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From the Moon, Earth Is Blue
By Wendy Barker
Wings PressCopyright © 2015 Wendy Barker
All rights reserved.
From where does it come, this desire
for the fitting niche, cradle for a flower,
shelf for a long boat, and hanging
hooks for the oars? To organize
handfuls of our lives, establish
the planets of our possessions in
cycles, predictable. A comet misses
earth by a million miles, almost
a collision. The green chair out of place:
a bruised shin, a ripped toenail.
Regular orbitings — dish drainer to top
drawer by the stove, cupboard to the right,
detergent to the left. From the east
the sun rises. Clear mornings you can see.
In the Museum of Modern Art, chaos
displays itself tidily. Even the viewers
know the dance: stroll, stop, gaze, whisper.
Stroll, stop. The cycle continues
until someone tires, moves into
the center of the room and sits
down on a bench, free to observe
more than one wall at once.
White of the paint between
frames, lines of the frames enclosing
angles, spheres of brightened
human flesh, dabs, splotches
of movement. Spirals of yellow
stars contained in a space
smaller than a clothes dryer. Within
a cylinder within a cube, repeated
identical revolutions tumble
the wrinkles out, our socks and
shirts grown lighter, loosed
of the clutter of lint, softer,
less abrasive, so close to
the irritable thinness of skin.
(Anselm Kiefer, 1998, Mixed media on panel,
Blanton Museum of Art)
Splattered gravel, burned-out forests, residue
from forklifts, excavators, back hoes
glued onto this panel and taking up
what seems the whole wall so you can't walk by,
you're sucked into a mammoth
3D sinkhole, staring at these clumped twigs
like abandoned camp fires, or what's left
of flattened or fire-gutted houses,
as if, with one spark, leaves, birds, lizards,
anything that wiggled or fluttered was gone,
leaving only crumbled stone and dried out
splinters, as if you're peering down from above the planet
at ridges, fault lines, escarpments, canyons
that resemble the land down your own street
gone to bulldozers, gutted, ripped
of root and vine, the rock bed under
the trees split into rubble
to be scraped away before foundations are poured,
as if the ground hadn't been foundation enough,
but this huge piece is about what's left after
everything's been ground
down, after we've exploded it all,
taken ourselves out, and the only thing left
will be faint tracings of the stories
of stars you used to look up to.
Painting began when
a woman plucked
a blackened chip from
the cave's fire and
outlined her lover's shadow.
He was leaving, upriver. Then she drew
her own shadow as
it overlapped with his.
According to Pliny.
"No black in nature,"
said the impressionists,
but other lore had it
that black paints were
made from carcasses.
Medieval ink: from
oak galls, swollen growths
around wasp nests.
Tang dynasty gentlemen
used black to portray
landscapes of the mind.
From our small
boat, over the surface
of the black lake
we fling petals —
mallow — along with
our mother's ashes.
yellow scattered on
the surface and then,
the lake closes over, black.
The Lost Book
said something about memory,
the way it slips when
you remember, liquid
between covers, a spine, and drops
into place on the shelf, there, so
you can forget it.
The Mill Basin Sunrise Facility's doors
open to galleries of soft-focused
reproductions: The Rosy Wealth of June,
The Painter's Daughters Chasing
a Butterfly: Gainsborough, Pisarro
framed in elaborate patterns of gilt.
Once through these doors, you have no choice
but cheer, the waterless vases fountaining
improbable clusters of manufactured
peonies, irises, sweet peas, chrysanthemums.
For breakfast it's whatever you want, as long as
you like sunny side, over-easy eggs, your fruit
canned — prunes, applesauce, peaches floating
like goldfish in a sugary juice.
What you can't have from now on out
are bare walls, spaces in which
to focus on the long and twisted
corridors of the years that carried you
here where the flowers need no water,
are designed so they won't fade
like the frail heads around you
bent like overblown roses
nodding into their shallow bowls.
No mirrors anywhere in sight,
no way in any of the public rooms to see
what it is you've begun to stare into.
It's the full moon we notice, not the night sky.
The white cat, not the shadowed grass.
Almost invisible, slipped between blue
and violet: Newton sensed it was there.
A color is only waves, motion we can't hear.
Veins near the skin run blue, bleed red.
We barely see the blueberries plucked in the night
silence when a loon cries on the lake.
There are ways of bludgeoning so the bruises
don't show, closets with walls no one can see.
It's the light glinting on leaf shapes
that dazzles us, the shimmers on the river.
What color is the wail of a horn uncoiled,
a saxophone's moan through the door?
