Monday, July 23, 2018

#271: Two Poems by Mark Liebenow


~This poem previously appeared in The Spoon River Poetry Review (2008).


Anger, No. 15

Jackson Pollock, “Yellow Islands,” 1952, oil on canvas

The tortured pain of Jackson Pollock is not some rehab diatribe
that freed his demons, let him sit with bodhisattva Zen smile.
Strangled at birth by umbilical cord left a web of motor,
learning disabilities that hammered his mind with bristled scorn.
Tangled unbent anger for prestige galleries who couldn’t see
his great talent, the backlash against family, friends, his paint.
The stabs at the hole in his mythical dark soul he starved to fill,
the vapid, cathartic release that never held enough death. 
This painting shrivels grand mysteries into drips of disdain
for academy tastes that cater to the known, the well-dressed,
the pricks, the bores, the intellectual crap, the painted taps,
the crank of the well-heeled that clank on hollowed out pipes.
Turned upside down, I wouldn’t know which way was right,
like tube socks yanked on the wrong foot.

Pollock’s hand is weary of sketching the shuttered interior light,
the slippery decay, the pneumatic musk, the stench below city tenements.
His vision of society’s oblivion twisted into streets he crashed,
the spackle of grackles that jig-sawed beneath his skin,
dumped into urine back alleys like chump, fetid trash scrounged for scraps
of cadmium yellow, white scraped from the fat of electric blue clumps.
He attacks the canvas, people that hang around, fills them with scurry
of rats, the splinter, the shiver, the bones gnawed in the gutter.
The drift of the single-celled anemic, the brown grind of cortex rind
that tears apart, the draft that pulls no where but down.
Depression, alcohol, the failed suicide attempts, the night screams
on a subway lost on its one short stop between genius and pity.
His cords of elemental rage disguised as art, laid out, strangled
on the whorl of passionless sex fermenting in the upper left.


~This poem previously appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal (2009).

Painting with the Dead
Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, 1658

Grind the dead bodies
of female cochineal insects.
Boil.  Extract the red.

Distill the mucus of snails
for the purple preferred
by Roman emperors.

Pulverize semi-precious stones,
lapis lazuli for the radiant blue Vermeer used
in the resigned milkmaid’s apron.

Indian yellow for her blouse
from the urine of cattle
fed only mango leaves.

Egyptian brown squeezed
from the wrappings of mummies,
until these ancients oozed dry.

Bind the colors to canvas
with drippings of animal fat,
egg-white, curdled milk or wax.

I lower the shades,
sift cremated flakes scraped
from the painting of our marriage,

rearrange the scraps
of what death has left
for the living of one.

Stretching the shroud of new canvas, 
I collect burnt skin,
grind iron oxides with ossified bone,

stir falling light into death’s decay,
paint darkness as it hardens
and sets.




Both of my poems involve paintings, although the poems are not about the paintings. Even paintings aren’t about the paintings, but good luck getting artists to tell you what they are about. Some will tell you, but that’s to impress you with their intellect or their awesome technique, like they’re god’s gift to acrylics.

Modern art can’t all be dystopian wet dreams, just as modern classical music can’t all be atonal. It may be mathematically brilliant, but if I can’t hum it, if I can’t dance to it, if it doesn’t take me anywhere, then what good is it? But I digress.

My mother was a painter, and she wouldn’t tell me what her work was about because she wanted me to find my own meanings. So when I look at a painting, I don’t concern myself what the artist intended. If I don’t have a reaction to it, I move on. (I’m the same way with people.) But if I’m moved inside, then I’ll sit down and spend time with it, trying to figure out what is making my heart pound and my palms sweat.

“Anger, No. 15” was my response to Jackson Pollock’s jumble of colors. Actually that was my second response. My first response was, “What the hell!” But it grabbed me so I stayed with it, and realized that this is what grief feels like, especially in the first weeks when the shock and trauma of death constantly pummels our memories of joy.

For the poem, I borrowed adjectives from Pollock’s personal demons and his struggle to be accepted as an artist. Besides the internal rhymes and cadence, each line, when read aloud, is the full length of one breath, which is what Alan Ginzberg did in his poem “Kaddish.”

“Painting With the Dead” describes the months after my wife died when I had to create a new life out of the remnants of the old. The structure comes from the preliminary work that mom did before she began to paint — stretching a blank canvas on a frame, getting her brushes ready, and deciding on the colors.

The painting by Vermeer had the heaviness I wanted, of the maid resigned to doing the same chores, day after day, even if she didn’t want to, which is what grievers feel when they have to continue cooking, cleaning, and going to work when there no longer seems to be any point. Yet the maid also has a sense of being present to the warmth of this moment.

Knowing that mom’s colors were specific (never just blue, but cerulean, cobalt, indigo …), I identified the colors that Vermeer used (his blue was ultramarine), and researched where those pigments came from. Not surprisingly, they came from the earth and living creatures, which is where grief is also rooted.


Mark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and reviews have been published in numerous journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and the Sipple Poetry Award. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Twitter @MarkLiebenow2

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