Monday, August 17, 2015

Light and Shadow: Jeanne Mackin

Six Essays


Blue he is, in his sea; so is nature; blue he is, as a sapphire, in his extreme distance; so is nature; blue he is, in the misty shadows and hollows – John Ruskin

THE BLUE WE SEE in the Madonna’s robes, in the wings of Cimabue’s angels, in that ultramarine that speaks of depth in water and the heavens, once all came from the same distant source.  Oltramarino means beyond the seas and once referred to many things: spices, cloth, glassware.  Eventually ultramarine came to refer to the blue color made by finely grinding a semi-precious stone. The finest lapis lazuli came from Afghanistan from a place called Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. When you look at an old painting luminous with that particular blue, you are looking at jewels and history and foreign lands.
            My husband, a handsome middle-aged man who still had the air of a renegade, of someone who might as easily pull away on a Harley as in a Volvo, came home from Switzerland wearing ultramarine suede shoes.  He’d been gone half a year, exhibiting in Germany, in Italy and Switzerland, those countries that still romanced the airplane and artists who use them as paintbrushes, as did my husband, making of the sky a canvas.  He looked tired and harassed, as do those who come through customs carrying large portfolios and small crates.   Half a year. I waited for the sense of stranger to creep into my perception. 
            Those shoes would not allow me the distance with which I wished to experiment. Half a year, an ocean, many borders between us, yet those barriers were thin as the air over our heads. When he saw me and waved, they vanished completely.  He is of blue; his preference, his art, his spirit are made of ground jewels, the color of angel wings, of height and depth.


Wherever chiaroscuro enters, colour must lose some of its brilliancy.  There is no shade in a rainbow, nor in an opal, nor in a piece of mother-of-pearl – John Ruskin

LIGHT CAN BE SLOWED DOWN and made to reconsider its own path, its desire for velocity.  When light passes through glass, it slows and makes a detour we call refraction. Refraction is matter’s way of saying, “Let’s rethink this.”  Shine light through a diamond and it slows its speed by almost half because of the density of the crystal.  If you lived inside a diamond, you would be twenty-five when your peers were fifty; you would live twice as long, and twice as slowly. A water droplet, perhaps the opposite of diamond’s hardness, is also a prism.
            That thanksgiving it was warm and humid, so after dinner we went outside.   A triple rainbow hung over the forest. A double happens once in a while, but in the sky that day after the storm three nestled inside each other, and we looked, knowing we would never see such a thing again. The rarity of it locked us into silence; we grappled with the event the way medieval people contended with comets or halos around the moon. Wonder and fear refract our direction, bend it into new paths.  The wonder takes hold of us and says “I have caught you.” The fear says “I am going to change you whether you wish it or not. From now on, up will be down, and inside will be outside.”  But wonder cannot last.  Colors fade, especially in a rainbow.
            After matter emerged from chaos, the first miracle was the creation of light, and with light came time.  When the triple rainbow began to fade, we came to ourselves slowly and with confusion.  We went indoors carrying new desires with us and I wished I had seen the triple rainbow when I was a child, not a grown up. I think somehow things would have been different.  I cleared the table of our dirtied dishes and glasses and the vase of yellow garden mums.