(Jesús Escobedo, 1939, Lithograph,
Philadelphia Museum of Art)
You're alone in an alley, a solitary street lamp behind you
half a block down as you turn to the chalky grid of the wall
on your left to fumble in your pocket for — glasses? a smoke?
the address you're trying to find? — but here they are, spilled
on the sidewalk like somebody's guts, someone who's just
been knifed open, still raw, but they're your own guts, these
twisting heads and bones jammed into the slit-open sack
you've carried through the years: the clinging hungry baby,
the gaunt-eyed mother, a set of disembodied fleshless ribs,
the curled-up children hugging their sagging bed, the gnarled
thick-jointed fingers wrapped into a fist, and the single
uplifted hand — what could it do? what could it ever do? —
and bulging at the bottom of the splayed-wide sack
mirroring your very shape is a heavy-lidded eye that
won't close, so even if you button up your jacket,
turn and walk back, facing right into the street light's
glare, you're still carrying all this weight flattening you
into blackness, a cardboard silhouette, impotent ghost.
(León Ferrari, 1964, ink on paper,
Blanton Museum of Art)
Needles tangled in wisps of thread?
Five distinct rows, like a musical
stave. Eighth, sixteenth notes dropped
into nests of string. Or knives, these
jagged black marks on framed white
paper I can't move past? Daggers
blunted by intricate knots twisted
around them. And why this terror
facing a piece without a single human
face, with no mouths stretched
wide in pain or eyes confronting
some gargantuan specter. Could this
succession of black darts, or stabs,
be our cries when surfacing from
a nightmare, struggling to be heard
yet smothered by blankets? No,
this is code for wails, moans aimed
at webs of lies, spiralings to trap
the tongue. See how these
splutters begin in the first row,
minuscule, then lengthen into
lungfuls, shrieks? But by the final
line's end, only two barely
audible whispers, shrouded. Gagged.
Apologia for Brown
A good picture, like a good fiddle, should be brown.
— Sir George Beaumont (1753-1827)
Half light, candle light, window
to a street awash with slop.
Sienna, ochre, burnt umber,
Cassel earth derived from peat.
Bister: soot from birch bark.
Roof and mantel, fallow field and
pumpernickel (a word formed
from "pumpen," "fart"), roasted
beef, saddle and shoe, potato skin.
Pitchy murk they dug from soil.
Least glamorous of pigments.
The impressionists got rid of it.
Oozings of the lower gut,
a meaty sauce, a sobering glaze.
Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Van Dyck.
Eyes looking out like inner
rings within the cores of trees.
Hard maple, spruce, carved and
varnished till a violinist draws
a horsehair-fitted bow across
the belly of an instrument
that, strung in those days with
the dried intestines of a sheep,
might, even now, wrench us
beyond our fetid rooms,
the way a spotted moth will cling,
a dark stain, to the wall of the garage,
till it wafts its small
hand's width of weightlessness
through transparent air.
Composition in Gray
Dust to dust, but it's not that: dirt is yellow, brown, or red.
Ashes, not even that, for these are also chunks of bone.
Desaturated light, the volume turned below our vision.
Her pulse at twelve, then under seven beats a minute.
Throat-choking fog through night and noon, a pall that blurs
angles of walls, the street signs turned to fuzz, illegible.
Our senses can't discern the subtler shades
of avian plumage, the various grays on chickadees.
Not even that. As though her ashes in the jar had drifted out
and, lofted by the air, have sifted over everything.
And now the lake has died, the parasites, giardia, the scum
of algae multiplied, loons abandoning their nests.
Buried within the Munsell Color System's inner core,
achromatic, oxymoron, color of no color.
And still she stares at us from photographs.
A cinema in black and white, continously reeling.
At the end, I stroked her toes, bare of their familiar polish.
Within the room, not even shadows, even shade.
Even cooked, onions are never.
Slice after slice, half
moon after quarter moon.
Or a meeting's report, paper
thin sheets of an old bed.
Only at a certain angle, with
the light just right:
bottom of the lake, moss-
But you, I can't see through.
Was it his feathers, drift of beige on brown,
loose-woven tufts crowning his head?
The circular eyes, large-pupiled, topaz,
haze of sun on my hair, the heat beating.
Or the way his handler's arm held
the claws gripping a padded leather sleeve?
That beak: a single talon curled and hooked
for prey — an absence present in our midst.
And the crowd of us, our scattered reasons
for driving to our city's Greenfest in the park,
abandoning our cluttered piles of laundry,
mail, accumulations of upholstered dust,
chattering as we rummaged among pamphlets,
booths — cosmetics without cruelty, solar power.
Was it the heft, upright column of his body,
gaze that locked with mine, unwavering?
And was it rapture, this press of tears?
This inability to speak, caught, seized
by a clean ferocity — without a syllable
to swoop across a field, focus
eye and claw and beak, on
whatever it is that keeps us breathing.
Apology for Blue
Don't prate to me of divinity ... but of blue.
— William Gass (1924-)
A form of black, said the Greeks,
cousin of gray, species
of darkness, opposite of light,
not a mention in Homer
with his wine-dark seas.
Even the Bible doesn't note
the celestial vault is blue.
We've three times more synonyms
for red — cerulean lacks
the force of blood's vermilion.
And yet Cennini's quattrocento
brought back lapis lazuli
from Badakshan, ground
the heavy, gray-veined stone
to paste, kneaded it like bread,
sieved, melted, strained the stuff
through linen, then mixed in lye
and slapped the lump with sticks
till the blue drained off, a powder
stored in a leather purse.
