tack biscuits

and a dated Saturday Review. Teddy Roosevelt is in

the White House, Booker T. Washington has been

to visit. There’s a Van Gogh show in Paris, Annie

Taylor’s barreled over Niagara Falls. In Shandong,

the Boxer Rebellion is underway, raids on railroads

are quieted and Marconi’s read a transatlantic note


at Signal Hill, Newfoundland, dots of Morse code

merge into static ocean waves. The world darkens

with the new millennium, just as my room is grey,

probably clouds obscuring an early December sun.

But a horse descends, born of a blood of Medusa,

plagued by gadflies or tribe of Amazons, as if from

the holiest of cities in Hindustan where a jinn lives.


I can ‘t hear Manhattan outside my windowpane:

in the foreground of the image, I put Bellerophon

dismounting on a pedestal of ice, sitting in gloom,

not unlike Rodin, focused on the word immensity.

I paint Pegasus spreading wings, and poise two

muses halfway up a wall where he’s entombed,

until the horse defeats a devil and he walks free.

The Flying Dutchman


The Flying Dutchman sails to the Bellinghausen Sea,

where squalls rise up in polar currents, looking to

find Moroccan pirates unaware or feasting, teased

by snowstorms laced with ice. The ghost ship rounds

the Cape in surging waves, where sperm whales sleep.

Legendary soul, never to set foot in port, but wander

the farthest corners of southern seas. Cerulean, rose


then orange and dung-brown, the skies unleash a fury

known only to sea dogs and mermaids. After dreaming

of the Flying Dutchman, I find a lost love, prosperity,

peace, never without cutting fingers on a rigger’s knife,

breaking a tooth, leaving a kiss unfinished, dust motes

reappearing in my eye and at my bedside chamber pot,

the Flying Dutchman ever skirting pack ice on the sea.




At a Washington Square East studio, there’s a turquoise

glow of sunbeam as I paint in gulls on unnamed shores

and mutter a hosanna to revelations of my inner self.

In Moonlight, an upper atmosphere blows maple leaves

into a state of shock. A gloam appears– I don’t know

what I need– scrabbling pigments into a glaze, a roiling

mass of weeds that’s not quite water, mist or midnight,


scoring like a child with needles in black wax, for color

and the calm beneath. No visitors means that I am free

to populate my endless landscapes, observing a pigeon

on my windowsill, feeding my impulses in an attic hole

where only the forlorn show up to share a noodle soup.

Even in my city rooms, it’s the wailing of the Maritimes

that’s breath enough for me to stay awake and scumble.


Christ Appearing to Mary


A Levant wind in cypresses, You do not want to touch me.

The prophet’s healed the sick and raised two epileptics

from a bench. Fishermen walk shoals at Galilee, swine

run straight into the sea. At first light, Mary scratches

at a cave’s rock-face door, one foot is chafed and torn

from walking farro fields to find this man who stands

in flowering arbutus, saying You do not want to touch me.


His arm is in an arc, bending toward a kneeling child,

her palms free for a snakebite or stigmata. He offers

no parable on withering figs, none on river sturgeon.

A servant’s ear’s made whole, a blind girl sees clouds

that carry the spark traveling from his hand into hers,

so that she knows he’s risen. Earthworms in a garden

shrink, as he says the words, You do not want to touch me.




Ice sheets on Johnnycake Hill. I've had enough

of sledding, seek simple pleasures like a ribbon

candy, a mouth harp or watching fur seals in

the harbor, a rutting bull in stubble cornfields,

a flowerpot on Bierstadt's windowsill that falls

to cobblestones or stalks of purple foxglove

drying into tar. I dream of the factory girl that


I will wed and die for. She smells of sassafras,

her eyes are lumps of coal. She paints her lips

too lavender for dance halls of New Bedford,

here in town where Frederick Douglass clacked

a cane along Mechanics Lane. I'm in perpetual

motion: a sound of an O from a hot air balloon

riding high over the shifting, continental plates.


Barrels of cod line the docks of a fisherman’s

wharf on Buzzards Bay. A beggar spies a maid

and falls in love. In the air, you can smell rum

and spermaceti. Falcons plummet down the air

at Crow Island, and I can feel their fish breath:

as night comes, we sit and watch an errant star

rocket past a fiery try-works on the whaleboats.


With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow


Hard-glancing sheets of rain cut across our sloop

on a coastal reach off shores of Penobscot, Maine.

Two hooded figures wrestle with the sheet, as the

rudder jack-knifes rudderless, as winter whitecaps

gather over a flood of haddock shimmering under

waves in a frenzy of arctic light. Somewhere out

in the mist a white orb burns, more a cantaloupe


of fire than the tireless tyrant of Icarus. Each man

feels a brazen pelt of ice as his life is plunged into

nets of bottom feeders running before the breeze.

The full moon appears as it did a billion years ago.

