Author of two book-length narrative poems, THE ADVENTURE and HAPPINESS, both published by Story Line Press. Other poems in print and online journals. Adjunct professor creative writing George Washington University.
One of my neighbors on that wing
became famous, inadvertently
and without benefit to himself.
His work was hung in museums
of “outsider art” and “art brut” – terms
that would have offended and pained him,
though the doctors were pleased.
While he lived, we often discussed
the spiritual efficacy,
across the many worlds
he proclaimed, of his echoed line,
minute crosshatching, spired palaces,
and ranks of moonfaced angels looking on.
One of the latter died
whenever my friend masturbated – a great sin,
tallied by crossed-out eyes. When, near the end,
he was troubled by illness and rumors of fame,
the drawing was weak and there were many dead angels.
I was one of his pallbearers,
stood by the graveside, threw earth,
then returned to my station
in the hallway, by the entrance, near the table
on which every third day the sisters
placed fresh flowers.
There I sat with the Zurich papers, reading
about the Crash, the Nazis, the second war,
the atomic and hydrogen bombs, the moon landings
and cantonal politics,
avoiding my room till nightfall.
Some of the doctors as they passed
thanked me for my service,
the sisters less often. It’s rare
and good to find, in any country,
an institution so enlightened
as to recognize the art of the insane
or the need for a flower-guard. With visitors, though,
I had bad moments
when at first they didn’t see me as a patient.
Although well-known and respected
by 1934, Isabel Bishop
continued to depend
on a wealthy relation. That year she married Harold Wolff,
a noted neurologist.
He was highly supportive, to use a term
and imputed feeling that didn’t yet
exist; insisting, for example,
that she return to work
as soon as their son was born, work being her painting.
He also insisted,
whenever they entertained, on formal dress.
Conversation was free
over drinks – the Old Fashioneds and Manhattans
he liked. Dinner was silent
except for recordings of Hindemith and Mozart.
After-dinner talk concerned
topics Dr. Wolff considered important,
and which (some people recall)
he listed in advance on 3X5 cards.
It lasted precisely two hours,
after which guests were politely asked to leave.
An expert on brainwashing, he died
in Washington in ’62, debriefing
the U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers.
(They knew something was wrong when Dr. Wolff
failed to appear exactly at eight.)
In her studio overlooking Union Square,
his widow continued to paint,
with unrivaled technique and penetration,
women talking, women eating hotdogs,
women reading, men sleeping with
their heads on the shoulders of women
on benches in the park, the communities
of bums in the park, men and women
walking, erect, purposeful, equal,
in undefined spaces.
Long before the Hoods,
the ambiguous vector
of their whips, French fries morphing
into cigarettes and brushes, severed heads
(all single bloodshot eye) up against
bottles, the tangled-leg-creatures,
the hell-screen and the final triumphant spiders, long
before his daughter’s memoir
of his self-absorption, even before
the breakthrough works of warring contemplative
boys, Phil Guston,
teaching in Iowa, entered “a time of dismantling.”
The WPA was winding down
and with it his patience for murals. He wanted
to return to the easel, the even light
and transcendent gaze of Piero.
Some work from this time, however,
has been called sentimental. In Sunday Morning
a young black man sits
smoking, tie knotted, cuffs straight,
an Iowa City out of de Chirico,
empty and gold, beyond the window.
Nature comprises the abalone-shell
ashtray and the cheap wood of the table.
He is not Renaissance-timeless.
Perhaps he’s wondering what it takes to be timeless.
The train was strafed but, by a miracle,
arrived at what was left
of Nuremberg; by another miracle,
a six-wheeler was waiting.
The driver, a corporal, gave his name,
which the painter promptly forgot. Hurrying
before the inevitable night raid,
they loaded the art. Some had to be abandoned –
jerrycans of petrol took up room –
and the painter charged the stationmaster
(who smiled at him oddly) with its care.
As they skirted craters and piles of rubble,
the painter mourned its loss.
The driver was gratifyingly familiar
with the work. He never stopped talking,
but at least he talked about the work
and was very respectful. He liked
the one of a girl getting screwed
by a swan (“You can see she’s enjoying it”)
and those of a guy having to choose
among three women (“I wish I was him!”),
though he wondered why none of them was blonde.
More sedately he praised the “Party wives, I guess –
they look it – with all the flowers and thin dresses.”
“I forbid you to make of my work
a private pornography!” barked the painter
with a barrage of insults. Unfazed,
the driver said he admired
other things too, then asked why the pictures of farm-folk –
“German Soil,” “German Peasant” and so on –
never showed tractors.
The painter, momentarily at a loss,
suspecting then discounting
wit, answered in terms of essence.
At Küssbart the road was cratered. At Arschdorf
they hid from planes beneath trees.
At one point they thought they heard cannonfire
from both west and east.
Here and there, deserters and others
hung with signs on their chests. At Holzbein,
the SS at a checkpoint seemed
a bit crazy, but yielded
to the letter signed by Goebbels. Amazingly
they reached their destination. It was damaged,
but the cathedral complex wasn’t.
Glad to be rid of this idiot,
the painter, nonetheless, stiffly,
shook hands. They both expressed faith in the Endsieg.
The truck drove off and, at the nearest crossroads,
turned towards the Americans. The painter
had to undergo
extensive questioning and offer sincere
excuses. The bishop found him a room
and food. The art from the truck
was stored in the cool ancient bombproof vaults
of the cathedral. When the painter died in the ‘80s,
for his local retrospective
three or four works were taken out and hung
amidst the stuff he did later:
Depositions in the style
of Simone Martini. One piece,
the first he had made in that town,
as a fleet of B-17s
flew past, very low, for hours:
crude, muddy and brown,
with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
each riding a fuselage – that one painting
The twisting ascent from the three
rusty feet, almost too small
for the weight of gifts on the table
they bear, is one of those gifts. A pipe
and a knife for the fruit are crossed,
six lines, a small device. The fruits
themselves allude to apples but also
peaches and waver towards firmness.
A glass suggests a bottle, a guitar
a face, two faces, the sheet of music words.
There may be flowers, there is certainly
wallpaper, walls of a sort infused
with space, sand from the beach in the paint;
somewhere out of harm’s way
a subject watching an object watching
back, but mostly that third thing.
Georges Braque, Guéridon, 1929, oil on canvas
©2014 Frederick Pollack