Poetry

At the George Caleb Bingham House, Arrow Rock, Missouri

G. C. Waldrep

You could say: this is where a people’s art began.
Malaria; cicada whine. You could dress yourself up
in your wounds. You may walk in the center
of the road, as far as you like. Vanity,
to center the composition just so. You smile into it.
You wait for it to ask you a question. You could say:
the roughed-in portrait on the easel is a prop,
a mere prop. Beside the basket of vintage needlework,
pincushions, pins & needles rusted into the gay fibers.
If you are unable to walk then you might limp.
The question turns beneath your hand. It turns but it
does not break, & here you are. You could say:
marry me, pigments sprung from lead, from lapis,
from madder (a mere prop). All the blind heroes
from the past are clapping. The city is clapping, Zion
if you like. Whisper your signature into the variation:
the new bottoms through which the river once ran.
It is easy to imagine hunters here, so why not do it:
hunters. Cracks varnished over, you can see them
in this late light. The gardeners arrive & then withdraw.
You could say art sent them. You could say art
slew them. You could pioneer the use of red
underpainting, to confer a lifelike blush to human
figures, to a young nation. Overspreading
older nations, yes, the clamor sealed within the image.
You are astonishingly not alone, is the message
daybreak broke against the thighbone of a saint.
What if you pierce it. What if you make a musical
instrument of it. What then would you have waited for,
yes, I (is it time for the “I”) am asking you.
Who have glimpsed this world, & possibly others.
Speak with the thread in your hands. Cicada whine
upthrust from the depths, into the plane of desire
which is to say, of representation. You, you, you,
eyes shut, eyes wide, make your decision, this stroke
versus that stroke, assisted by the glistening hairs
of an animal, some former animal. The image alive
alive-o as it must be. Here is the body of a pelican
stretched on a strand, here is the body of a crow
stretched on a wooden table, here is a marmot, here
is a mink (with a human hand showing, bottom left,
as if reaching for it or perhaps as if withdrawing).
You may think of the heaven of images, if there is one—
you may think there is one. An infinite plane
of perfect representations. And every fourteen years,
or every seventeen, that desperate clawing up
through the surface, that seeking. The slit
harvested just so. Uninvented because it is closed,
as all conquest is closed. Now the docent has
returned to lock the room back up, & you thank her.

G. C. Waldrep is a poet whose books include The Earliest Witnesses and feast gently, winner of the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America. Waldrep lives in Lewisburg, PA, where he teaches at Bucknell University.
Originally published:
June 28, 2021

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