for Ray Crooke
We’d all had a bit too much that night when you brought out your painting,
the new one, you remember, over Scotch in the panelled kitchen,
and my father talked about waiting. Well, he was doing that, we knew,
or it could have been the dust you’d painted, the way you’d floated
a sfumato background almost in front of the canvas
so your half-dozen squatting dark figures couldn’t see it
that moved him in that moment softly, in damp stone, outside time.
He was as garrulous as ever, of course, but somehow,
in a time of his own, it seemed that he was pressing
every word-drop, like the wine of a harvest not quite adequate,
to trickle in brilliant iridules across the stained table:
what sorts of eucalypt to plant — so that they’d grow quickly —
art dealers, metaphysics, three old men he’d seen
at Lerici, playing pipes and a drum under an orange sky.
Memory finds a nexus, there in your image,
people just waiting, not even conscious of it,
or of ochre and sienna pinning them in an interstice of hours.
None of this, you see, will really go into writing,
it takes time to leech things into one’s sac of words.
The bloated sea-cucumber, when touched, spews up its entrails
as though that were a defence; my father’s old friend
the gentle little poet Wen Yi-tuo, who collected chess sets
and carved ivory seals in his filthy one-room hut,
is gutted one night and flung into the Yangtze.
The dark river runs through your dusty pigments.
Ferns, moss, tiger-coloured sun beat at the window with banners
but the dust ripples between trees, and among the waiting
glints of earth and metal are wiped from the fading hand.
The people of yours, Ray, they are that evening
when we first saw them, or the other one when my father
planted nineteen saplings in our backyard, or when you looked at them
later and said, They’re coming on, and his fingers
drummed a long nervous question on the table, though he agreed.
And we were all waiting, though not in your style of art:
more of a pointillism in time, disconnected moments,
a flash of light over an empty glass, a half-finished volume of Borges,
the cabbage palm stooping at dusk into the chimneys,
certain paintings, Corelli, or a morning like the fuzz of a peach,
all bright and disparate. But I think, remembering that painting
of yours, that if one could step away, ten yards, or twenty, or years,
at an angle perhaps, a frame would harden into cedar
and through a haze of dust we would see all the brilliant dots
merge into a few figures, squatting, waiting.
© Martin Johnston