Alas, thus far I seem to have a rather lurid style. I began this painting by trying to copy a lovely, delicate watercolor by a contemporary artist named Jane Voorhees. Other than a slight similarity in the landforms, however, this painting bears no resemblance to the watercolor. The title is thanks to Nick Drake, of course, whose fame exploded a number of years ago after VW used snippets of this song in a commercial where two young couples in a convertible forgo a party to go spinning down the road in the magical moonlight. But “Pink Moon” is not about magic; it is, almost certainly, about death. Nick Drake suffered from depression; he either killed himself or overdosed on antidepressants. But even his darkest songs are beautiful. Have a listen.
No art lasts forever, but some art is much more transient than the rest.
A good friend of mine posted a link on my Facebook page tonight that shows photographs of a Van Gogh painting reproduced large on the landscape via vegetation planted on a 1.2-acre plot. The artist is Stan Herd, who specializes in “land art” designed to be seen from the air. Most of his pieces are eventually plowed under or grown over.
The same transience characterizes the work of the well-known artist Andy Goldsworthy, who works primarily with sticks and stones, leaves, ice, and other materials found in nature. Most of his works are not destined for long life either. They melt, get blown away, wither, or are destroyed by water. Even more transient than Goldsworthy’s or Herd’s works are patterns made by artists on sandy beaches or snowy slopes, some of which last only a few minutes before seawater washes them away or the sun melts their borders.
Some conceptual artists play on the notion of transience by doing conventional work but deliberately planning its destruction. And the very nature of performance art is transience. Only the photographs and videos documenting these various types of art have any longevity, although they too will die some day.
It’s supremely ironic that my friend happened to post this particular link this evening that led me to muse about the transience of art—because this evening, after years of uncertainty, I had finally brought myself to put some art into the recycling bin.
When my husband died, in May 2008, he left behind three big acid-free boxes stacked full with 200 to 300 abstract paintings and other artworks interleaved with acid-free sheets. Most of these works were done with undiluted watercolors on paper. Some were done with ink; some were done via photocopier. Many of the paintings are flaking; some are wrinkled. Some are quite good; many are not, partly because Steve never discarded any of his efforts and partly because his mother and I have skimmed off the cream of the crop. They epitomized Steve as much as anything did. They were the best things he ever produced. To whatever extent anyone has a legacy, they were his legacy. And even though we were divorced a few months before he died, they became unofficially mine upon his death.
At least, I took them. A friend helped me clear out the house that Steve and I once shared, which I’d deeded over to him in the divorce. But neither of us could pry open the high cupboards in the sunroom that I thought contained the boxes of paintings. In a near panic, I dragged in a neighbor who worked and worked and finally got the doors open. I wept in relief. Although I didn’t know what I would do with the paintings, they were the most alive thing left of Steve and they had to be saved.
But where does art go when it has no future?
I framed a couple of the paintings for my house. But Steve and I had no children. He had no siblings. His father died less than five months after he did. In short, after I took the boxes to his mother and let her choose what she wanted, I was at a loss to know what to do with the paintings down the line. Like my own photographs, which will be thrown out or deleted by someone unknown to me after I die, his art has no prospective home.
I’ve kept the boxes for seven years. It seemed unthinkable to get rid of any of the paintings. But I recently told Steve’s mother I would bring them to her, along with the quilts she made us, to ensure that they would still be “in the family” if I died. A smart woman, she hit upon the idea of taking some of the paintings to next year’s family reunion in case any of Steve’s cousins want some of them. She couldn’t take 300 of them, however, and most people don’t much care for abstract paintings. The reality is that most or all of those paintings will be thrown out by someone after my ex-mother-in-law dies.
As I was going through the paintings one last time, choosing a few more that I hate to part with, I found myself putting aside some that I knew would never find a home among Steve’s cousins. Then I began putting aside more that I knew wouldn’t find a home. And finally I assumed the role of Steve’s curator, deciding which paintings were best and which should be sacrificed to make things more manageable for his mother.
Who was I to judge that? But it seemed best for me to do it—a favor, a burden, a debt, an obligation. At one point I just sat down and cried, because it seemed I was discarding his soul, a concept I don’t even believe in. I’m not sure which I was mourning more, the art or the artist. In some dimension, they are one and the same.
I Watched You Without Blinking
In the twilight of your sinking
I grew calloused to your grief.
I thought I loved you less and less.
I watched you without blinking.
From the lies about your drinking
I conceived the need to leave.
Words were weapons in my telling. Still,
I watched you without blinking.
Once, you lay in bed unthinking,
Slack. You floated toward death’s port.
But the doctors turned the tide back as
I watched you without blinking.
In the aftermath of stinking
Guilt, my shame came to the fore.