Ancient mariners with icy limbs, we seamen bow

to the elements, just as the painter of the seascape

would cater to the caulks, the oils, he renders with.


A Dead Bird


What better tribute than to love a sparrow’s breastbone

after the bird has died? Oleander permeates the parlor.

A memento mori on a dresser is witness to the dance

of death that I’ve avoided, while near me soldiers fall.

Better than daguerreotypes or tulip still lives, I can see

this lifeless form as a prize at the temple of the mind.

Milkweed, skate eggs, barnacles, a brother’s hazel eyes


just level with a tabletop, these are elements of change.

A lynx stares out at me from under the chaise lounge,

beyond what I can see. The dead bird’s eye is open, its

feathers glisten as icicles in snow, its tail is poised to fly

beyond the mountains of La Paz, its place of origin,

near a bulge of earth at Chimborazo, far-off in tropics

where pitfalls full of anacondas are waking up at dawn.


The Golden Hour


An 1890s theater of surgery-- knives, scalpels, hip-bone saws

and vials of mercury-- a child of six is bleeding on the table. 

The path it took from a caboose to here is what interests

the mind of a viewer, who’s heard it has something to do

with the golden hour. No, not dusk, not grazing sheep, not

sea at dawn on the Indian Ocean-- but just two and twenty

minutes when the pulse of one child’s life is felt in a throat


that’s choked by sobbing. River islands hovering above a

water line at a violent passage of Earth’s shadow. This is

the moment a painter must breathe into, pick up a brush

for a bluish wash. It’s while a child lies in a crib at Halifax

that he’s drawn to express himself, a surface taking hold,

now nothing can stop him, not ebbing of the boy’s blood,

a gaze of threshold guardians nor a cauterizing of the paint.


The Tempest


Ryder sets down his island exiles in Eleuthera, but I see

them tramping through pink hydrangeas in the Azores.

Chartreuse skies unveil a hundred kinds of snow, sleet,

Bolivian-gold grasses and reptile footprints in the sand.

Out of a wizard’s study stumble our monsters of the id,

spooky stand-ins for Caliban and Ariel, who sing to an

accordion, while a witch casts a spell on the ghost ship.


Miranda bathes completely nude in an Eden-like oasis,

there are no men her age but lots of bulging grapefruit,

a forest of white bears and a hundred cow-eyes ogling.

She gets kissing lessons from one of the crew she likes.

Lost in the island’s forest canopy, a scene is set for joy

and Prospero can sleep at last, knowing his daughter’s

found some peace amidst the ferns and passion flowers.




I make a living counting stones, walking backwater creeks,

hunting for pennies, pruning tulip beds and gathering up

cast-off bridal veils. Arjuna blows a conch at battle dawn

on one of seven islands of Bombay, or in trembling winds

that blow from Patagonia. In this landscape are the stories

yet to paint: Faust and Gilgamesh and Johnny Appleseed,

hallucinations on a linen tablecloth, or learning to translate


whispers into shrieks of spooks in haunted houses, as I

plot transcendent panoramas of the West. I’m listening

to Father Mapple preach from a ship’s pulpit, scolding

and berating deep-sea fishermen in their watery graves.

I need to get back to New York, to my shut-in rooftop

with its sky the size of postage stamps, where I muster

lots of tar and coal and creosote to paint the landscape.

The Sheepfold


The man and border collie walk perimeters of sand,

encircling sheep in smaller and smaller rings at dusk

as they pour like butter past a gate into a peat bog.

Each lamb, each ewe is a citizen of God, each one

chews grass like there’s no tomorrow. They follow

the hogget as he makes for the innermost point of

the spiral, sheep dog biting at hocks to settle them.


It’s dark now, a dovecote’s closed and night owls

are keeling in the wind. A flock of swallows nips

at my train of thought-- will it be the setting sun

or the smell of sheep that I dream about tonight?

A shepherd’s crook is left in a paddock in the rain.

Cirrus clouds congeal above a lengthening shadow

in the yard, where an invisible hand is blessing sod.


Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens


Elms bend madly sidelong in a gale of rising water, limbs

like hands and feet of fortune’s soldiers, grasping, flailing

in dust-storm desert light. Underneath, three bathers are

extensions of the clouds that mar the river. A lone coyote

on a hillside sighs, scratching a low hummock in the dirt.

The sky is all diagonals, grass flattened out by solar winds.

Beach rose hips are dropping to the soil as black ants till


a bed along the Rhine, in the painting of the myth I daub

with fixative and bristle. Siegfried sings and tramps along

and hopes to get a peek at figures wading in the wavelets,

flax oil glistening on naked bodies. He quietly comes up

to where they are among the trees. In moonlight, he peers

at half-human, half-willow twig things that push hip-deep

and gyrate in a tide moving swiftly towards the North Sea.


