evergreen

[The Artist] Took This Portrait of Herself By Means of an Ingeniously Devised Mechanism.

—original caption below an image of photographer Margaret Watkins

***

Restored over the past four years, Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin in the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari can only be described as light made manifest. Painted in 1515–1518, it is Venice’s largest altarpiece, spanning twenty-one cedar planks. Oscar Wilde called it “certainly the best picture in Italy,” even as others balked at its dramatic scale. In perfect harmony with the surrounding architecture, one can see the panel silhouetted even from the first step inside the church. It proceeds to grow and grow until the viewer is dwarfed before Titian’s ascending Mary, hovering in the clouds with arms upstretched, heavenward. Angels jostle at her side, putti, as the disciples marvel below, speechless. Sunshine streams through adjacent windows, creating the goldest gold I have ever seen. Supersaturated, dazzling, it evades documentation.

***

Emily Dickinson writes of the “noiseless noise of the Orchard”—the perfection of utter paradox.

Then there’s a noiseless noise in the Orchard – that I let persons hear – You told me in one letter, you could not come to see me, ‘now,’ and I made no answer, not because I had none, but did not think myself the price that you should come so far”

***

Travel Journal, October 9, 2022, St Giles Cathedral: “Absence makes no sound for it is every sound… Unfathomable loss cannot help but be fathomed—even the acknowledgement of the lack of measure is a measure. A stream bursts because it has no other language.”

***

The center of the painting is shaded red in anticipation. Wings fade. The sun is fractured light. In front of Chagall’s Fall of Icarus (1975), I wondered aloud which is the greater tragedy: to fall with the townspeople watching—to be mourned, to die within a community that can grieve but ultimately do nothing—or to perish utterly alone, falling into the sea on failing wings. You do not speak. When I step backwards to gain a better view, tripping over your shoe, you catch me.

***

“In the shadow / of an unattainable heaven, / burdened by a memory / of perfect orchards trimmed by unseen hands. / Maybe being winged means being wounded / by infinity, blessed by the ordeal of freedom.” —Li-Young Lee, “Tethered”

***

Walking home, an egg carton rests in the crook of my arm. There was an absence once, once and for a long while. I didn’t crave the taste of eggs again until after sitting on that apartment floor, feasting. We played music all evening after months spent miles apart. Another dear friend, another apartment: eggs served scrambled. Quietude of shared sleep. I felt like a child then, tucked in together with a tenderness that asks nothing, this web of trust we bind and build. There was rain and then no rain. Blackberries, almond butter, elderflower. I pray for safe passage; I carry what I can.

***

“Late in my life / in the numb elegance of this city, / I made a decision— / or the decision / shining in the soft, brutal darkness / took hold of me— / to live. / Often I am peaceful / I never imagined that.” —Joan Larkin

***

The girl from the bookshop assessed me briefly, furrowing her brow, “So, are you one of those poets who hates everything, or are you a romance poet?” The chasm of an impossible binary.

Travel Journal, July 31, 2022, Nice Cathedral:There are many paths but only one reality. I need to get over my own inadequacy. I need to get out of my own way and stop fretting. All I can speak are the words given, all I can do is act with the greatest love. If I am thought a fool, then I am thought a fool. It doesn’t mean I am one for a moment.”

***

In Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, Franny, on the verge of an existential crisis, writes in a letter, “I think I’m beginning to look down on all poets except Sappho. I’ve been reading her like mad, and no vulgar remarks, please… ‘Delicate Adonis is dying, Cytherea, what shall we do? Beat your breasts, maidens, and rend your tunics.’ Isn’t that marvellous? She keeps doing that, too” (5).

If Sappho were not left behind in fragments, would she be loved more or less?

“Leave Crete and sweep to this blest temple / Where apple-orchard’s elegance / Is yours, and smouldering altars, ample / Frankincense”

“as the sweetapple reddens on a high branch / high on the highest branch and the applepickers forgot – / no, not forgot: were unable to reach”

***

December’s snow departed. It deliquesced, vanishing with the alacrity of a dream.

It winked. It conspired, with and against me. It transported.

***

Sitting in the cold kitchen, I am eating cranberries. The bag kindly suggests, “Stir into yoghurt or sprinkle over cereal,” but I do neither. Outside the window, a crow perches in a tree autumn-bare like an exoskeleton. The bird tilts its head, observing me closely through the portal of the window. We quietly take turns eating small red berries—first them, then me. Commensality. A word remembered from college. The act of eating together, a form of communion.

***

I sink into the field, watching the sky turn opaque lavender. There is only a sliver of moon aglow, more beautiful for being spare. Dappled snow hides cradled in treeshadow. The inevitable voice: “You can tread this ground over and over, but the landscape has changed.”

***

“The anchorite wanted most to know what the bear felt like upon first awakening from his hibernation. When Mary asked him to elaborate, he replied, ‘That is precisely the question I have in mind: is it an elaborate moment for the bear, or is it essentially spare?’” —Mary Ruefle

***

I think of Anna Akhmatova every winter: “I taught myself to live simply and wisely, / to look at the sky and pray to God, / and to wander long before evening / to tire my useless sorrows.” During her lifetime, she was labelled “half-nun, half-harlot” by those who wanted her dead. Her images rebel with a crisp finality: “Wild honey smells like freedom, / dust – like a ray of sun […] / Honeysuckle smells like water, / and an apple – like love. / But finally we’ve understood / that blood just smells like blood.”

***

In Italian, a word for happiness is spensierato. It is almost a synonym for carefree, meaning something like “without thought” (pensare – to think).

My friend says this is why poetry cannot help but be sad; it is full of thoughts.

***

I am meant to be reading about ecology in nineteenth century France but am instead looking out the window, transfixed by melting icicles dangling from the roof’s edge. They make diminishment beautiful, forms passing into a crystalline nothingness. Am I more sensitive to the tug of the past than others or simply less strong? When I drive, I think of the book we discussed in TechnoTexts, evening gatherings at the top of the art building, in a room populated with a sagging couch and Orthodox icons: Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. Each hill and river defined by its given name, each landscape shrouded in stories overlapping, of peril and devotion. I am here now as I am here five years ago and fifteen years ago, and these selves are narrating all at once—this noiseless noise.

***

“but something sustained me, / and when you greeted me, / I was paid fully / for the long search / and the meagre lamp; / there was no ecstasy, vision, trance, / no years between, / only an end to the whole adventure, / it stops here; / there is no striving for strange ships, / Adamic delights; / I have tasted the apple.” —H.D., Hermetic Definition, 26

***

In the story of Tabitha, I find most arresting the image of the widows gathered, weeping, in the upper room, clutching the garments Tabitha had made. Look, she made the world beautiful for us, they seem to say. Though she is gone, look at the work of her hands (Acts 9:39).

***

The human condition: why long for orchards that perish and never the evergreen?

Why be fated to crave that which can only leave?

***

I sit with my friend on a bench in Les Arènes de Lutèce as teenagers shout and play soccer below us amid the Roman ruins. She pauses in her story, “I’m sorry,” she says in English, thinking through the order of events. “I’m lost in chronology.”

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