Nature is always mysterious and secret in her use of means; and art is always likest her when it is most inexplicable.  – John Ruskin
FRANCIUM HAS A HALF-LIFE of twenty-two minutes and a melting point so low this metal would be liquid at room temperature. It is an element of dream time. At any moment less than thirty grams of francium exist on earth; it is measured not in cupfuls but in atoms trapped in laser beams in a magnetic field, floating like snow flakes in the glow of a street light, casting shadows larger than themselves.  We will live our lives without ever seeing this metal, without experiencing its catastrophically brief existence.
            There was a boy once, like that. By accident, though there may be no such thing, we sat next to each other in a Boston pub, listening to revolutionary songs of a different country. He had black hair and white skin, the coloring you often find in people who recite Yeats from memory. We drank brown beer and drew codes in the sawdust floor with the toes of our boots.  He was with his friends, I with mine, yet we knew we were together. His arm slowly curled around my waist, under my coat, where no one could see it, but I could feel it.  We hadn’t spoken a word to each other yet we belonged to each other.   This is not a true story, you see. It is a story of unstable elements, of rare metals and all that we cannot see of existence, all that cannot be imitated. It is a story of solitude.
            The door opens.  A cold wind blows snowflakes into the pub, and the codes in the sawdust of the floor are wiped away by the draft. We shiver and leave behind the dream time.  His arm snakes back into its private Eden leaving behind this memory of a boy and that knowledge of rarity, of immeasurability.  The memory lasts longer than the moment and that is how we know we are, and have been. We measure such moments by atoms of the unexpected, not cupfuls of what is known. We exist in a single moment surrounded by before and after.


Under the direct yellow light of a descending sun . . .  pure white and pure blue are both impossible – John Ruskin

WHEN THE SUN DESCENDS, our humanity is optional; our goodness flees to animal history.  Day is not night, and dark is not light. Twilight obscures, while light illuminates, and under cover we change who we are. Sunset begins the masked festival of anonymity, when nature overcomes all the encumbrances of civilization, of education.  Shadows elongate till the children playing on the pebble beach cast darker outlines of alien origin.  White pebbles turn grey and purple; the wild chicory flowers lose their blue and flee to burnt lavender.  As the children play outside, inside wives dance into the shadows with other women’s husbands. Frank Sinatra croons them to the moon.
            The children, enticed by the music, leave the pebbled beach and the fireflies and creep to the clubhouse windows to spy on this secret interior.  The summer-hot world is divided into two camps, that of children and that of grown ups, and both camps on this summer evening are reverting to wildness, to those disremembered spaces formed in early history around campfires, inside caves.  Music and stories make the night bearable.  The grown ups fox trot and whisper.  Outside, the children press sticky faces to mosquito stained windows as lightning flashes in the distance.
             The teenagers who are just learning the ritual of courting dances and hormone bravado splash into the water to play daredevil: the lightning invades the sky, banging and flashing overhead, ambushing the lake.  The last child to leave the water, just before the lightning hits it for the first time, is the hero of the evening.  The younger children, impressed, resort to punching and pinching each other till the very youngest cries.  But no adult comes running.  They are fox trotting and two stepping and whispering on their way to a private moon.


. . . . the angels’ wings burn with transparent crimson and purple and amber.  John Ruskin

IN JAPAN, PURPLE IS A SACRED COLOR, the color of victory, the color of the cloth used to wrap sacred objects.  The author of the 8th century The Tale of Genji called herself Lady Murasaki – Lady Purple.  In the west the Victorians chose subdued purple as a color of mourning. Perhaps death and victory are the same thing.
            In my grandmother’s bedroom a black shawl embroidered with purple pansies hung over her ogee mirror.  She loved purple flowers above all other colors, and filled the house with vases of lilacs in the spring. The aroma of lilac still brings me back to that mysterious bedroom I was allowed to visit only once, the bedroom of a woman who had outlived generations and some of her own children. The furniture was heavy and dark wood, their veneers crackled with age.           
           When my grandmother began to die they carried her down from that room and placed her in a hospital bed set up in what had been the dining room. I was eight, and the process of leaving life terrified me. We sat in a row of chairs, watching and waiting, hours and days of watching and waiting, and I thought of that mysterious room upstairs, the room now emptied of its greatest secret.  She seemed willing to go, not at all afraid. Or perhaps after so many years of being mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, she had learned to hide the fear from little ones. 
            After she died and even the hospital bed was emptied of her, the house filled with the scent of lilacs.  This happened in March, before the lilacs bloom.  In the Mass card that commemorates her death, angels kneel over a tomb and their wings are white with purple at the tips.


