Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Zagajewski on Morandi, Degas, and Seurat

Painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi
studying his subjects

The Center for Italian Modern Art's exhibit on Giorgio Morandi sent me in search of poems that honor his still life paintings. I found a lovely one by the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. Zagajewski was born in Lvov, Poland, in 1945; as an infant he was relocated with his family to western Poland. He has taught at the universities of Houston and Chicago. Zagajewski writes in Polish and many of his books of poetry and essays have been translated into English. He was considered one of the “Generation of ’68” or “New Wave” writers in Poland. His early work was protest poetry but more recent work is marked by a wit and irony that delivers a more subtle message. The titles of his collections suggest some of his concerns: Tremor (1985), Mysticism for Beginners (1997), and World Without End: New and Selected Poems (2002). 


Even at night, the objects kept vigil,
even as he slept, with African dreams;
a porcelain jug, two watering cans,
Still Life, 1956
empty green wine bottles, a knife.
Even as he slept, deeply, as only creators
can sleep, dead-tired,
the objects were laughing, revolution was near.

The nosy watering can with its beak
feverishly incited the others;
blood pulsed wildly in the cup,
which had never known the thirst of a mouth,
only eyes, gazes, vision.

By day, they grew humble, and even took pride:
the whole coarse existence of the world
Corner of a Factory, ca. 1883
found refuge in them,
abandoning for a time the blossoming cherry,
the sorrowful hearts of the dying.

George Seurat: Factory
(a drawing in the de Menil collection, Houston)
for Jacek Waltos

In the mountains, on the map’s edge, where the grass is brash and
     sharp as deserters’ bayonets, a forgotten factory rises.
We don’t know if it’s dawn or dusk. We only know one thing:
     here, in this glum building, light is being born.
Silent slaves with the narrow, transparent faces of Byzantine
     monks turn an enormous dynamo and ignite the golden
     sparks of dawn in the globe’s farthest reaches. Some cry,
     others smoke stylish cigarettes as light as a sparrow’s breath.         
     They don’t answer questions: their tongues have been cut out.
Right beneath the wall, where the black weeds grow, darkness has
     hidden. It’s absolutely still. The world’s hair grows.

Degas: The Milliner’s Shop
The Milliner's Shop, ca. 1884
The hats are innocent, bathed
in a soft light blurring their forms.
The girl is hard at work.
But where are the brooks? The groves?
Where’s the sensuous laughter of the nymphs?
The world is hungry, and one day
it will invade this peaceful room.
For the time being it’s appeased by ambassadors
announcing: I’m ocher.
And I’m sienna. I’m the color of terror,
like ash. Ships drown in me.
I’m the color blue, I’m cold,
I can be ruthless.
And I’m the color of death,
I’m endlessly patient.
I’m purple (you can barely see me),
triumphs and parades are mine.
I’m green, I’m tender,
I live in wells and birch leaves.
The girl, with her deft fingers,
doesn’t hear voices, since she’s mortal.
She thinks about next Sunday,
and her date with the butcher’s son
who has thick lips
and big hands
stained with blood.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Ladies in Gold, Ladies with Cats, Ladies Alone

Sugar Woman
on Gustav Klimts
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907

She flumes
through the curve-
clung gown
as though she
were built of
god eyes:
bosom to belly,
hips to ankles.
Or peacock feathers
cloaked in amber
wings amid whorls
of silver and gold.
All fragile glint
as if everything
could dissolve

at any moment
to burnt sugar.

Lady Holding a Cat
Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1810s

Shes wrapped fold over fold over fold, her iromuji
layered like swaddling, binding her arms close

around her feline treasure. A madonna
protecting her tiny charge, she hugs it to her cheek,

makes them almost one, their faces wrought
in the subtlest of lines, as if the artist wanted

to convey diminishing physicality, crescive spirit
in the suggested warmth of their mingled breath.

His stroke guides focus to the only other point
of interest, this spiraled garbno background,

no flowering twigs to ease the starknessand his lines
grow dark, harsh, her robes angular at her back,

armor auguring danger. As though out of the frame,
like a Herodian soldier, threat advances.

Bernadette McBride has published two poetry collections, Food, Wine, and Other Essential Considerations (Aldrich Press) and Waiting for the Light to Change (WordTech Press). She is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee, whose poems have appeared in U.S. and UK journals and on PRIs The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. She has taught creative writing at Temple University and currently teaches writing and literature at Bucks County Community College. She served as Pennsylvania Poet Laureate for Bucks County (2009), and is poetry co-editor for the Schuylkill Valley Journal. You can visit her at

Cristina's World by Andrew Wyeth, 1948
The Family Farm

I never asked to be dressed in pink
muslin, much less to be born in this feature-

less field.  How many days did I wake
to find myself down on the ground? 

Nights, he came to me, breath akin
to wet hay. Walked me to the barn—
the length of a belt away. Silent.
A tuning fork, vibrating. In my mind,

I was already naked and nestled
within a crow's wing. I’d swing
across the widening to where
the end of thought, end of want

was not nested somewhere in this shit-
brown hair. If the night was kind,
I might return to find him gone.
I’d stumble across this apron of grass,

crumpling as far away as I could get
yet still see what passed for home.
At the time, I wished mostly
for the pinking sky to be brought to a stop—

framed. I’d turn my head from left to right.
Search for the sensible horizon.

Lissa Kiernan is the author of Two Faint Lines in the Violet (Negative Capability Press, 2014), a Foreword Reviews' 2014 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award Finalist, as well as a finalist for the 2014 Julie Suk Award for Best Poetry Book by an Independent Press. Her book-length braided essay, Glass Needles & Goose Quills: Elementary Lessons in Atomic Properties, Nuclear Families, and Radical Poetics, is forthcoming in the spring of 2016. Read more at