by Marjorie Power
My favorite poems and works of visual art are those which seem to invite my participation in order to fulfill their purpose. The more engaged I feel intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically – to the extent this last kind of involvement is possible with verbal and visual art – the more I find the work stretches me in new directions. Many of my own poems are inspired to some extent by paintings and the poetry I read. I am neither an art nor a literary critic, nor do I teach in any formal sense. So I feel free to pass over works that may be held in high esteem by others for craftsmanship, beauty, moral statement or all of these. One of the gifts of reaching my mid-60s has been the clarity to focus my energy on what brings energy in return. That said, I’m happy to have majored in English and thankful for the time to re-read classics.
The painting that inspired my poem, “Seascape,” which appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of VoiceCatcher: a journal of women’s voices & visions, is not great art. But it marked me in a way that many technically superior, more complex paintings have not.
The water’s one shade of turquoise.
Bits of canvas show
between heavy greens onshore
as if the hand that held the brush
tried not to belabor.
The painting hangs
above a fold-out changing table
in a small rest room
just down the hall
from the jewel box chapel
in an old stone church.
Could be the artist belonged here
and her scattered, middle-aged offspring
didn’t much want
this particular effort.
When I encountered this painting in the ladies’ room of an old church, my first reaction was defensiveness on behalf of the artist, even though I assumed she must be dead or, in any case, no longer in control of where the painting had wound up. I felt it deserved better than a small, drab, dim restroom. And it was right above a changing table! Who, changing a diaper, would pause to look at a painting? Maybe it wasn’t good enough to hang in a museum, a shop or even above a living room fireplace, but a home office or guest room would have been suitable. Or a spacious, well-lit hallway.
On leaving the restroom, I forgot what I had seen. Months passed. One day at my desk when I felt uninspired, the painting came to mind. I revisited the heavy brushstrokes used to create sea, clouds and dense woods. I saw the bits of bare canvas that appeared everywhere except the water. It was these empty spaces that pulled me in. I felt the presence of the artist more clearly where she had refrained from applying paint; I felt respect for that choice, which also provided me a means to enter the scene with its invigorating wafts of salt air and the spirit of an artist who loved the place.
When I returned to the painting in my mind’s eye, the place it hung seemed strangely appropriate. I realized if it had been placed somewhere more dignified, I might not have noticed it at all – or if I had, I would have overlooked its peculiar beauty and neglected the invitation to enter. And I remembered the chapel not far from the rest room with its gorgeous (though uncomfortable) dark wooden pews, its jewel-like windows and their bits of story. The beauty of the chapel seemed frozen in comparison to the life that breathed from the painting above the changing table. I pictured a baby there, kicking wildly. I thought of swaddling clothes and straw.
The poem that followed, like all poems, led me along and ended where it seemed to need to end. I preferred leaving it to imply what it might, rather than include my every thought about the painting. “Seascape” went through many minor revisions over a period of four or five years. I experimented with line breaks and the number of lines per stanza. Two-line stanzas worked for me in the end because that felt similar to a heart beating quietly in quiet surroundings. I tried to hone images, making them more and more precisely evocative. Because I have written so many poems and gone through this process so many times, I don’t remember more about what I tried and discarded. The last stanza had me stumped. I do remember that. I wanted the effort of the artist to be its main emphasis, but didn’t want to sound as if I were dragging out the violins on behalf of that effort. When the stanza finally felt right, I submitted the poem to VoiceCatcher.
In short, I hope that my poem honors the rough beauty of the painting and the serendipitously flawed setting in which it hangs. I hope the poem shares the beauty of my viewing experience – especially in recollection – with readers who never see the painting, and gives them an opportunity to participate in that experience, if only vicariously.
Marjorie Power is a 65-year-old poet from Corvallis, Oregon. Her poems have appeared in six chapbooks and one full-length collection. Flying on One Wing: Poems for Breast Cancer Survivors and Those Who Love Them from Samaritan Health Services is now in its third printing. Individual poems appear in many journals and anthologies including The Atlanta Review, Poet Lore, Cloudbank, 84 Over 60: Women Poets on Love from Mayapple Press, and Living in Storms from Eastern Washington University Press.