Blackbird an online journal of literature and the arts Spring 2008 Vol. 7 No. 1



White Cat and Notebook: A Still Life
     in memory of  Lynda Hull (1954–1994)

     . . . I seem to be able to tell what objects are important to me by what tends
     to stay in the picture as it develops.

                                                     —Richard Diebenkorn

Rain hushes this February morning,
that same infusing chill

that once entered the slim bones
of your hands, until they ached, flushed

and swollen joints another
of your body’s betrayals; that laved

the grit of your radiant cities, brassy
asphalt fragrance rising, mnemonic,

off the charged streets, minor chords
of your unappeasable ghosts

laddering its scent on the weather.
Here, this small midwestern

city’s muffled in winter’s cottony greys,
the landlocked sky impassive

as the calendar squares telling these
mortal days’ inexorable slide

to the anniversary I refuse to mark
in. For hours I’ve been reading

theories of painting, how the dulled
edges of kitchen knives, poppies

fading in a glass, a frayed jacket, resolve
to surrogates for the figure, signs

of figural absence denoting presence . . .
summoning your Chicago rooms I’ve known

only in letters, the coruscating poems
you called these notes to myself,

imagining objects you once touched,
for a still life I might paint for you.

     Still life, in Diebenkorn’s interpretation . . . is the process of creating an
     intense unity from which everything
dispensable has been removed because
     the pressure of
feeling required it. . . . Parts have to be assembled of course,
     before some can be removed.

                                            —John Elderfield, Figure and Field

I can plot them on a canvas
in my mind: the yellowed dressmaker’s

dummy, straight-pins piercing
the bird-down slope of breast, shape

rounded as Monroe’s, behind it the window
through which you watched blown skies

mapped with billboards and spiked
antennas, fading rose contrails, frame

for the El’s sparking tracks echoing
the mannequin’s curves, the question mark

lines of the white cat preening
on the sill. I can sketch a scarred deal

table, circa 1930, in the foreground,
on it, creamy gouache of a highball glass

perspiring beside pill bottles, their labels
rough white strokes, a few pointillist

dots of prescription type; behind them,
a notebook, snake of rubber tubing

coiled, toxic, in the slumbering kit. But no.
Four years now since I got the call.

Louise could not repeat what I could not
bear to hear: say it again, say it again,

I sang, hoarse cuckoo with my mainspring                          
come wildly unsprung.

      . . . represented forms are loaded with psychological
   feeling. It can’t ever be 
just painting.
                                                      —Richard Diebenkorn

Four years and still the images break down.
Lynda, I don’t know what I believe

about where you are now, or whether
my words dissolve like mist

in etherous air. I can’t conjure you
among these scumbled layers: clusters

of family photos, a translucent bride
in overpainted silk and fedora, cherries

a slash of ruby pigment darkening
the brim: can’t find you in the gleam

of aluminum crutches reflecting
off the illusion of her captured face.

Details fail to coalesce. But the carmine
and silver amulet box you sent me

from Cuba—when you lose your faith,
take mine for you, on lavender tissue—

still blesses my desk, whispers it’s not folly
to believe that once, months beyond

your death, I felt the heat of your living
arm shawl my shoulders. Teacher,

even if it’s true elegy’s fated
to be most about the living, pictures,

always, to be first the story of the painter’s
subjective eye, I’ll complete this one

for you, paint out everything dispensable
till all that remains is the ivory cat,

your sleek familiar, like Hermes
beside the window, and the open notebook;

paint in a wash of violet
for your elegantly scrawled lines.  

reprinted from Muse (2002) with permission of Southern Illinois University Press

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