I’d cut the line, so fine, between us.
I had watched you without blinking.
When I strove for our relinking,
You were carapaced with hate.
My hands, outstretched, stayed empty, for
I’d watched you without blinking.
My heart curled gray and shrinking
As your world grew small and strait.
You chose the path toward Not to be.
I watched you without blinking.
You handed off your grief to me.
I cannot keep from blinking.
Now I fight to shed the darkness
Of the twilight of your sinking.
This poem is for and about Steve, my second husband. The third stanza, which may be too inscrutable, refers to his failed suicide attempt. By the time he died he was my ex-husband, but for many reasons I felt much more like a widow than a divorcée. My sense is that this may be the last time I write about him. If you’re fairly new to this blog and are interested, see Into the Confessional and Steve.
The title of this poem comes from a 2004 painting by Ikenaga Yasunari called “I Watch You Without Blinking.” As soon as I saw it I knew I wanted to write something using the same title. I was thinking of a short story. Instead, I set out to write a villanelle, but it morphed into the quatrain form above while still using a repeating-line motif. The first and last lines of each stanza rhyme, and the last line of each stanza is the same (with small variations), until the final stanza. The last line of the poem repeats the first line. Every two stanzas have second lines that rhyme, though usually with a slant rhyme.
When I found him he was cold.
White foam filled his open mouth,
Foam stiffened like lace spun with bone,
Stiff as an age-old argument.
Death wins it.
He lay aslant his bed,
felled before he could stand.
His eyes were closed; sealed and done.
The dog was barking and barking
Over her empty dish.
David, with whom I had a turbulent on-again/off-again relationship for four years, died last November. What I wrote here is true, but I’m not sure what I think about the poem itself, or the fact that I’m posting it. I wrote two poems tonight, the first serious poems I’ve written in decades that I did not immediately discard. This is the second one, though it’s labeled Poem #1. When I come apart I go backwards.
I find it enraging that although Facebook allows gruesome photos (many of them fabricated or misleading) of aborted fetuses, it recently banned photos of a baby born with a fatal birth defect called anencephaly, in which critical parts of the brain are missing. When the mother reposted the photos, she herself was temporarily banned from Facebook. This video about that baby made me cry, and—yes, it’s a cliché—my heart goes out to this family.
When people ask, I always tell them I have one sibling—one sister. That’s true. But there can be alternative, equally valid truths, depending on how you look at things. This blog post honors my and Carolyn’s other sister, Rosemary, who was born prematurely on April 18, 1960, with anencephaly. She lived about an hour. I was a toddler, 20 months old, and an only child until that day—and then again afterward.
With anencephaly, parts of the brain never develop due to a neural tube defect. In most such cases, part of the skull is also missing and/or the baby’s head is deformed. In the early 1900s such babies were sometimes referred to as “anencephalic monsters.” To my knowledge my mother never saw the baby, although my father did. One of my aunts recalled him saying that the baby looked perfectly normal. Another recalled him talking about defects. Memory is a tricky thing. But the death certificate, which I found online, clearly says anencephaly. Such babies are usually born prematurely due to an excessive buildup of amniotic fluid, which was also noted on the death certificate.
It was a very different time in 1960. My parents, unlike the couple in the video, had no advance warning their baby would die. No photographs were taken. Rosemary didn’t get any kind of memorial tribute such as the video I’ve linked to. My parents, I’m sure, received no grief counseling at the hospital or anywhere else. Relatives have told me that my mother was advised to get pregnant again as soon as possible, and so she did. Carolyn was born a little more than a year later.
I never would have known of Rosemary’s existence had I not asked my father a nosy question when I was in college. My parents never spoke of her. None of the relatives who knew about the pregnancy ever slipped up and let the secret out. I’d like to ask many more questions now, but my parents died years ago. When we cleaned out their house, we found not one bit of evidence, not one scrap of paper, referring to Rosemary. I can’t imagine how badly my parents must have been hurting at the time.
Thanks to one of my uncles, I learned that Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis allowed Rosemary to be buried in a corner of my grandmother’s plot. I’m not sure anyone accompanied my father to the burial; I believe my uncle told me he went alone. There was no service. There is no marker. Cemetery policy might not have allowed one, given the unusual burial arrangement. My parents probably could not have afforded one anyway. Besides, they’d been told by the doctor to move on, not dwell on what happened—to bury Rosemary not just literally, but figuratively as well. That’s my interpretation, anyway.
I’ve decided to check about cemetery policy. It’s ironic, perhaps. Neither my sister nor I, both having decided on cremation, will have a marker when we die. But Rosemary didn’t have a life. Both the least and the most she can have is a symbol of remembrance.