Monday, April 27, 2015

#166: Three Poems by Kim Roberts

~This poem was originally published in Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue (2008).


Painted in 1805, part of a retrospective of the works of J.M.W. Turner
 exhibited at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In Turner's painting The Shipwreck
everything leans and moans,

even the glowering clouds.
Three small wooden craft

are flung from the drowning ship.
The striped cap of the sailor at the tiller

looks like exposed ribs,
while in the other life boats

men drape agonized atop one another
and waves hoist

their hummocks of foam.
The young genius, the painter,

lingers lovingly, reaching
over each violent wrench of water.

The Shipwreck is his first large-scale oil,
his palettes and knives and brushes reaching,

desperate, through a vortex of small men
centered on their unfolding disaster,

two dozen hopeless figures
hemmed in by a dense black sky.


~This poem was originally published in Gargoyle (2013).


Is the chimney a chute of air where grey smoke
clots and rises?  Or is the chimney the bricks,

the mason’s careful art?  Is the car a box of metal,
a web of gauges and fuses, or the feeling of speed

gathering under your right foot? The tree waves its branches
and becomes, thanks to wind, more tree.  The clouds

lend more meaning to the sky.  Water maintains
its fluidity even while held in the confines of a glass:

a glass of water is a shape, not a nature.  The true nature
of a thing, its essence, is something pure and focused

like a stone holding its hardness.  A telephone holds its ring
as pure potentiality. Then it does ring, and it’s Gwen,

and she’s telling me a story about her sister in Knoxville,
or explaining the common root of a word in Italian

and a word in Hebrew. Not knowing the name of a thing
changes nothing, but when I can,

I like to know.  The sky holds nothing back.  Every time
the barometer drops, it makes some big confession.


~This poem was originally published in The Northern Virginia Review (2014).


It's geography week at school.
The kindergarten halls are lined
with identical pictures: Mrs. Benton's
penguins, repeated blobs in black and white. 

I move out of the polar regions.
What is that odd smell hiding beneath
disinfectant?  On a low table I find
white styrofoam painted mud-brown,

notched rectangles that once enclosed
computer components, now glued
in a standing row, topped with toilet paper rolls,
also painted, topped with little paper

Chinese flags, yellow stars on red.
Why, it's the Great Wall of China!
Styrofoam walls, cardboard watch towers
—I kneel to look closely—

one of the wonders of the world,
here between the girl's bathroom
and the janitor's closet,
fantastic in fluorescent light.



      “The Shipwreck”:  I recently saw the terrific movie “Mr. Turner,” which I highly recommend.  The movie brought me back to this poem, and the experience of seeing the Turner retrospective at the National Gallery of Art in 2008.  I visited the exhibit twice, drawn back magnetically to those visionary landscapes and seascapes.  I wish I could see it again a third time! 
      The poem describes an early painting of Turner’s, which was inspired by a poem by the same name by William Falconer, which recounts the final voyage of the merchant ship Britannia.  The poet, who would (ironically) later die by shipwreck himself, wrote:

            Again she plunges! Hark! A second shock
            Tears her strong bottom on the marble rock!
            Down on the vale of death, with dismal cries,
            The fated victims shuddering roll their eyes,
            In wild despair, while yet another stroke,
            With deep convulsion, rends the solid oak:
            Till like the mine, in whose infernal cell
            The lurking demons of destruction dwell…

I became enamored of the idea of this subject coming full circle, of writing a poem on a painting based on a poem.
            If you want to see the painting (and read an actual, professional commentary on it), go to the Tate Museum’s web site:
            As for the two others, “The Thing in the Thing” is a personal victory; I’ve long wanted to include my friend Gwen Rubinstein in a poem, and I finally did.  As an extra bonus, I even slipped in a reference to her sister Rona.  “After Hours in the Kindergarten” refers to the basement of Cedar Lane Unitarian Church in Bethesda, MD.  I teach a Memoir class for adults in that basement, and the space is shared with a kindergarten, so viewing children’s art projects (in the absence of actual children) has become a regular spectator sport for me. Some of the teachers are very creative.  The project I describe here wins the award for best reuse ever of styrofoam packing material.



Kim Roberts is the author of four books of poems, most recently Fortune’s Favor: Scott in the Antarctic, a series of blank verse sonnets based on the journal of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott (Poetry Mutual, 2015). She is editor of Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and the anthology Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC (Plan B Press, 2010), and co-editor (with Dan Vera) of the web exhibit DC Writers’ Homes.  Her website:

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