–for Craig Arnold
I don’t mind one or two
Turkey buzzards spooling
Over my head in a famously
Heart-torn Western sky.
It doesn’t mean anything.
They’re just doing their job.
They aren’t complaining, either.
I don’t mind a dozen or so
Such birds cruising over a carcass
Like teenagers round a Dairy Queen.
They’re just out to get some.
That is all it means.
But at the BBQ
On Independence Day
When all we were doing was toasting
The dregs of our freedom, saying
Goodbye to our Constitution,
Hundreds of buzzards, maybe thousands,
Frenzy-flocked over Beth’s yard,
A black blizzard of rancid
Plumes—I don’t know what
It meant, but it meant something.
My lady draws flowers for hours and hours—
Pistils and stamens, stems and veins,
Paintbrush, wild iris, sage leaves and phlox—
Black ink shines from her pen
Or the finest available sable tip.
Sometimes she mixes feathers and flowers,
Birds and blossoms, transforming forms
Into swift fragile lines, colors and fragrances
Stroked into irrefutable black.
She captures motion with motion,
Stops it cold— irises dying,
Hummingbirds hovering, all
In breathtaking cuttlefish code.
She never draws buzzards so far as I know.
She’s a slim girl in a slight summer shift
And a big shady straw hat
As she crosses the hill toward her studio
Under the famously heart-torn Western sky.
Then I’m out fixing fence, tightening
And splicing the snow-broke wires.
I pull off the road into the sage and flowers,
And the fragrance under my tires explodes
Into the still summer air.
I think of her sketchbook that burgeons and blossoms
Into a black blizzard when she closes it.
Time was the five towns
Which share the shear escarpment
Above the Mediterranean
(Leaning now forward,
Now away, like a schoolgirl who wants to kiss
But is too shy)
Were only linked by the sea.
I doubt if anyone chose
To live there
Until late in the last century.
The hardscrabblest place in Italy,
Vines and olive trees grow on terraces
Chiseled with pick axes
Into volcanic cliffs–
Convict work turned over, over generations,
Then they chipped a precarious path
That swoons between the towns
For local trade and gossip
(You can walk that path today).
There was always fishing
And the sea stayed blue.
Then came the train
Tunneling the towns together—
A jail break to nowhere.
Then came the roads,
Dropped like rescue ropes from above.
Then came the rich, the tourists, sunbathers
From every elsewhere
Who flop on the beach near
The house Montale grew up in
“In crushing isolation.”
The towns are like glacial moraines
Of stone houses
Stuck in the gullets of their declivities.
One teeters on a knoll above the sea.
This morning I’m watching the doings
In the harbor at Rio Maggiore.
Young boys dangle strings with hooks
Schools of minnows—
Never any luck.
Older boys, sun-baked,
Try to impress their heartthrobs
With heart-stopping dead-drops
From a twenty meter
Precipice into the azure water
Of their hometown harbor.
They fall faster than falling. They fall
Like arrows shot straight down
And surface grinning
And climb the cliff side
For another tilt at another fling.
I’ll bet their ancestors never
Wooed that way,
The contadini who hacked
A life into the high terraces
Of their handmade Purgatory.
Fear, for them, was no bouquet.
An old couple in a double kayak
Pulls seaward from the harbor,
Looking for all the world
Like they’re never coming back.
Five Paintings By Clara Van Waning
— for Allan Gurganus
I only paint landscapes. People are just
Too sad. Sometimes I paint folks turning away,
Hiding their faces. Faces are too sad.
The loveliest are saddest, so says me.
That’s why they turn away, ashamed. That’s why
Fans and parasols are in demand.
I paint my own front yard. The big pole gate
Left open so the subject can become
The narrow two-track road, which turns away,
And vanishes. It could be coming home
Or going. I’m not telling. The open gate
Means someone left, and I am waiting for them
To come home. You have to tell the truth.
I have the perfect pastel color to show
How awful dry a year it’s been this year.
If you lived here you’d know from the grass and the kind
Of yellow flowers that it’s almost fall.
The sage is the same gray-green it always is.
I have the perfect color to paint it hopeful,
But paint it plain as dirt, like me. My pictures
Aren’t bad. Folks buy them. But they aren’t
All that good either, since no one ever
Taught me. The two-track road just disappears
No matter how hard we work, how hard we pray.
When the fire started on George Creek, I painted it.
Who was George, I’d like to know, to have
A creek named after him? But never mind.
I painted ponderosas right up front
That looked just like the tree of smoke coming
At me over the ridge, but green. I couldn’t
See any flames, so I didn’t paint any.
George Creek is a wild place and hard to reach,
But I had just the right color to paint
The green swath of tall grass that leans over
The ridge to where the fire burned, the right
Color to paint the smoke leaning downwind,
Towards home. Trees are hard to paint and smoke
Is even harder. Sometimes I feel I’m hanging
On to the God-lit canvass, like a sail,
I feel the darkness behind me looking over
My shoulder. I feel that darkness swirling me backward
Into it. It’s worse when I paint a lake
With peaks behind it. My secret is I paint
From a place that would have to be on the lake or in it,
And I don’t have a boat. The mountains turn
Away. All my landscapes are sunrises.
People think that that’s a good thing. Sun
Coming up, I mean. I have the perfect color
To color them in early light. It isn’t
A good thing, but I paint it. There seem to be
Recurring themes of … I don’t know. Well look
How plain I am, and where I live. I paint
A sunrise scene: a man rowing away
From a house with no lights on. It’s on a jetty.
If you didn’t know which lake it was, which house,
You might just think that he was almost home.
But I know that’s a sunrise on the ridge,
And because the man is turned away, wearing
A long-billed cap (and I gave him red galluses),
And because of shadows under his sweeping oars,
And skittish shadows the prow makes in its wake,
He rows away from that dark house, for sure.
I’ll just tell you one more painting. Sunrise
On sandstone cliffs is like the sky is bleeding
On the earth. There are Indian pictures on those rocks.
I know how to find them: stick men, maybe
Gods, with spears and shields. I have the perfect
Color for sunrise on red desert rocks.
Three mustangs are coming toward me from a pond.
The stallion is the subject of the painting.
He’s standing close to me, but turned away.
He’s worried that the others will not follow.
They will, but far away and slow. I have
All the colors I need for wild horses.
James Galvin has written seven books of poems and two prose works. He teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.