We take our shovelsfull of horse manure
behind the barn and pile it up toward
a sirus clouded, early-morning sky.
Once done, the barn clean, I sit upon a stall-post
above a twelve hand mare as Jim begins
to curry coal-black hair, his body small
against the hugeness of the jumper horse.
It doesn't seem as if he has the room
to breathe inside the small, close, dirty white,
manure stained, pungent odored stall.
"You seem to think that art must always grow,"
I say, continuing a conversation old with argument
and thought and counter-thought. "Horizons burn
forever in the human psyche's skull."
His sculptor's hands sweep back and forth across
the horse's flanks, his body-rhythm calm.
"Unlike my peers, I've held tradition close
all through my life," he says. "My sculpture stands
upon its pedestal as recognizable
and filled with muscles, blood, and bone as any work
by Michelangelo, da Vinci, or Rodin.
But still, I've smoothed out lines and strengthened mass
to reach some resolution that can add
a new twist to the way we look at ourselves."
"Yet, those traditions that you've held so close
enclose you with their boundaries," I say.
"They don't allow the world to slice apart
into a lump of clay. They don't imprison sight
into chaotic sweeps of clean design,
or let a search for words emoting power
become the only reason justifying thought."
"You've said too many don'ts," he says. "The best
in art is affirmation, singing to the new
and fresh that's always in the human spirit."
The barn is steaming horse breath at the spring.
Black, ancient harnesses hang on the walls
beside the English saddles brown from use.
Jim finishes the mare and leads her out
into the brightness of the morning air.
The mare stands still, then gallops off toward
the wooden troughs beside the A-frame house.
Jim saunters back into the barn's half light,
a shining shadow darkened into man.
"I don't like Wordsworth much," I say. "He mucks
his way through poetry too much instead
of piercing down into his subject's bone.
But in one perfect sonnet, "Nuns Fret Not
At Their Convent's Narrow Room", he says,
In truth, the prison, into which we doom
ourselves, no prison is, and hints that freedom
can swell inside a narrow, confined space.
I'm not so sure that art should be organic
as if it is a tree or plant or forest floor.
I sometimes think that art can best fulfill
its purposes if it's confined by rules
that make the artist sweat and squirm and strive
to build his freedom inside prison walls.
I'm not completely sure I'm right, of course.
But still, it seems as if art's gone too far
toward a visionary creativity
that's empty of the substance which has made
art man's reaction to the life he leads."
"You don't like transcendental art," he says.
I look around me at the dusky barn,
the harnesses and saddles, Jim Gehr, small
against the corrogated metal walls:
The stallion, mare, and colt still in their stalls,
the straw and hay bales, pitchforks, rusty tools.
I smell the steaming horse-strong, hay-sweet smells
and feel the spring rise through the wooden floor
from thawing ground into the barn-close space.
"This life's enough for poetry," I say.
"There's miracles enough in common talk
to bring alive an awe of human life.
I don't see why we artists have to reach
beyond ourselves, our lives, emotions, thoughts
to find a meaning hidden in design,
or power throttled full by flaming words
describing suicide at Plath's "Egg Rock".
I want an art of life, an art that looks
at life with meaning, hope, emotion, thought."
Jim smiles. "You'd throw out Guernica
and Miro's canvas doodling and all
the playfulness and joy in Calder's huge,
bright mobiles swirling in the sun," he says.
I try to look into his eyes from where
I perch upon the horse stall's wooden post.
The barn's soft light is too diffuse, too dim.
I feel alone upon my perch, alone and lost.
"I don't mean that," I say. "Contemporary art
has moments. Roethke's Far Field poems touch life
as sure as any masterpiece by Frost.
But art still needs its boundaries in place.
Imagination, pure design, a Pollock work
have every right to be just what they are.
A bear cub wrestling with a salmon's tail
still has its place, still has its meaning straight
inside a world chaotic, crazy, ill-formed, mad."
He purses out his lower lip and shrugs.
"You're right and wrong," he says. "We artists fit
the molds we cast around our anxious selves."
Before my thoughts begin to form again
he takes a curry comb off of the wall
and tosses it toward my tall, great perch.
"You've made me talk so long the chores have slid,"
he says. "You'll have to pay for all your talk."
I look across the empty stall below
my dangling feet and wonder at the stallion's size.
Its stall contains so much of restless horse
I wonder if a poet could be crushed
while working in a four-walled space so small.