Lines to Allegra
by Joyce Wilson
after Hearing about Her Separation
and Pondering the Situation
at the Pop Art Exhibit,
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
You would have liked Jasper Johns
for whom work is a way
to free himself from a bind—
the sticky entrapment of the literal—
in order to move on the surface of things.
What we want is underneath, hidden
and whole, like bubbles not yet broken,
or else it’s beyond, gnashing
and roiling out there, full of portent.
Those summers we worked in Provincetown,
we believed that if only we understood
the Tao of Romanos Riszk, the logic behind
Coltrane’s Ascension, the dreams of gay waiters
on Commercial Street, the remedy
for parents’ jealousy of their children,
we would know enough.
These were outside the domain
of the System, which didn’t care about us.
On our quest for the Subjective
we carried a deep distrust of all systems,
especially the rigid binary one
that proclaimed divisions where the shadowy
truth could only be found in between.
The idea that somewhere our other half
was wandering in search of a single
perfect mate to complete his body
and soul seemed far-fetched then.
We scorned the theory of one step removed,
and welcomed intimacy and strangeness,
believing that by virtue of proximity with another
our feelings would generate enough electricity
to separate the likes from the loves,
and it would be a simple matter to know
which one to choose: the boy playing
with the ball who was not too young,
not the father’s favorite,
not disguised, but apparent
like a precious ring sinking to the bottom
of the pool, glinting there, and bright and lasting.
In a world where love would be so obviously known
we lived as if it were better to wade through
experience without testing the depths,
like soldiers palming hand grenades
before horrified bouquet-bearing civilians.
It was unsettling for me when
we vowed never to marry
and reneged on the promise!
Suddenly it seemed that married and unmarried
were part of the same dichotomy,
no way of knowing what lies underneath
while the flood carries you away.
Why else did Scheherazade depend on her wits
to save her life on her wedding night?
I thought you, for sure, were immune
to that desperation.
You had it made: you,
a painter, married a guy named Art!
Forfeiting ceremony, you embraced
a minimal policy that would defer
to your passion for work.
You had no property, no children, no money.
Then you moved to California where
he decided he wanted what he had been denied,
a conventional wife,
a regular salary, a desk job.
There was no going back,
just sitting quietly and watching
the alternating of this see-saw destiny,
where the occasion for its opposite
would make what is sacrificed now only seem
more attractive later—
you told me, this is it, it’s over,
yet I predicted Art would call you when he was
lonely as a father,
encouraged by the new
wall of separation between you.
This wall became a surface
where feelings could emerge.
I can see you with Art
on opposite sides of the table,
your heads of uncontrolled hair nearly touching,
trying but not reaching reconciliation.
Then it is clear that Art is becoming your art:
an afternoon stretching large canvases,
applying the veil of turped-down color—
umber, ochre, venetian red—
to create a middle tone
for the next pastiche of oils,
to give the chastened or roughed-up self
a surface to crest through while protecting
the soul from too much scrutiny.
A Weeping Woman mixes patterns
of short lines at odds like prickly herringbone,
circles with heavy white tears,
two-headed arrows that seek
The tactile surface of emotions shimmers
like the promise—what you see is what
but underneath all certainty falls away
and the emptiness that is left
is all there is.
As a stone falls, does it think it is going to the ground
because it wants to? (Spinoza)
We have so many new ways of seeing things.
From an orbiting satellite,
we are afforded a new perspective of the earth:
a planet in its infancy
wreathed in watery clouds
that wash over its sphere like expressions
over the face of a sleeping child.
How I long to take care of it,
hold it, nurture it! (It’s the mother in me.)
Yet to look beneath the movement of clouds
is to see a multitude of figures like ants
scurrying over the porous skin,
changing habitats, storing food, stealing,
dying, warring with each other, starving
each other out—!
Johns has painted the word “No”
as if it is the pendulum of our protest
years. Frank O’Hara wrote that it is Johns’s
business to resist desire. Who would
associate that with the nineteen sixties,
when it seemed desire was the means
and the end?
Or is this the art of courtly irony
now that irony has been promoted
to a full-fledged “feeling,”
neither hot or cold but both and?
The word in gray metal hangs on a gray wire
before a gray ground:
we said no to the war and witnessed a holocaust;
no to the status quo and were often out of work;
no to the denial of sex and watched
the fickle fluctuations of appetite
from one season to the next.
Can one learn from these vacillations?
Am I smart enough?
Perhaps another degree would help!
I would apply for time to figure all this out
(eight years toward a dissertation would be nice!)
but for the example of William Blake,
who found freedom in contradictions
without finishing high school.
The Sixties love of Zen decreed
that to get beyond desire is the only way
to reach internal peace.
The world is too much with us, yet
our longings betray an appetite which
insists the world can never be with us enough.
Or am I confusing world with spirit?
Why has it all become so separated?
Elsewhere, Johns burns paint
into the canvas with wax
and fixes the color with heat,
manipulating the thick surface texture
in the moment’s momentum
according to trial and error, intuition,
an old formula, accident, past experience,
all of the above.
In According to What Johns gathered tools
to measure the viewer’s response:
the painter’s scale of primary colors,
photographer’s gray card,
Rorschach test; mere representations
until something in our psyche
blooms. It is as if Johns is teasing us
about our need to take stock of things,
to measure what we feel against
the standard, as if he knows how afraid we are
of the raw rind of reality.
He toys with the notion that we can only
accept things by halves—
the brilliancy of light or shadow,
gradations of black or white,
a woman either young or old—
until we can see the thing for what it is,
lines on paper, a design.
And color? Optics explains how when
we gaze at one color, our minds insist on seeing
its complement when we look away,
as if we must automatically experience
despair as part of love
in order to comprehend love.
Lichtenstein’s series of the cathedral
at Rouen, the same image
reproduced in varying palettes—
as if weather changes are systematic!—
is a good dig at the labors of Monet,
and Rauschenberg recorded the patterns
of a tire track on a scroll of paper:
create art while you drive.
How is the weather in sunny L.A.?
Are you getting any painting done?
Perhaps you don’t like Johns. Who’s
your favorite artist now? Are you
perfecting a new skating routine
at the indoor rink in the California desert,
your blades etching clear lines
on the manufactured ice
before it leaches away into the sand;
or studying the sky of the canyon at dusk
with an armful of pastels,
not like a member of an audience
on the edge of her seat,
but like the conductor stage center,
capturing the transforming colors;
and after that the satisfaction
of enjoying the sense of things,
the spontaneity of movement,
the violet of sky, of a loved one,
alone but not alone, knowing
all the while that at Rouen
the light still transforms the cathedral
and in someone’s imagined industrialized town
a single rotating tire records the passage
of time on a lengthening asphalt road?
Copyright © 2000 by Joyce Wilson. This
poem first appeared in The Antigonish Review.