There’s hayseed in the air. I’m off work, having sold two
Barbizon moonscapes, so this day is free from after-shaves
and hair cream–Christiana’s at the barber shop till six.
I feel so alive under stratus clouds, September’s sky that’s
mottled a mile above a restive sea. At Purgatory Chasm
I spot green herons in the field where six hay gatherers
ease their backs, take breakfast with bread and water.
Maybe their grannies hail from Surinam, the sweat
of their brows betokens living on borrowed time.
Two women scythe vetch now, others, too young to kiss,
load the ox-bright carriages. In the distance, you can hear
a locomotive plummet towards the setting sun. Here,
as all along the crumbling Underground Railroad,
the passing Pullman dining cars are lit by kerosene.
Leucothea Rescuing Ulysses
This raft of Medusa is foundering off Holetown,
wrecked by the wrath of a nameless storm, 1891–
sibyls are dirty and mud-caked, the ship’s men
dead-tired, having suffered being turned to swine,
having had enough of rum, ruin, spiny mermaids
from the bottom of the sea. Twin peaks, dense
Brazilian selvas surface through a haze of sun
that warms a thousand years before its time. Giant
yuccas and bananas fan out on wetlands freezing
as an Ice Age pivots into place. Ulysses, idiot-
malcontent, wishes he had a daughter to offer
to the gods of Euboea. Instead, he ravages
the sea to bargain with a white goddess, who rests
her forearm on his groin, before she takes the plunge.
Coal Dock, East Providence
It’s cold on the coal dock, here in the land of steady habits.
I’ve got coal dust in my lungs, it feels like chunks of anthracite,
Liverpool coal, a blanket smell of burning oil, the moon
enticing two tow boats toward the Seekonk shore, just
upriver from where Roger Williams, at Tockwotten,
cheered for a chaste-free God who promised us nothing
but providence. A shot glass of Monongahela whiskey,
my palette poised upon a shuttle bin. In the filth,
I have some hope for purity of soul, the night
casting its pall on God’s creatures: farriers, Negro
bootblacks, an Irish soapmaker, blind in one eye,
groups of toughs shoving proper ladies off the sidewalk.
A half-eaten calf, consumed by worms who’ve supped on kings.
Ursa Minor taints the sky. I wonder how, through whom, and why.
Return of the Herd
How to paint light at the water’s edge? Or how to image silence?
After printing tintypes at Dorrance Street till noon,
I set up oils and easel in the hawk-fed meadows.
Lorries with bottled cream jog their way up to Pawtucket.
Noon gives in to afternoon and shadows. Just when
I thought this tiny pied a terre was uninhabited,
a herd returns, prodded by a dark and barefoot girl,
two cattle dogs nipping at the heels of every steer.
Thistles burst. Stone walls, as sturdy as New Brunswick’s,
define a distance between the apprenticed and the free.
A killdeer limps with a broken wing. A white bullock
falls behind–the edge of my unschooled, harmonic grid.
To paint what’s not to be seen? No, not me–I, indivisible,
brush myself into the circle of light that one cow stands in.
Squall, Brenton’s Point
Lear's worst enemy couldn't have promised such a storm.
Eider ducks bob on the eight-foot surf, take wing for shelter
on land as a mass of grave, gray cumuli descend. A lone ship,
outward bound for the black Atlantic and Middle Passage
can scarce be seen for a tempest building breath by breath.
Crashing waves along the reef: shore dump, sea foam, spurge,
witch invective in the rising surge. Closer, a clump of sedge
withstands the Piterak, a single luna moth still clings
to a stalk. The white spume–the whites are blasted heath.
Water is colored like burgoo–or crimson incense–or
a thousand starfish thrown upon the dunes. Exodus to
Robertsport, Monrovia--all forgotten in the turbulence.
Seaweed gatherers, drenched by red rain, run for cover.
The sea has no mercy. This wind is howling me home.
I’m up on this Wachusett hilltop, when I had to get away,
to a serpent mound such as you find in fugitive Ohio,
an alienist as he studies the wrinkles of a brow.
How many distant cotton mills are burning now?
A quadroon and friend was dragged to his death
this morning on Transit Street–I escape to try to say
what it was, from up here where an osprey fastens
on a weasel the color of his burrow. I can almost
see a slaver pushing up East Passage, bound
for Charleston, for trading in men and molasses.
A girl named Asia levers a hoop off a basalt cliff,
everything smells like sumac. For now, sounds
of a harvest pow-wow draw me back to this world,
back from a picture of the restlessness of nature.
I marvel at the youth as if he were my own, dancing about
a cooky stand downtown and blurting out advertisements
that pleasure men to spend their pennies. Joseph Wiggins
is arrested for stealing a loaf of bread! Fire on a hay train.
Nashville wakes to Ku Klux Klan. Coup d’etat in Port-au-
Prince! On Weybosset Street all wrath is out: guttersnipes,
match girls, boilermakers, chimney sweeps, an El Dorado
of the northern market square: Hopkins Magic Gold Dust
for thrush and grease heels, carpet sewing machine pins,
German bitters, two-bit box shooks, 5-cent Indian cigars,
spindles, cassimeres, wood pulp ware, Eiffel collar buttons,
ships’ windlasses, young men’s underwear. All industry! –
as I eye the newsboy who unpacks his paper stack, dreams
he’s another Frederick Douglass, another leader of free men.
