Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Poet Philip Dacey on Thomas Eakins' Painting


The Mystery of Max Schmitt
by Philip Dacey 

In a few years, money will corrupt 

even sculling, the bets and scandals

sink industrial America's first 

public sport--the rower as hero,

the news papers awash with statistics, 

the dimensions of boats—
but now I am fresh from victory, 

letting myself enjoy the drift

after exertion, a starboard turn 

Champion Single Sculls (1871)   by Thomas Eakins 
past where I have turned 

to look over my shoulder 

and find you standing on the bank.

Here the river, a wide paten, 

lifts light like a host,  

the bread of time

an arrested moment,

nothing cast away in a vain hope 

of multiplying it. 

Here I am a pause 

within a pause.

My paddles feather in the water 

just enough to slip under its skin.

A lawyer by trade, used to the drag and  
 
   shock 

of statutes and codes,

I love the language of rowing, its purl  

against the hull--

to feather, to settle,

to catch, kiss, cox,

to fly and die, 

but most, to swing,

to move in a perfect harmony 

of body and boat, muscle and machine, 

until boundaries dissolve 

and the sky could be water,

the water my rushing thought.

In the middle distance, Tom 

twenty-seven and just back from France, 

ambitious to part all the waters,

strains in a boat that carries his name. 

Our wakes tell the story, 

how we passed each other, 

two old friends from boyhood,  

just before you came.

Such a spacious afternoon on the

  Schuylkill, 

Such a promise of easy freedom, 

yet I hold you fast, 

the light turning my skin 

nearly white, like that of some 

athletic ghost  

as my eyes fix you in their gaze,

from which you cannot escape,

though you will proceed on your way.

For I knew you would be there

when I looked over my shoulder. 

It is why I turned to this side, 

singling you out from the others, 

and why you wonder 

about our connection, the strength 

of what burns between us in the air; 

as if  I were more than myself, or other-- 

Tom, say, looking out through these eyes,

his absorption in his own rowing

a deliberate misdirection, 

or even you,  

that too familiar stranger 

glanced in the calm surface of any mirror

and stroked furiously away from 

for so many years.

A sculler, I must face backwards 

to move forwards  

so that looking over my shoulder 

I seem to be moving into a future

that is already, before its time, all past.

How strange now to hold both oars loosely in 
 
one hand! 
Like the four ducks that have folded their 
 
  wings. 

A kind of amen

And you, when you leave me, 

will you drift or steer, 

and which course, 

past or future? 

Why do we wound the water 

to move forward? 

The wider the wake, the sooner it will  
 
  disappear. 
 



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