It is at first better, and finally, more pleasing, for human minds to contemplate things as they are, than as they are not. – John Ruskin

WHAT IS MOST UNKNOWN in our world is the ocean. How do we contemplate the unseeable, that heavy and murky darkness, the weight and depth of those alien environments? The deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, the part never measured, barely imagined, is the Mariana Trench, seven miles below seagulls and boats, six miles below the depth to which submarines dive, four miles deeper than the watery grave of the Titanic.  It is a stratum of ocean completely unknown to us, a womb where life must survive pitch blackness, salt, near-freezing temperature and a pressure of eight tons per square inch.  But there is life there.  Life is.
            In a spring and summer twilight, color, before it mutes and darkens, glows brighter as the defiant sun grasps for more time.  Is this our central metaphor, more time, please? Time and life use the same verb: they pass.  They are wasted or well used, celebrated or mourned.  Grief glows brighter at twilight, when memory invades.  Memory illuminates the shadows and varies the color of all other emotions.  Every day at twilight my elderly father told the same story. Something about the pure white light of a Florida sunset reminded him of a day sixty years before, when he and other boy soldiers clambered over the sides of a boat and stormed a beach in the South Pacific.  There were so many bodies we stepped on them, he said each time. We couldn’t see the sand.
            Otherwise, my father, as mysterious to me as the deepest part of the ocean, never spoke of the three years he spent on Saipan except once when we were watching one of those John Wayne World War II hero movies.  My father said: It wasn’t like that.

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JEANNE MACKIN is the author of seven novels and has published short fiction and creative nonfiction in journals and periodicals including American Letters and Commentary and SNReview. She was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and is an award-winning journalist. She has taught English at Ithaca College and creative writing in the MFA Program at Goddard Collage in Vermont and Port Townsend, Washington.

Jeanne Mackin's latest book A Lady of Good Family, the story of the early landscape architect Beatrix Farrand and her relationship with her niece Edith Wharton is available online at this link:

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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Tim Keane: Two Poems

after Robert Corless                                                                                                                               
Untitled painting by Robert Corless

are those inky dendrites colluding with tender nettle?
is the daubed, swampy pool-tide opposed with itself,
drained while it fills the space, and cresting while it recedes?
are the besotted strokes and the entangled cords, coupling
in the moment's enclosed whoosh, threading their own back-pedaling motion,
and is it a barnacled trestle, is it a brush-map of future flight patterns?
is it the outlawed, black-patterned encrusted flower
and the trick of ebony, wearing fine, melted red and blue residuum
at this arrested opening, then a thrust, leaping south into the ensuing black reversal?
is it a spring-ploy set in grim winter, circular and whole, then collapsing, angled,
at sin's synchronous cue, to arc, spin, halt, turn, fondle and scrum,
is it a coal-go, and an oil-streaked downdraft and a whirligig blotch that stains
and darkens another turnabout?

*   *   *

Manor Tree, Eddie Johnson 1964
The Manor Tree
after Eddie Johnson

Black thorny spindles spoil the cold grey pitch,
and spindly and taut lines bind one frozen branch to another.

A squall coats a skewed-V and the splayed trunk resembles
the exhausted legs of a shadowed nude, a bark of pale torso,
skin swathed in hoarfrost, sated, prone, in a sheeted
bed of snow, snug, drowsy, under a capacious billow.

Is it a compromised view on a dozing lover? Or the capsized
profile of a startled hare, hunkered, breathing desperate breaths?

Sleep to be sure, a light snore, by the manor tree, as the squall’s
gauze settles down, or settles in, and on, to no-one, no-thing,
and then to what? Then end of gray, the end of black in winter's
gradual, blinding white erasure.

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Tim Keane is the author of the poetry collection Alphabets of Elsewhere (Cinnamon Press). His award-winning writing has appeared in Modern Painters, Shenandoah, Denver Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Reader (UK) and numerous other publications. He teaches writing and European literature at BMCC, CUNY, in lower Manhattan.  web site:

The poem Bolero and the Corless painting first appeared in Sleepingfish in 2013 and are reprinted here with the permission of  the author, Tim Keane