Blue Hill (Near Boston)
Put yourself in the middle of a blue teal flyway:
hemlocks thirst for water, quivering like dowsing sticks,
a marten naps fitfully until cannon fire implodes.
Nothing else stirs: not like Milk Street in the city,
the Crispus Attucks choir-boy songs and cries
of angels emblazoning the earth. No sachems
at the creek swell–only a mill wheel on the river
turning sludge to sludge–paradise of cotton,
gin shops, rum holes, teetotalers. Remember
when you lay in snow here as if to rest forever?
The candle-light dusk is sulky, grum, and chill.
We are as poor as Job’s turkey, but I’ve got a
horse and buggy to reach Blue Hill. July is here–
cicadas trill–my only thoughts are to expunge
the war drums from the shadow of these oaks.
Dutch Cow, Girl, Meadow
At Kaaterskill, I stop to paint clouds, as thin wisps sift
across the Hudson, on the trip home from the Centennial,
where my ‘Under the Oaks’ won bronze, but guards would not
acknowledge it as mine. I’m still a ‘coloured’ on the train,
even though my palette doesn’t favor black or white.
I loved “ The Death of Cleopatra,” the pomological displays,
a giant, wheeling Corliss engine, screw machines, kennel dogs,
a distant cricket match, a peek at the Hermit Kingdom
of Korea, and early grass and butter. A whole day devoted
to the rhododendron, but still it is a two-tiered walk.
Reconstruction is a wreck. Transcendentalists are mute
and no one now speaks about reincarnation. A Dutch cow,
a girl in a meadow–they are my only gauge of the colors
of mankind, a sky as blue as the sea of my beloved home.
Rowboat in a Storm
In this crayon study, I'm somewhere off Porcupine Island, near
Georges Bank, not far from where Mother brought us up,
me in my sailboat named Fanchon. I'm off the coast of Eden,
Maine, near a landlocked spermaceti works, the Cyclops caves
where the ocean's offal bakes. The wind comes up, I reef sail
and come to. At home, 93 Benevolent, I splatch impasto,
eat canned Crimean eggs, and crank the telephone to speak
with Gustine Hurd, a colleague from the Ann-Eliza Club,
who lectures me on life in the year 2000, when four towers
beam light across the city, Freetown girls travel by balloon,
and a gladiator coliseum looms over Roger Williams Park.
I'm happy with summer pudding, wine, and pepper pot,
because–as I look at it again–an indistinctive something
in the painting stirs, emerging from inscrutable fog and dark.
The Drinking Pool
for Jesse Murry
Perhaps I too am a shade, as you turn to speak with someone
standing by. We loiter at the center of the pavilion, but even
a Garrison or Bronte will look straight through us, now that
the war is over, the fight for equal rights is done. What have
we won? I have my private atelier, my leisure time to paint,
and you, your flourishing Madame Carteaux, Hair Doctress
salons and your society. The drinking pool, as I capture it,
is bottomless, feeding creatures of the world that fly at night
to siphon goats’ blood and bison gall when it’s cool. Fire-
red sun sets over a pond of evergreens. My Lisbon bakers
cry saudade, longing for a place that isn’t anywhere, a state
of mind that can’t be bought but in a meadowscape I try
to paint before evening falls. A lark lets out a single note
as if to say, I would have made out very poorly were it not for you.
Road to a House with a Red Roof
Gypsy caravan on the post road to Taunton. Two cars, a tent,
a skinny cat and dancing bears. I lie back and close my eyes:
black butterflies. Circassian beauties from the Black Sea, true
Caucasians for all the world to see. If it was Barnum, there’d
be hundreds of babies, and Schlitzie the Monkey Girl, his sister
Athelia hidden in an attic, the ‘Nondescript’ (another missing link,
named William Henry Johnson) and two white beluga whales
brought from Isle au Coudres, in a giant water tank on wheels
that stopped at shanty towns all the way down to New York.
Light-box panoramas of the West, a pink-ass Ourang Outan.
He says that people want picture shows. I want to sketch so
I can see, picturing this unordinary scene as if it’s all serene,
rising from my ribs through my hands to matte board, a hint
of my sullen temper in the guise of a road, a house, and trees.
Looking East from the Homeopathic Hospital
I’m sitting under a copper beech at Snowtown–torn up by rioting
as was Hardscrabble, just up the hill, when drunken sailors struck
with derringers at poor black working folk. There’s a monument
to the War between the States, a sort of garden of heroes, including
officers of the 54th Infantry. Back then, this day would have been
Election Day, and some King Coromantee would be rapping
people’s shins with a bastinado–that’s all passed now, the only
dignity we find is what we make ourselves. I walk to Planet Street
and back, talking with a stevedore from Stockholm, promising
to paint his likeness before he ships to Guinea. I hear a washboard-
accordion shanty from a granddad and his little boy, as they trill out
bawdy songs from Boa Vista. Looking East from the homeopathic
hospital, I can see the coast at Plimouth and the Cape, the islands,
and the continent beyond, the one it’s not our place to speak about.
