Rod Jellema

 

THE POTATO EATERS
(Vincent Van Gogh, 1885)

Something looks wrong. Five peasants sit
askew to the four-square table
which slides away in reverse perspective
into the darkness. The lamplight
holds them still, their skins like potatoes,
gnarls and knobs of brown hands
reaching into the dish of white flesh.
What rises from the dish like a prayer
is not a transcendent breath of light--
it's only steam off earthy potatoes.
The figure who breathes it in
is only a girl, and she gives us only
her back, which is wingless and dark
and blocks our seeing, or ever partaking.
As the walls close in, they sup without
communion, avoiding each other's eyes.
The instability calls us. We lean so close
we might fall into their ritual, unwelcome.

But the dark lets us in. These potato-
people cracked by sun and wind and dust
are created from the dirt dug daily
with their hands. What shines their supper
of potatoes to life and dignity is not
artistic arrangement, expressive eyes,
not the painter's spirit brushed piously in--
for Van Gogh it's sacred skin the color
of dusty potatoes
sanctified by its resonance
with blue shadow green soap and copper alive
in all that darkness. From threads he knew
far down in the work of peasant weavers
in Brabant, he raised from black as from death
colors that bless--now it's burnt sienna,
too, vermillion, ripe grain and violet
seared in the soiled work-clothes and walls
in which we learn to rest and make our peace.

 


Martha Tabor
Swing Low

curly willow, hickory, poplar, found netting,
48" x I44"x 36 (1996)
see more work by Martha Tabor

 

 

 

LETTER TO MYRA SKLAREW, VISITING MEKOUNIDA,
ON THE ISLAND OF EVVOIA, IN GREECE
...........................Lost Valley Montague, Michigan
...........................7 July, 1982

Dear Myra, in one of the fifteen houses of that high village
you need: by now you would join the lamentation
of ancient women sighing dark as shawls
to think I had sent the postman and his donkey
struggling up that dusty mountain path
from the little harbor at Karystos all the way up
only to say how are you I am fine we miss you here.

This must be worth his hire. I pray to God the ding
of goatbells and a closer hum of bees in thyme
will make light of the road this note must go.
I pray for the donkey's feet, for three faithful hands
at least that will cross the postman a blessing,
for cold water up the way that tastes of stone,
for a breeze and a hush of wine back down to Karystos.

And now it feels so ancient and good to pray aloud
like a peasant I also pray for rain to lay quick hands
on dust, for the strong green breath of onions in high fields.
Peace to the sheep who graze in rocks. May olive trees
push thick and heavy up the titled yards and groves,
let lutes tonight and sleep twine deep as candlelight
in vines, Lord make the cheese turn gently in the crocks.

From the Great Lakes I have only small news: our swamp that went
almost dry behind the dune is back this year. Down here
the bullfrogs snap their banjo strings all night, and crickets twitch.
Machines knocked down the oldest house in town, the blacksmith's shop.
We're meeting in the small white church to try to stop the bomb.
At dawn just after a storm, near the shore, I saw a scarlet tanager
ignite black pine--this high priest without camouflage who still

survives in light. But what I must tell you most: I saw
the way light leans into the greenstain side of a shipwrecked beam
and it made me feel something about the weather
of which a nervous laugh is only a modern translation.
The moon had been eclipsed, there had been that storm, and then
this other light, this almost microscopic whelming. Something is wrong.
Tell me if you feel the trembling there above Karystos. Love.

 

YOUNG MAN AT THE LAUNDROMAT WATCHING THE SPINNING DRYERS

Look into number 6. That blown scarf is bird-flocks
that weave through the wind and split the seams of light.
Tatted blue jay swatches fly with parrot greens
and dartings of yellow finch. A swish and they scatter,
haunted off by a bed sheet that drifts like snow,
then lifts up into dark when everything stumble-dries
forward again, flying head-over-dells and hill-
over-bells, flying almost out of the loom.
This young woman, reading Glamour, likes candlelight suppers.
I read her life by glances. Her placemats say felicity,
say grace. At the flight of a red bra I look down at my shoes.

Or else at dryer 4. It is pummeling
serious work clothes black and blue.
This man is order and edge, homespun as the name
hammered onto the pockets, Duke. Nothing
here can shimmer, even the towels are beige
as mortar. I look for a leap of frivolous zags
or zigs on a shirt, for light green as slight as a child
or a wisp or whistle of pink. There ought to be
at least a lettered T-shirt reminder to him
of a crazy Chicago weekend with too much beer.
The only relief is the red shout of a hunter's sleeve.

I am folding. 6 and 4 are long gone home. Outside
the streetlights diminish the beating stars.
Only dryer 3 holds me in, and she is away.
I imagine her off at the market filling a basket
with fruit, everything round. I color her
ripe olive black, then hack a steamy, twisting path
through waving lemongrass. I ease my basket down
to the river, down to the river, find her there
in sunlight, out on the rocks, and now we two are silent
villagers waving a far hello along the river,
each of us pounding, pounding our underclothes on rocks.

 

WIRE TRIANGULATIONS

In the second layer of the city they called "New York"
almost no objects survived intact
but our teams did find in white ashes
more than twelve million triangular wire sculptures
each with a curved hook protruding from its apex.
These shapes were almost certainly objects of worship:
most are found in small windowless rooms
to which is often applied a derivative of their verb
to close, meaning to end, and also of their word for intimate.

We do not yet know just why these protected
and almost indestructible wire triangulations
were so numerous among the occupants of the World
that Killed Itself, or just how they link to the violent
fascination these people had with destruction and death.
The precise meaning and function of these probable gods
will surely be found in our investigation
into the meaning of triads in their religion and into hanger--
a word for which our computers will surely uncover a verb.

 

THINK NARROW

One of six million rods or cones
in the eye will flash one cell
of the billion in the brain
at the end of the thread of optic nerve
to catch a single ray from a streetlight
as it bounces off black water
asleep in a pothole.

This predicts the way the stem
of a coconut palm
leans long and far away
into pinpoints of light we call stars.
Come dawn, a split second of music
in the thin sing of a finch
will slip into the crack between two notes
the way a tiny lizard darted just now
into a slit in the terrace wall.

Think narrow. Think the line of light
that leaped under the bedroom door
to save the frightened child who was you.
Your thin escape from being someone else.
The slender grace
of a sudden thought takes you
past your self, walking

the good grey heavy town,
the bulge and muscle and long bone
that enables a wisp of thought to walk
these streets, themselves created by thought.
Think how we stride the wide earth
pressing down our weight and our love,
exulting in the plump swell of growth,
knowing the narrow gift of incarnality
is ours by the skin of our teeth.

 

 

Rod Jellema is Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, where he was founding director of the creative writing program. The author of two books of translations and three books of poems, including The Eighth Day: New and Selected Poems, he has recent work in Atlanta Review, International Poetry Review, Image, Christian Century, Night Sun, Sojourners, Many Mountains Moving, Visions International, and Nimrod. He and his wife, the writer Michele Orwin, now spend eight months of each year in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Published in Volume 3, Number 1, Winter 2002.

 

Read more by this author:
Jellema's Tribute to Ezra Pound: The Memorial Issue
Rod Jellema: DC Places Issue
Rod Jellema: Audio Issue