A Spun Gray Chrysalis
"Contemporary poets leave me breathless,"
I say. "They start their stanzas filled with verve
and then end with a then, and then begin
again as if they'd had to stop to take a breath."
Blue-eyed, face red from months of winter winds,
his mustache bristling gray from years of thought,
Jim cocks one eye and makes his face Picasso-cubed.
"Contemporary poets mock my eyes,"
he says. "and try to make me see design
when all I really see are squiggly spots."
"There's something missing isn't there?" I ask.
"Or am I just confused? I understand
a poem that builds from line to line to line
until it climaxes in a period.
These poems that run and run toward some end
confuse me, make me feel half-made, undone."
Jim throat-laughs deep inside his barrel chest.
"You think that you're confused!" he says. "My art
was born when times were hard. The WPA
told most of us to sculpt alive our times.
We sculpted animals and painted breadlines,
teased canvases into a fiddling hill-folk dance
that splashed strong blues, green greens, and checkered skirts
into the eyes of men and women hoping hope
in spite of money worries, empty cupboards, fear. . .
"And suddenly Braque's crazy cubist art
confused the world we knew and skewed our eyes
and thought into a twisting, unknown, crazy world.
Picasso threw his talent at our skills
and shook and shook perceptions born with breath.
"I didn't understand the cubist's art.
I worked beside young Gromme's detailed birds
and wondered at the revolution birthed
and turned to middle age before I'd heard
a revolution had been started up.
We WPA types filled the parks with animals
and jeered our fear at critics smart enough
to know that some mysterious tide had turned
and turned the artist's world wild-upside-down."
The eyes and wind-stained face stare casually
at me, intense, shrewd, calculating my response
to thoughts dredged from a years-soaked, art-soaked brain.
"You like Picasso now," I say. "How come?
He opened up Pandora's box and swished
aside the art world that you'd always known."
"Things change," he said. "Men change and grow;
art changes, grows. Picasso ripped apart the world
and puzzled it together once again.
I took my animals and all their sinews, cells,
and smoothed them out until they grew
into the love, rage, hope, fear, hate, and joy
I felt while stumbling through this world of ours."
"You're saying art is troubling when it's new,"
I say. I pause. And then the revelation-flash:
"You're saying newness makes art, art," I say.
"Old disciplines still have their purposes,"
he says. "The beautiful is beautiful,
old, new, or some strange, perky cauldron mix.
But man still lives horizon-mad inside
his head. Horizons constitute great art."
I feel a sudden trembling in my arms.
He sits there with his aging face, calm, strong,
his judgements on the world sealed in the veins
that trace their way from limbs and surface flesh
into the pounding of the blood-gorged heart.
Rage wells unthinking from my trembling arms
into my legs and chest, a watery rage
that leaves me feeling weak and half afraid.
"Somehow I feel imprisoned in the new,"
I say. "The publishers and critics hound
toward a will-o-wisp that vanishes
when touched. Originality! Originality!"
He looks at me, eyes blue, face red, hair gray,
his silence angry at my sudden rage.
"There's new inside the old sometimes," he says
at last, consideration in his voice.
"A spun gray chrysalis as plain as gray wasp nests
divides to free a butterfly's fresh wings."
My rage subsides. I calmly shake my head.
"The butterfly repeats a pattern born
when flowers marked the death of dinosaurs
and mammals started dominating continents,"
I say. "The butterfly is old, not new."
He laughs. "There's nothing new beneath the sun,
the Preacher says," he says. "There's nothing
I smile and nod. His blue eyes stare at me
as guileless as a cloud-free summer sky.
He shakes his head.
"You're wrong," he says. "You're wrong.
Each butterfly unfolding birth-wet wings
is new. It's never felt the brush of wind;
its colors tremble at the feel of sky
stretched taut against the skin of earth.
I stare at him, amazed by poetry.