Here's something I wrote for my last weekly writers' group meeting. It's a long poem, and it was my first attempt with poetry to not just capture a moment or a feeling or an idea, but to relate a separate, unaffiliated aspect of my life to an internal aspect of my life. I think in that sense it was successful. It's not my best piece of writing ever, but I'm proud of it because I set a goal and achieved it, and because it's long, and I haven't written this many useful words in months.
My writers' group is great. We're a small crowd and I'm the only one in it who has aspirations to be published someday (although not the only one who has the skills to be published!) but the critiques are fantastic. And they're good friends, too. I think everybody needs a good writers' group.
The fence around his house has grown taller and grayer
and more solid, and is hung with a simple flat plaque
notifying passers-by that here had lived the great Russian master
who made us famous for more than potatoes,
who burned our sky in sunset flame,
our sky in violet thunder, its towering ferocity,
our fields of transient delicate ochre light
and summer green and distant ultramarine buttes
into the hearts of art historians, students,
all those who think they know what it means
to know art.
Today you type his name into a search engine
and you are served up bland pictures of middle-aged women
posing in front of that plaque, overtopped by that fence,
dulled by that gray, made monstrous by the meekness
of the foliage of lilac trees out of bloom, paling in September,
all the color gone out of them.
Sergei had loved lilacs.
I have not viewed all his paintings; I have not made a study
of his masterworks. I do not know the title of a single one.
I never went to school. Not the kind with desks and professors
and essays on art history, on intent, on composition and communication,
on what he meant when he turned the woman’s head just so,
the woman with her arms raised to comb her fingers
through the dark hair that twists like a flock of blackbirds
over the yellow fields.
I cannot guess why he chose this brushstroke or that.
All I learned of art I learned from the artist,
from Sergei taking me on his knee in the middle of a sun-warm field
where wild asparagus grew up around the legs of his students’ French easels,
quick vertical strokes of hooker’s green, a dab of cad yellow light.
I remember that his hands were callused and cracked
and smelled of turpentine, and there was a smudge of ultramarine
beside his old-man nose.
He painted the mountains the atmospheric blue of far distance
and told me that it was creation.
From where I sat, his arm could have been my own, my hand
holding the brush, describing the world
in terms of shadow and light, brilliance and movement.
He called me creation, too.
Years ago in my mother’s attic I found pieces of masonite
covered in gouache, a canal scene – Venice? –
with angular white boats and a hasty sky,
and others dabbed in rough colors, poppies, corn fields, a café.
They were signed: O. Berberian, G. Berberian.
The Armenian brothers who hated Turks and were only
minimally gifted with brushes, and never would give up gouache
no matter how Sergei berated them.
They had followed him from Europe to New York to California
to Idaho, where they died, like him,
and became one of the thousands of blackbirds
twisting above the ochre fields.
Though they gave their lives to the Russian master
and tried so hard to emulate him the only legacy they left
were a few gouaches on masonite in my mother’s attic.
You probably think the word is pronounced
But I know that the right way to say it, the truest way, is
That’s the way Sergei said it, and who knew peonies
better than Sergei?
A peony is not merely a pretty flower, a blush of color
among the shade.
A peony is the movement of the earth under a slow sun
in a dozing Idaho sky, the conversations of the big white geese
in their pen, the buzzing of the flies around
the long sweet slices of watermelon arranged just so
on the old wood table beneath the bouquet of peonies
in the cracked glass vase and Sergei
pacing toward his easel to touch his brush to the canvas
in just the right place,
Paul is going to Kuwait, where the only color
is in the cars that the sheikhs drive too fast, and wreck and leave
glimmering along the gray road like monuments.
So I bring him to the museum, where he will smell turpentine and see
wild asparagus growing and the Tetons rising
above fields of yellow light and violet shadow,
overflown with the suggestion of spirits
He must have something to take with him.
I am surprised to find a collection of Sergei’s paintings,
and not surprised, not at all.
Paul frets when I lean in so close to the canvas;
when I hold my hands up as if to touch he pulls me away,
But I may have touched this painting already,
once, sitting on Sergei’s knee.
My fingerprints may already be dried
into the paint among the petals of the peonies.
“He used to sing to me,” I tell Paul. “I sat on his lap while he painted.”
My own hands could have made these brushstrokes, creation.
“He called these flowers pe-oh-nies.”
The right way to say it.
Paul, I may amount to nothing more than a few nothing pieces
forgotten in an attic,
or I may become so great that one day I amount to nothing more
than a plaque on a gray fence in a tourist’s photo.
I don’t know which I hope for.
I don’t know which I prefer.