The Canal


Midway from Elbow Street to a walkway at Rockaway,

the painter and his mule slow down to drink, but not

from the canal, so full of butcher bones, blood, ink,

bell pulls, oil lamps, barrel staves, anemometers,

arrowheads and sealing wax. He looks up at clouds

in a widening landscape, the coordinates of what in

humans once was lust, but now is gathering shade.


A saltwater tide comes up the lock, all green sludge

from gristmills, soap works, staining the water gold,

a bed of oysters already bled to black. A guard dog

barks. Ryder leans an easel to mark how reddening

skies can mottle surface on the water. It’s a center

of his world, a knot of feeling, a spot where sounds

of hammering in an iron forge cannot be overcome.



Light snow dusts Union Square, where Nero’s crypt

is the mind’s cavernous passage from here to Rome,

to Noto, Sicily, to the lagoon children of the Adriatic

where I find Desdemona, on a pine island, up in hills

where hungry mobs fled Attila’s tramontana. In 1650,

gentlefolk would heave their eggshells, lemon peels

and aglio e olio out Venetian doors to guttered streets


where a giant metal pig ran free. Inside a bedroom,

Desdemona paints her nails or gloats. In a bride’s

 dress, she waits out old Brabantio. Behind an arras,

Othello winks. Fireworks crack and I snap out of it,

rolling a cigar, my mind in ruins, checking for letters

to see if any cash is coming in, so I can dine, drink,

buy more tints to finish the portrait of Desdemona.


Homeward Bound


He has lost himself in the Land of Lotus Eaters,

when a hag tells him to paint his way back home,

past weirs, dams, spires, wetlands off Laurentum.

His traveler’s heart beats in a ribbed cage of bones

he calls his living wage. His chest heaves for you,

Penelope, spinning your furies on a loom, while

he’s far from his return, not in Troy, not anywhere


on a charted map. Home is where he sups on figs,

roast wild boar and wine at the wedding of his son.

He sails a trireme over distant, spellbound waters.

The ocean is his book of wisdom, a wading pool

of angels from which the painter arranges palettes. 

He embarks this time for a land of fire where men

use windmill blades instead of oars to ply their ship.


The Forest of Arden


Fireflies light up a radish patch where I’ve set up easels:

cicadas hum, I see the cherry trees are full in blossom

in a midnight pink. Birch trees are in new leaf, and ferns

burst before the broad-leaf world begins to shadow them.

Two kids from the weaver’s guild are sitting by a pond

and feeding carp. Bears run free-- when they’re caught

and taught to dance, children squeal with glee. A chalk


river trickles north, the wasteland is home to llamas,

illness is a crime and crime is solved by banishment.

Potatoes rule our fallow fields, as poetry turns to

poor hypothesis. Toy-sized cats and people crowd

the doors of an unborn world with claw and clamor.

With cherries in bloom, I wait for the moon to rise,

hearing fairies or young lovers quarrel over mistletoe.




Winds off Tarshish tear fishing rigs to splinters,

able-bodied seamen toss like seaweed in a wrack.

A surf’s froth careens along the coast and merges

with the gathering wrath of thunderheads above

a wobbly horizon dividing blackened sea from sky.

In the gutter trough of a rogue wave, the old man

raises his arms as if to admit armies into Nineveh.


The great fish-- more monster than pale cetacean–

bears down on him from depths of the unknown.

The heart of a sea is throbbing frozen cold, as we

don’t know if the grinning fish will swallow him

or if the sea will slip into cosmic haze. A luminous

figure, a father of the transgressor– holds a globe,

makes with a crooked hand a sign of the beholden.



We’re drinking beer on Rivington Street in a pub

called Loreley, where there are no chestnut trees,

reminiscing on our daughters’ childhoods. What's

happened is that twenty years have passed and all

we did is right in front of us, as we nurse wounds,

try not to tell too many lies. At the bar, a painting

of a rock outcrop atop the Rhine. Both of our girls


loved jungle gyms, loved dressing up stray doggos

in raincoats, feeding butterflies, ordering ciabatta,

gelati, for everyone in sight. Both girls are sirens,

nineteen and on to boyfriends, jobbing, the kinds

of things we did our best to say they shouldn’t do.

And we are happy, older, wanting to pole out now

past Mouse Tower on the river, to see the Loreley.

Death on a Pale White Horse


After working a day at the chip-ice plant, you walk

a path through firs towards a racetrack. All bets are

off– you’ve lost a wad to bets on thoroughbreds

like Sir Dixon, Prince Royal, Tyrant and Tecumseh.

You’ve left notebooks at home and travel with pen

and paper, with a wistfulness, a whistle on your lips.

A child cries out in nightmares of a moonless ride


through sycamores, ghosts appearing in the clouds.

The forest floor’s on fire in a wet, Appalachian bog.

When you get to the white-rail outpost of the track,

constellations in the sky seethe yellow, it’s midnight

and the only fellow traveler is a bone-white horse

that carries a will-o-the-wisp with a scythe, a snake

winding sideways as she slithers up a patch of grass.