Near the Missisquoi
You’ll think me gobsmacked if I declare
I was born in all innocence on a summer day.
Everything still June lush and green,
It was, so my mother said, auspicious.
But if she checked me close for weird cloven hoofs
And saw there was nothing strange to fear,
She missed the disguise I would come to endure –
To go with the knobs at the sides of my head –
Of leaf, of mud and stone and twig, of purling snow,
Gifts of a changeable sky, and all those bugs I had not meant to kill
With my heavy brogues.
Who’s euphoric? Who's idiot enough
For all that hoopla, that dog and pony
But a too low order of self-styled artist
For whom art is a party favour?
Sex, misery, filthy lucre
Are at the bottom of all thinking
And the rest is scheming. And light
With its long-nailed fingers claws
Across a sky
Well, I was up all night with my Craven A’s.
I, Jim Light, was deep in the grog,
Hearing out Mister Herr Ludwig van Beethoven
(I’m quite done with Iron Maiden).
I was open-eyed with those ‘last quartets’
In which love is a most terrible grace.
It's love ripped from the gaze of a god
And turned every which way
Like a prism: cool godly bands of light that lit
All that’s in me, be it there or not.
And life, give you joy of it, is all you’ve got
Even when it’s wrong and hopeless.
And you never want to let slip away
How a smile was the worth of deity
For all that she had her doubts about deity,
About love, about passion’s products –
The nasty surprises of which spite is one.
You see, I knew, even if you could not know,
That I’d get around to her soon enough, how she, a love of mine,
Took a knife to him, the one for whom she wore a ring.
—That cool dry hand I knew so well
That put me to a stammering heat—
—Those pink thunderclouds blooming over the hills
Near the Missisquoi – that’s how it was
When she reneged on our congress—
Sleepless mostly, whores brought me sleep
When I could tear my eyes from the look of things.
Otherwise there was only her, and she was Ida Blue
Who, out of boredom, laid with me
In a hay barn on a Woolworth’s blanket,
In the back of my truck on her lunch break -
She working at the bank, she driving me wild,
Because, of a sudden, abruptly new.
And what if it had been me, her Grade A fella
That she got it in mind to flense? No, his wounds weren’t
But she cut him some, though,
Then drove him to Cowansville, he in shock,
Submitted herself to the cops, to the court and prison
As if she were submitting herself to reason,
And I left the area, went to study art.
I had it in mind to paint, to document, create
Cows and horses and deer and birds
And piles of stones and knobby hills,
The plush clouds, the maple groves,
The unsuspected gods in them,—
And barns and tractors and decaying cars,
And Ida Blue, Ida in the nude out of some regard,
And paint not according to Ingres or Degas,
And yet from loving recollection—good God,
I’m raving—You know, dreams die. Dreams of doing go inert,
And memory is another fallen temple
And life is littered with fallen temples.
And I’d paint some woman, sure, in the end,
And I surely have done that, often,
And with some credit, so say a few.
But paint that one? Love fails. Hate dissolves in hate,
And there's all that can never be fulfilled.
Toronto of a time - ah, art student days,
And we’d sit around the pubs, identify the wrong,
Talk up the right. Rebel times. We’d infuse in ourselves
Pan love of a pan-world. Oh, it was as bad as that,
How we flattered ourselves, paired off, convinced ourselves
Now we were tested in our values. I think not.
Ida, you see, didn’t make-believe: it was real skin at which she
In her philosophic rage: her husband’s virtue drove her around the
I wrote her letters that she, past caring, never read.
I was only a minor scene
In a play chockful of scenes—
If I used to paint the old ones dying,
It was because I was obsessed with pain,
The panic in a countenance
To which only oblivion answers.
You don’t see clever people hurting, do you?
I’m not so clever, I suppose, though I'm a walking costume ball,
Ghostly night at the ghostly vaudeville hall,
Leaf, twig, stone, mud, purling snow,
Out my window near the Missisquoi,
I stare at squirrels, flitting nuthatches.
I have a view, in the cold winter light, of yellow birches.
I hear them snapping – cold sharp sound, and I turn my head
From a rude lawn of snow, and the road,
From the hemlock, weed-stubble, the iced-over river,
To that canvas on the wall, and she is, how shall I say it,
There – unfinished – unfaced, impossible
To portray. And if truth is to strike away
What lies, what obstructs, what brags and brays on,
My eyes do it if my hands are quiet,
Playing with a cigarette, not much else,—
The eyes know what they should've known before –
The eyes know that stroke after stroke is to be
Unstroked, undone, truth then this – the unstroked
Surface, and she in all her untrifled
Unseeable splendour, not some poor art.
But then, if better art, it's poor love.
For what’s art, really, but love, love of a
Thing, and of the pains required to make it
So – love of a thing, of a being, she—
But I’m tired, I’m ruined, being open-eyed,
And I set water to boil for my tea.
And a sacred kettle whistles like a kiss
That would announce its glad-heart presence.
There's nothing like love that knows its laws,
And I'm momentarily - oh dear - uplifted.
It's as when, the other day, old, old Egypt getting new –
Boiled over – went and threw its tyrant out
And the world was exposed for its shabby
Conduct, all the world that loved a bully
For a hundred reasons or more, maybe
None. And this is forever: truth only
Breathes for an instant, then it’s broken down—
There she is in the shack’s half-light, she so ancient
and of the moment,
Half-painted because half-imagined, half seen, as it were,
Her eyes wandered too close together, that lip
More of a curl than it ever was,
That bosom too self-consciously proud
(She was not ‘fetching’ if no prude),
The waist, the arms about right,
And further down, yes, that’s – well – her,
And those narrow, delicate feet such as betrayed
Her inherent power, the rage I missed in her look,
For if she only knicked her man she killed Jim Light,
And yet I breathe and mull my attack,
The complementary colours, the tempering ones
(That green under the blushing Cezanne fruit) –
And the whites, yellows, blues, the applications of which,
Who knows, might make for familiar flesh.
Can I cause them to cohere
If she was no more than a shallow bitch?
Or if she was my Beatrice, my soul’s way out?
And so I could, I think. I could flick a switch
And flood the shack with the appropriate light,
And see a canvas, discern shapes on it –
Or a geometry of limbs
Or a psychology of eyes
As when she’d wound and lust and trick herself, that way,
Into redemption, and back to her so-called marriage.
So yes, the question goes without an answer, still:
Who was she with me - who was she with him?
Did her boredom pinch them off, the passions flying around,
And render answers beside the point?
And I could cheat and forget the face,
The full frontal, and merely paint
How she’d turn herself sideways, that lilt of her shoulder
When she most wished to score her debating points
And her hair would seem to billow down,—
Or how she’d cause a third eye to form, forefinger pressed to thumb,
Just before she’d lie to me, saying yes, she was sweet on Jim Light
So would he stop being such a bore about love?
The winter light of an afternoon angles,
Sweeps and withdraws, akin
To something made of silk
Hushed across the snow - something made of silk
Raising goose-bumps on the flesh.
I sit by the window, cigarette lit.
Logs in the airtight crackle with heat.
Good moment. It’s one of those moments
Of a pleasant delusion – as it all makes sense,
The hundred reasons why Jim Light can’t build her face
Because only half-seen, half-imagined untruth
Due to an excess of desire that was once truth,
The only truth, pure necessity (even if we never had need of it),
Which is the hell of it, you know, the crazy thing,—
So he must give ‘Ida’ up or paint his reasons,
Paint his own so as to paint her deadly demons
In a proper time and space, the world uncertain.