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Grey Sparrow Journal

Issue 30, July 31, 2017
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Unfinished

 

“It is not known why they were not finished,”

the curator noted of two hundred later canvases.

Turner’s work becoming increasingly unhinged’

cyclonic sunbursts, hills skipping like rams, crepuscular

curtains, reeling cliffs and brimstoned cities.

“I did not paint it to be understood.”

Was he mad, as some critics alleged?

Were these “mere freaks of chromomania,”

posters of a private apocalypse, flotsam

and jetsam from the shipwreck of a soul.

“I only wish I had any color to make them blacker,”

A glutton for whirlwinds and monster blizzards,

snow funnels and conflagrations. The lakes abysmal,

the seascapes either black or blinding’

a roller coaster few Victorians could ride.

“Indistinctness is my forte.”

Prophet for a world unravelling at the speed of light.

His hands were “fast as lightning,” when he sketched,

organs of creation, and equally destruction,

all churned together in the cement mixer of his palette.

“It is not known why they were not finished.”

Yet surely he knew that finishing would be a lie

on a planet where the waxing /waning moon

is unfinished, the river ends, but does not finish,

nor the bronking sea, nor the calving sea-ice,

Nor life itself, which only knows’

again and again and again’ how

screamingly to begin.


Richard Schiffman



Gray Scale

 

Nobody loves such days,

everything smudged in powdered lead,

the whites all off, the blacks dull

like the bad side of a mirror.

Yet in a world of shadows

what matters are not the highlights

but the shades of grays.

This river, for instance, a sooty snake

mirroring an oatmeal sky.

But watch it eddy and swirl,

and gradually the lead turns silver, begins

to blaze from within, as if begging the sun

to bust out of its straight-jacket.

And shine. Which the sun very nearly does.

But in the end, it can’t be bothered.

It says, Sparkle yourself.

And eventually we do. Van Gogh returns

to the sea-light of his youth.

Sews the ear back on.

Trades his magentas and cyans

for a # 2 pencil. It is all in the shading,

he realizes. The pursuit of raging hues

was madness. God, no longer

in the rainbowed flame,

but in this wan, uncertain earthlight:

this almost-shimmer on a river.

Whatever plain brown paper wrapper

the day comes in.

Richard Schiffman

 



Winter’s Yearning

 

(After a landscape by Paul Cezanne)

 

A threadbare patch of winter trees’

between which’ at dead center’

the sand-colored stocky farmhouse at Jas de Bouffan,

unmarked as a grave, but for three windows.

Nobody looks through the windows

at a seethe of black boughs. Nobody watches

the branches shake thin fists at the sky.

The grey basin of the sky gleams like an inverted

porcelain bowl through chinks in the trees.

The trees are upthrust roots clutching at space

instead of soil. They are full of yearning, yearning

the way the mind is full of yearning

for something in the sky. But there is nothing

to grab hold of. And nobody to hold.

The windows of the farmhouse are shuttered

today. And the house is closed. Though the wind

will not stop blowing for a thousand miles

around. It is only winter wailing to itself’

words the trees can speak, but do not comprehend.

Because yearning itself does not know what it is saying.

To no one who is listening. All winter long.

Richard Schiffman



Diorama

 

This is where it all began, as a boy

of eight or nine sucked through his eyes

into an oceanic land, a rimless sink of cobalt sky,

bison trampling doggedly for miles.

Imagined pungency of dung and dust and sage.

A prairie heaving ceaselessly in waves.

Mute din of cloven hoof to plain.

A sun lodged mote-like in the eye of time.

A vault of air and space and light.

I stood there lapping the sublime.

No simple sickness, but infinity in heat

tunneling the heart, implacable worm,

where bison spill, an Amazon of beast,

and shadows marble the wedding-cake bluffs.

No rain in the forecast the next sixty years.

 

The ears of the pronghorn are frozen

mid-twitch. The prairie dog buck woes

the prairie dog bitch. A cowbird astride

the bull’s matted rump hunts for its flea

eternity and a day.

Beyond the urban canyons bleak, beyond

the tangled woodlands of the mind,

there is a plain, I’ll meet you there

in that ranchman’s home sweet home tableau,

between the North Platte and the Medicine Bow.

 

Snow peaks that rime a shoreless day.

A river runs, but does not flow.

Clouds that drift in single file forever.

A land that whispers naught and never.

A placeless place, a timeless time.

Who wouldn’t crave that stirless hush?

West of yesterday, east of tomorrow.

Who wouldn’t court that rest from sorrow?

For years I stood there gaping in.

For years the pane has stopped me cold.

Today some teens came ambling past.

One aimed her cell phone at the scene.

Impudent gal, she tripped the shutter.

A sun combusted on the glass.

And in a flash my trance was shattered.

 

The buffalo shambled off to near extinction.

The cowbird lanced its long-sought flea.

The pronghorn fled wherever pronghorn flee to.

A storm massed black above the purpled range.

It rained and hailed for half that summers day.

Richard Schiffman

 

 

Late March

 

Again the trees remembered

to make leaves.

In the forest of their recollection

many birds returned

singing.

They sang, they sang

because they forgave themselves

the winter, and all that remained

still bitter.

Yet it was early spring,

when the days were touch and go,

and a late snow could nip a shoot,

or freeze a fledgling in its nest.

And where would we be then?

But that’s not the point.

Do you think the magpie doesn’t know

that its chicks are at risk,

or the peach trees, their too-frail blossoms,

the new-awakened bees’ all that is

incipient within us?

We know, but we can’t help ourselves

any more than they can,

any more than the earth can

stop hurtling through the night

of its own absence.

Must be something in the sap,

the blood, a force like gravity,

a trick called memory.

You name it. Or leave it nameless

that’s better’

how something returns

and keeps on returning

through a gap,

through a dimensional gate,

through a tear in the veil’

And there it is again.

Another spring.

To woo loss into song.

Richard Schiffman