Last Work

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Art and about


Agnes Martin's last work

The retrospective is room after room of encompassing light and depth that draw you into Agnes Martin’s long journey. Here. Now. Over and over. These big, pale, calm abstractions, and moving among them the pale hologram of a lone, determined woman. Colour. Lines. Straight lines. And one small drawing that is different: a single, sure, if quivering, line that curves back and forth as it describes the contours of a potted plant.

her last work
at ninety-two
still life

London Haibun

Rye Lane, Peckham, yesterday. A cooler day, with hovering rain and storms: the kind of weather that brings seabirds inland. Remembering that the gritty inner-city areas were once where I felt most comfortable. It’s different now. I’m older, and our cities harsher. Now I’m only saddened by the grinding poverty and shocked – coming here from next-door Dulwich – by the glaring class and racial separation…

seagulls circle
crying over Peckham
migrant voices


Aircraft. It sounds like something one could learn: how to breathe, how to oxidize. But this craft is the kind that floats, and it is enormous. It takes us the full width of Norway at its widest point to reach cruising altitude.

The Boeing 787 is nicknamed the Dreamliner, and its crowded cabin, though far from silent, is filled with a lovely hush of white noise that makes it difficult to stay awake. The only light left in the sky is a band of red above an oddly low horizon which goes before us like Yahweh leading the Jews out of Egypt, on and on into what my body assures me should be night.

five-hour sunset
a movie plays on the back
of every seat

Our original flight map had shown the plane going farther south, but I wake to find us over northern Iceland. In little over an hour we’ve made the journey that used to take the Norsemen more than a week in their own formidable crafts, part Dreamliner, part F-22. I’m not sure what always makes me favor window seats on the left side of a plane, but this time it pays off: that stream of bright orange in the near distance can only be the lava flow from the volcano Bárðarbunga, which on Google Earth—accessible from my seat-back video screen—shows as a great round hole. Now it is the rest of the island that is black, and the caldera, when it periodically appears, is as livid as a setting sun.

a glowing wound
in the darkness six miles below

Volcano! in half
a dozen languages
we gape through our portholes

A little later, as the lava flow recedes into the distance, I start to see the lights from settlements along the north coast. Pressing my face right up to the glass, I realize there’s still just enough light to distinguish land from the slightly darker sea. I recognize Vatnsfjord from the maps that accompanied translations I’ve read of Vatnsdæla Saga and Grettir’s Saga, and then the fern-frond-like Westfjords from, well, every map of Iceland ever (though I do think of the ill-fated hero Gisli). Then we are back out over the north Atlantic, its waves and storms as remote as a legend from our comfortable, high-tech bubble. The west seems brighter now, but it will have faded to blackness by the time we land in New York. I remember with a smile something someone said about the pilots as we waited to board at the Oslo airport: “If they’re too late, they won’t have time to fly up over the top of Canada as they usually do.”

curve of the horizon
even from this height
it’s hard to believe

Existential museuming

The human genome 1

Who are we, really? The current exhibits at London’s Wellcome Collection provide several intriguing suggestions. I loved a photo of the neural network pulled from the body, which looked like some kind of fairy shrimp, and a photo of many pairs of socks shaped like chromosomes. But I wasn’t moved to pull out my camera until we got to a printed edition of the complete human genome. Each volume had a thousand pages, with type so small it was difficult to read without a magnifying glass.

The human genome 2

Human-being-as-library is an attractive metaphor to me, not least because when I was growing up, I often visited my Dad at the academic reference library where he worked. Plus my Mom was a writer and our home was full of books.

Symbolical head

Reading was always a great way to live in my head.

Gormley on the ceiling

Antony Gormley is famous for making casts of his own body. His art prompts us to ask deep questions about the meaning of human embodiment and habitation, such as, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could stand on the ceiling?”

galloping penises from Pompeii

But as some of the art unearthed at Pompeii demonstrates, people have been indulging in gravity-defying fantasies for a long time.

false eyes and nose

One of the sculptures I particularly liked was a human skeleton with the skull substituted for the pelvis and vice versa. Such acts of imagination strike me as essential to who we are as social and ecological beings, attractive as it might be to pretend that we are entirely scrutable — recorded in the Book of Life or programmed in the hard drive of our genes. Besides, 90% of the cells in our bodies belong to microorganisms.

a blown-glass sculpture
of the HIV virus—
loud children swarm past


The feast: more than a meal, it’s flesh at its most opulent surrounded by a nimbus of starches and sweets, by anticipation and ceremony, by cacophony and prayer. If fast is a holding firm, feast is a letting go — but no less a ritual for that. Certain foods must be served in a set order. Belts must be loosened along with inhibitions. First the table must groan under the weight of the food, then the eaters must groan as they attempt to rise. The boundary between pleasure and pain must be breached — especially on a feast of thanksgiving. You can say grace before any meal, but Thanksgiving’s mandatory excess imparts a visceral understanding of the cost of consumption: something has to die that we may live.

Walking it off
through the night & fog
the dazzle of home

Autumn haibun

This entry is part 17 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Fall is a time of strange promptings, even for those of us who never succumb to vagabondage. If I happen to spot decades-old spiderwebs like wings of dust in a corner of the basement, I glance quickly away & reach for the jar of screws. And when the green is gone, when it has leached from the last of the leaves & the ground is ankle-deep in gloria mundi, I want to know the trees as Indians once did: from the flavor of their ashes. I want to learn restlessness from the natives, stand still enough to become a landmark for a mob of lekking gnats in Indian summer. I want the little brown bat in my portico to find a hibernaculum no other bat knows about, where he can hang all winter like a stilled pendulum, safe from the killer fungus the color of snow. I want my bootprints to collect the November rain & freeze: windows for whatever Argus might still be with us, insomniac, going over & over the dwindling flocks.

The Amtrak’s
quick double blast—
then cricket   cricket.

Ceiling snakes

This entry is part 4 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Direct link to video on Vimeo

The night that a pair of mating milk snakes drops out of the ceiling, I do not dream of snakes. I dream of mating, and of breaking through the crust of the earth and discovering another world filled with an unnatural light. I dream of inescapable stairs verging on a cliff-face to which I cling like a wingless fly. When I wake, it’s still humid, if no longer hot, and a wood thrush sings at the edge of the woods, where wood thrushes always sing: one part joy, two parts longing. I find my notebook from the night before, what I’d been writing when I heard a noise in the kitchen and set it down (some writer!) to grab the video camera. Picking at a scab, it says, and worry beads. I’m sure I had something in mind, but I don’t know what. The snakes were beautiful, and if I hadn’t known better, I might’ve thought from their configuration that they were one snake with a head at both ends, curious but calm as milk snakes always seem to be. If they’d stayed longer I might’ve stood beneath them and offered the use of my body as a steep set of stairs. But the ceiling or their unfinished business called them back, and up they went.

night kitchen
feeling in the dark to pour
a glass of milk


On a moonless night in August, under the gourd-rattle din of katydids, the forest floor is dotted with blue-green lights, dim as glow-in-the-dark toys an hour after lights-out: foxfire. I grope toward one at my feet, trace the shape of the log, then break off a glowing nubbin. It’s soft & flexible, & illuminates only the thinnest circle of the hand in which it rests. I slip it into a pants pocket, thinking I’ll show the others, but when I get back, somehow I can’t bring myself to mention it. It doesn’t seem right to parade such a recondite thing as if it were a trophy. A day later, it sits hard and shriveled like a dead ear atop my computer monitor.

I dream I’m sick
& wake to find myself well.
The tree full of birds.