Twilight, Willows, Sheep
On Candlemas, I calm Christiana’s fears of dying penniless.
Spider mites in bed lace, broken windowpanes, frozen water
pipes until the fifth of March. Come spring, we’ll amble
in beach rose, listen to crickets in the wood, a saw-whet owl
at Sachuest, where a rock-face silhouette resembles Cato,
the ships’ cook I knew aboard a sloop they call the Venus.
We’ll walk in fields and toe through harvest aftermath:
corn husks, pumpkin, rue, and dill–the bones of a coyote kill.
Queen Anne’s lace, a kettle pond, a kingfisher with a carp.
It’s a stone’s throw to the roadside quarry on a day when
I will not paint, but pray that it won’t be me that sleeps
beneath North Burial Ground grass before I set you free.
A butterfly farm is dark as we reach the headland to the sea,
shepherds walking with a torch, looking for the one lost sheep.
About the Poems
EDWARD MITCHELL BANNISTER was among the earliest Rhode Island landscape painters, the first African-American artist to win national recognition, and a founding member of the Providence Art Club. His landscapes showed the influence of the Barbizon style, an awareness of the Hudson River School, and the developing Impressionist movement. His work was steeped in a Romantic spirit and an emotional response to nature.
The English painter Joseph Turner wrote poems on the backs of his luminous canvases. Words were never far from his hundreds of furiously created inscapes and seascapes of the Atlantic. Our own Edward Bannister, painting in Providence about the same time, accomplished something similar with the titles of his landscapes.The more I look at his beautiful paintings--and the titles of those works--the more I note his interest in not only what he was painting, but also the world just beyond the corners of his canvases. His titles are touchstones to the social dimension of a body of work often seen to be an inward view of grazing cattle, grottoes, marsh, and coves.
Bannister’s words provide a link between his private vision and the streets of bustling Providence, the Art Club, and the soon-to-be Pen and Pencil Club.They provide a gloss on his bucolic scenes of harmony and quiet. Bannister was not a wordsmith, but he was an active member of Providence public life as well as an accomplished and well-known painter.The titles of his landscapes create a simple and beautiful narrative that underscores a need to ‘capture’ the disappearing agrarian life of Southern New England but also recognize the growth of cities and industry. For the booming mills that changed the face of 19th century life throbbed just upriver from his favorite ponds and pastures.
Bannister’s Landscapes, commissioned by the Providence Art Club (upholding the dialogue between the city’s vital culture and business), commemorates the spirit of Bannister’s paintings as seen through his words.There’s a poem inscribed on his grave in North Burial Ground, Providence:“This pure and lofty soul... while he portrayed nature, walked with God.” When I stood there several weeks ago, other words echoed though my head: while he portrayed nature, he hinted at social and technological changes afoot, his paintings preserving the old world story and his words hinting at an image of the new.
These poems are part of a fourteen-poem cycle–a response to Edward Mitchell Bannister’s landscape paintings. I was intrigued with their titles, which suggested social and industrial-era issues in a way that his paintings, often bucolic and dreamy, do not. Not at first glance, anyhow. Bannister was a Romantic, an African-American painter, a lover of the sea, and sometimes social activist in the city of Providence in the late nineteenth century. Many of the paintings no longer exist, and I have taken license with their form and content.
Author's Statement - Poems to the National Endowment on the Arts
I guess I'd have to say that I am a hay gatherer - or at least one of the ones who watch others gathering hay. For me, the axis of the world turns on interesting and intimate detail and the broad, revolutionary sweeps of actions that history makes sometimes clear to us. Or the music of the spheres.
As a poet, I am in love with the inexplicable, the mystery of not knowing, as long as it is inextricably bound up in the constraints of everyday life and a preternatural consciousness. As a painter, I'm like the seven-year old boy we saw on the F train yesterday-Christmas Day, 2008-with his favorite present, his first digital camera, framing shot after shot along the tracks at Seventh and Fourth Avenues in Brooklyn. "Perfect," he'd exclaim out loud for every click of the shutter! A kind of Platonic ecstasy in everything we do.
The poems read by the NEA panel are part of a fourteen-poem cycle-a response to Edward Mitchell Bannister's landscape paintings. I was intrigued with the painting titles, which suggested social and industrial-era issues in a way that his paintings, often bucolic and dreamy, do not. Not at first glance, anyhow. Bannister was a Romantic, an African-American painter, a lover of the sea, and sometimes social activist in the city of Providence in the late nineteenth century. Many of the paintings no longer exist, and I have taken license with their form and content, resurrecting some in my own way that might otherwise be lost for all eternity.
I'm a dad and a husband, too, and these things are central to who I am. Like supporting the ones who rely on me to be there. For me, the honor of achieving an NEA is grand, and helpful, for the life of a poet (who's married to a sculptor!) is never easy. But it is something we can't live without.