V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




                    —the American Artist Martin Johnson Heade,
                    in London, September 19, 1864

My name is Nigel. I am fifteen.
For two years I have worked at Day & Son,
Lithographers to her Majesty, the Queen––
arriving at seven bells, cutting paper, grinding
inks; trollying the great gray limestones
and barrels of gum arabic.

Permitted, just once, to roll the blue sky
of a summer afternoon.

                                       I have never met a man
like Martin Johnson Heade, have never seen
live hummingbirds, though he described them
for me––flitting, hovering; have never seen
a steamy jungle, so different from the solemn trees
in Lincoln’s Inn Yards. I cannot imagine
this place he calls Bra-sil. 

These paintings of colorful birds, of
twisted green vines––or are they writhing serpents?––
of red and yellow flowers; they are difficult.
We ink stone after stone, align the register marks,
and cannot get them right. The draughtsmen
are befuddled; my master, Mr. Day, touches his
cheek, spotting it with ink. Mr. Heade rolls
his sleeves, he stains his apron with crimson,
ochre, and blue, and still, by nightfall,
he shakes his head, No.

I was told to scissor these proofs––a run of eight––
but hid them in my bench, and spirited them away
after dark. Here, the birds are lovely,
but we have the sky too bright. Here, we caught
the rainy sky, but could not strike the birds.
Were I sure of my colours, I could dab them
with water-tints, though I have seen Mr. Heade try
this, shaking his head, No, no.  In my room, I circle them
about, look at each with one eye, then
the other; picturing these hummingbirds alive,
his rainy Bra-sil sky, abuzz with their wings.

© by Greg Rappleye


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