Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice
February mist, morning thaw just begun, & the heron that is the same
color of slate as the pond on which she moves
today is nowhere in sight.
Two days ago, my wife & I watched her hunting near the drainage pipe
& heard at first nothing at each supple step. Then, just as her foot touched,
a muffled creak of something
giving way, her body’s weight pressing
at ice. We lost track of how long this lasted: patternless, a few steps
of audible silence, surface
giving nothing back, & then—cleanly,
sporadically—a tap of pressure on the ice’s crust. She was stalking
God knows what, moving on a pond frozen through—slow, determined,
then lingering, affixed
on something we couldn’t see. A heron hunting
tucks one leg back, lifts its neck, & with a sudden stab through air,
allows its body to unfold. This one, though, I’ve only seen take
these tentative steps, lean in, wait implausibly, then begin
moving again. What happened
took place weeks after
Isadora Duncan’s children drowned & isn’t much of a story at all.
This was after the driver turned the stalled car’s crank & the vehicle
lurched & tumbled down the embankment, broke the river’s surface,
& was gone. Somewhere
on a beach on Corfu, Duncan imagines
the Seine’s ribboned gray—its surge
& gradual calm—& pictures
hooks & dragging lines, an anchor snagged on a sun-glazed wheel.
Then, although she’s promised there will be nothing more,
she watches her arm move. Wave froth, sand fleas, beach grass scruff.
Her hand lowered, raised. It seems, perhaps, like the first gesture
she has made
as she bends her wrist gradually back & makes what the body does
willed: for a moment, almost, mending, evanescence, her body
both forgotten & salve to itself, & then fastened to a way of saying
that somehow seems to suffice. For years,
a man born in a stubble field
is satisfied documenting his walks. It is, he claims, our flawless art,
just as it’s perfect
how dust freckles each lemon tree blossom, or how
his horses stir in their decrepit stalls, watching rain pool in the dark palm
of a shovel & in the earth
between their hooves. These are moments
the man considers, too, as he drifts through the streets & hills, taking
endless pictures of himself doing ordinary things, stark naked in each one.
Catching his breath at a barbwire fence, waiting for a passing mule.
Striding past a silo, scattering ravens. Arms outstretched, leaping from a rock.
Sipping walnut brandy in the shade.
A friend once tried to explain this to me,
defining it in terms of dailiness, ritual, the precarious
framework of the mundane. Think of Duchamp’s urinal, I was told.
Or Rauschenberg’s Erased de Kooning,
a piece in which absence, fixed
in a gold-leaf frame, becomes
an end in itself. In which absence takes
the form of a yellow sheet clumped with remnants of ink & crayon. It’s not
the same, is it, as that story of Pollock, most likely far from true?
How he once bought a Picasso in order to erase it, to learn
how the line might work,
the way the body’s dialect finds voice.
Lead on cream paper, c. 1908. Four Studies of the Human Hand.
Then his task filled hours—each fingertip, knuckle,
wrist. In a photo
taken somewhere in Russia, a crowd lunges towards a train window,
eager for the papers offered by a boy, hardly caring they’re mostly lies.
But now here is the reason we look at it, why it was preserved:
in the window next to this boy someone has been painted out.
Airbrushing, cropping, faces
ink-smudged or excised with a razor—
it was all common, we know. Except here the work is so poorly done
it looks deliberate—how the black of the window barely blends
with the space where his body should be
& all of his contours
are clear. At his torso, the oval construct of his head, each brushstroke
is so thick & obvious, patterned
in thumbprint whorls, it resembles
proportion lines from some How to Draw book. Symmetries, ratios,
augmented angles, methods to ensure
each of the parts is in harmony
with the whole. It’s as if whoever removed him from this scene
was only beginning to understand just how the body works—
its axis, his shoulder’s traversing lines, that single mark
from scalp to ribs.
Polyclitus knew the beautiful comes about
little by little, through many numbers, & perhaps with our rules
for rendering ourselves
mimesis is nothing but math. Perhaps, too,
this work was botched in order that we might notice, might begin
to guess. That this man who stared down half asleep from the train
was the same man who once seared his brother’s eyes with a rust-flecked awl
then walked from his home without a word. Who, one night, was made to kneel
in the woods when his throat was slit
beneath the pines. Done in one take,
forty seconds long, the first film ever made—Lunch Hour at the Lumière Factory—
shows only a crowd
walking into sunlight, hurrying into a blazing lane.
There’s a rush of wool dresses, hand placed into a pocket, a shrug,
a mastiff’s fevered joy. Behind & above, back in the rafters: the pure
geometry of light & wood.
At the climax, a girl plucks at her button
& a black horse trots nimbly by, harnessed to a cart covered in canvas
that gives back as it passes
the shadowed branches of an oak. By now
it’s December, 1895. In a Paris basement salon, a crowd watches
the image of a crowd projected on a pinned white sheet. A machine whirs
& rattles along with the same effort of its name—cinématographe,
from the Greek, meaning writing the movement. They watch
soundless blacksmiths striking at steel,
the lift & curve of waves,
& then a passenger train that glides into a station & seems to them,
at least in one story, like artifice
for a single breath more. Muybridge,
I’ve read, invented moving pictures by making a horse circle a track.
First it galloped & broke each thread laced across its path,
which in turn tripped the camera shutters & told us how it moved—
how its body curved, lagged, compressed,
& how there were moments,
indiscernible, when not a hoof touched the earth.
A few years after
he hunted down his wife’s lover playing cribbage at a Calistoga mine
& shot him point-blank in the chest, Muybridge made
naked dancers & gymnasts move against a grid of white lines.
Here is A Man Walking
and Turning. A Man Heaving a Boulder.
Carrying a Rifle. Digging with a Spade. A Woman Drying Her Feet. Listen:
there’s no better time to finish one story I began before. It’s about the artist
who roamed the village hills & I’m not even sure it’s true: when war came,
the man arranged to end his walks
& put his camera away. Instead, he began
to choose. He chose which of the dead he would allow to be buried,
which rottweiler, woman, which ear. To make
some move barefoot
towards an idling truck, then bedsprings, truncheons, stones. But listen:
in one series of Muybridge photographs, a woman approaches a chair.
She is naked, in profile, & beginning to move
closer to its curved pine back.
She is the same woman who pours a single glass of water, who stands
after sitting on the floor. This time, though, she takes a few steps, kneels
at a chair, pauses,
then rises again. She has either a look of solemnity
or a half-smile latched to her face—because she knows
what she is about to do.
By the fifth frame we can see it, almost
in entirety, & she touches it with her knuckle. This is A Woman Kneeling
at a Chair, & somewhere within or near the eighth frame—
since this is all she intends—gesture & desire
coalesce. She lowers
her body, clasps her hands, in one motion bowing her head,
& even if this lasts for just a fractured second she seems
to be honestly in prayer. As if not kneeling at but to a chair. Adamant,
resolved. As if there were nothing else to kneel to. As if knowing
in a moment she will be finished & begin to rise
but for now it is still not yet.
(reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin)
Charlie Chaplin Dug Up & Ransomed: A Prayer
Coleridge in Scotland, Walking
Saint Catherine in a O: A Song About Knives
Tchaikovsky at the Trinity Site: A Dance of Sorts in Three Acts
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