White on White
(after Kasimir Malevich)
It's the sort of painting I could never stand—
a white square askew on a white background—
one more aesthetic incarnation
of that swindled emperor, naked again,
preening in his nonexistent clothes;
I'd lived in Florence—where painting breathes—
seen how inanimate materials
(gold beaten to dust, crushed-up jewels
mixed for rich and lasting color with albumen)
could be converted into pure emotion
how master after master after master
had willed a chapel wall of fresh, wet plaster
to make the ephemeral hold still
alongside the godly, the impalpable.
Why would you paint a white square askew
on a white background when you could go
anywhere at all, encompass anything?
If the world failed us, at least a painting
might offer us its aggregate of rapture.
I had a stake in this, longed to capture
a bit of it myself (though my materials
would be more modest, words instead of jewels)
or at least exhaust myself in the attempt;
I was a seasoned dreamer and I dreamt
which sustained me for quite a number of years.
But even the most stubborn of dreamers
is forced to notice, sooner or later,
that the world understands itself without her
albeit flattering intrusion
and it's a meager place once illusion
in all its glory is exposed as sham.
Besides, I've squandered poem after poem.
Just think of all the treasure I've left stranded,
uncultivated, the unattended
but manifest allegiances in things,
how a presence, of its own accord, sings
right within my own field of vision
and I always fail to take it down:
the year the snow came late and the mountain
was suddenly a tour-de-force of ermine
white on the golden residue of aspens
(it's the winter slant of light that determines
the color of their fur and not the snow)
or a June hike—what?—fifteen years ago
the mountainside a visual haiku:
five mountain goats on the last patch of snow
and I would leave them there, forgotten.
That is, until, by accident I wandered in-
to the wrong room at MOMA, turned around
to a white square askew on a white background
and there were my mountain goats on snow.
Kasimir Malevich had seen them too,
how white craves white, how what's askew
yearns for some congenial milieu
where it can lose itself, disappear.
Those stunning ermine that snowless year
were neon on the gold leaves' makeshift carpets,
thrilling to witness, but ideal targets
for even the most dull-eyed predator.
Better to secure a sound white square
however unremarkable, unsubtle.
A person has to settle for what's possible.
A white square on a white background, askew.
Five mountain goats on the last patch of snow.
Antioch Review Fall 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Jacqueline Osherow
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission