The Thing Itself
“Behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.”
Virginia Woolf, Moments of Being
When you have learned to choose
the flattest stones and can skip them
four times into the oncoming waves.
When you fling the duckling your pup has killed
back into the fog-bound lake with a prayer
to a missing belief. When you read, and looking up
see your book cast upon a summer afternoon
as if its pages have come unbound and are spread
upon the dark clematis purple of a blooming
world. When you find yourself
as skillful with a shovel and a word as you are
with a saucepan and song. When you walk
down an unlit hallway in the invisible taupe shadows
of November afternoons to look for windows.
When you look down the golden throat of a white lily
as it breathes in light, and breathes summer
onto your skin, and you want to plant your feet
in the memory loam of this moment as deeply
as a tree in time and weather.
You want someone to take your portrait.
Perhaps as you slide, late,
harassed, and sweaty,
into the chair at the coffee shop across
from your stiffly smiling friend,
you are sitting for your portrait.
No, not some instagram snapshot with its moody look
of the Brownie square, not some iClick,
your friend is now uploading to FB with a cheeky
insult while you order your coffee.
But a portrait by Vermeer who conceives
the old golden afternoon light merely
to embody a reason for you
to put down your book or simply
think about turning your head
to face her. A portrait of your face and voice
comprehending hers, a portrait of you listening
for that plod of grief in her voice you heard last week,
that shadow that does not disappear at noon
but radiates from her hands like a bracelet
or a blessing.
Portraits happen daily.
When you go missing, driving through a March
that refuses to be spring or tipping your change
into the glass jar at the foot
of the wooden stairs, Manet knows the vista
of boredom that sounds like nickels hitting glass
When you are arguing with your inner interlocutor
who won’t let go of the injustice crumpled in his hands
like the receipt he hurries to take as he leaves
the grocery store, Rembrandt sees the light the philosopher
reads by, as well as the improbable staircase
turned inside out that
winds through half your life.
Just so these people gathered on Boston Common to sit
for Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island
of La Grande Jatte” one hundred twenty years too late,
knowing the attention to a moment
he saw in those bodies is always there.
In the lovers, he petting the dog, wondering
how the dog keeps its composure or finds
excitement in the daily round,
she staring into the blinding sunlight of an argument.
But always, there is the girl just turning
toward all the visible and invisible
questions, to stare them down before
she puts them in her damp pocket.
This is the first poem in a section called "Questions in Our Pockets." Unlike most of the other photographs, these have people in them. I suppose they're the poet's and photographer's version of people-watching.
The photograph above is "Saturday Afternoon on the Boston Common" by Veronica Geminder. Her work can be found here.