Reserved for the Virgin's lap.
Color of meekness and profound
piety, the heavenly spirit,
that woman's body cool,
unsullied by carnality, wrapped in
blue more dear than gold.
But nineteenth-century scientists
observed, in the Bunsen burner's
flame, the highest heat is blue.
The hottest stars are bluish white,
and objects hurtling near light speed
show bluer than the slower ones —
in physics, blue's the color
of collision, fire, the laser's beam
that centuries of artists showed
streaming to a mortal woman's lap:
fulcrum of our heated lives,
hinge and spring of our renewal.
Hard to see what's closest.
From the moon, earth is blue.
Hovering, the word,
a ball batted so high
the sun blots it
from sight, so far
there is no reaching
for the shape of the word,
till they all, a, c, h, t, c,
fall to earth, my open hand,
where I order them
onto a page, and breathe
the relief of one who
hasn't lost the game.
A Crowd, A Host
(Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, May 2003)
The magnolias, narcissus, lobelia,
birches, hay-scented ferns, bayberry,
and now: an opening field —
bluebells under beeches and oaks,
forty thousand. Someone has counted,
printed the sign on the path,
forty thousand of a hazy sky-lit
blue as if a brush had dotted
each flower from the same tint
of paint, each cluster a staff,
blue note on blue note, a song
in unison, unaccompanied,
unlike the pruned garden of roses,
every labeled clump of stalks
struggling to produce
a single perfect bloom, for show.
Here is no question of hierarchy —
each blossom alone
adding a blue curl to the procession
we follow, held in our mind's eye
even on the path
to the street, to the subway
station a block away, the stained
stairs leading underground to the long
cars clanking through the dark
tunnels, rocking the faces within,
faces more various than
all the blossoms in the gardens,
even without the man in the royal
blue-brimmed hat, singing along
with his headphones, music
he alone can hear.
Chickens are loose.
The fence won't stop them —
feathered rumps up,
bony beaks down,
claws askittering the leaves.
When the neighbor's guinea hens
march up the drive
early afternoons — pea head
follows pea head, a wobbling
line of black and white.
Zen mendicants after the bell,
yoked in meditation
before they return
to squawk an old mantra,
settle into stillness,
that fertile, resonant round.
Light Pink Octagon
(Richard Tuttle, 1967, Canvas dyed with Tintex,
Blanton Museum of Art)
Like nobody's skin. Or skirt, blouse.
Nobody's flounce, neither ruffled nor scalloped, nobody's ribboned
basket. Or bonnet, or roses. No carnations, no half-sliced roast
beside the wine glass, no ruddy
cheek of a maid shouldering wheat,
no dimpled buttocks of Venus or Bathsheba, no thundering
Jehovah-splintered sunset, no velvet-tassled curtain, no fizzy drink.
Not like skin, no veins traversing
flesh, no one begging to be touched.
I could move into this unadorned, open, plain-woven canvas,
a pastel simplicity, an unclouded fabric billowing
rugged as a mainsail uncurled,
heading out to the wide ocean
with the wind, this aerial cotton swath, unsplashed by any paint,
uncluttered by any pen or brush, this unframed shape — arresting
as a full breath.
lined by the pond
must have been planted
by a traveled eye
since the stripe of yellow
on the mud-brown bank
mirrored in rippled water
recalls a time in France
when canvases, wide
as the room, precipitated
an immersion of floating
petals and depths
of paint more ephemeral
and wet, more dazzling,
translucent and dark,
closer to stars
we can never see
than this tidy replica,
a postcard I won't send
as I'm headed home
to you, sunning — I know —
this moment amid
the rampant and untended
grasses, the tangle
of our unpruned trees, unruly
hair on your forehead,
your undisturbed focus,
glance of your face,
its brown, and — flecked
with yellow — irises.
(Ellsworth Kelly, Oil on canvas, 1960,
Blanton Museum of Art)
This is it. All you need. Though nothing
resembles anything you know. It's neither
star nor flower, this imperfect oval more
like a fat yellow cigar floating in blue so dark
and bright it couldn't be any sky that's ever
filled your breath. And the bottom third
of the canvas: pure green. You don't have
to do a thing. Can stop the churning of your
desire to turn this high-flying ovoid into an
ear of corn or a squashed halo. This is only
about color: yellow, blue, green. But your
mind is still recalling that the first two can
make the third. Like sun and sky make grass.
You keep trying to put names on these three
shapes, though they have nothing to do with
names. Yet you can't leave, for in the high
sky above this bright lawn, a widening sun is
about to drop the egg of itself into your lap.
Excerpted from From the Moon, Earth Is Blue by Wendy Barker. Copyright © 2015 Wendy Barker. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Lost Book,
Apologia for Brown,
Composition in Gray,
Apology for Blue,
A Crowd, a Host,
Light Pink Octagon,
About the Author,