George Inness, Home at Montclair, 1892
Tucked behind the magisterial Winslow Homer gallery at the Clark Museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts, sits a small quiet room of landscape paintings. One could easily walk right through it— en route to the more dazzling pleasures of the Impressionist collection in the next gallery — without focusing on its contents. But it’s worth stopping and looking. And looking again. Here hangs the work of the American painter George Inness, one of the most influential artists of the 19th century who became a follower of Emanuel Swedenborg. Though I was raised a Swedenborgian, I didn’t discover Inness until well into adulthood — and at first was unaware of the strong affinity that drew me to him.
This collection of paintings seems lit from within, many set at dawn or twilight, and almost all of simple, pastoral scenes. But each somehow conveys a sense of mystery and anticipation. Perhaps it’s because, as scholars point out, Inness believed deeply in Swedenborg’s teaching that God is everywhere present in nature. For me, though, it’s more that Inness had a profound ability to see what’s right there — a stand of trees, a field, a young boy herding cattle along a creek — and at the same time convey what is beyond the naked eye: the thing in us that recognizes beauty.
Here’s a poem along these lines by the contemporary American poet Carl Dennis.
by Carl Dennis
This painting of a barn and barnyard near sundown
May be enough to suggest we don’t have to turn
From the visible world to the invisible
In order to grasp the truth of things.
We don’t always have to distrust appearances.
Not if we’re patient. Not if we’re willing
To wait for the sun to reach the angle
When whatever it touches, however retiring,
Feels invited to step forward
Into a moment that might seem to us
Familiar if we gave ourselves more often
To the task of witnessing. Now to witness
A barn and barnyard on a day of rest
When the usual veil of dust and smoke
Is lifted a moment and things appear
To resemble closely what in fact they are.
I came upon it recently while looking for something else. Of the dozen or so keepsakes that I claimed when my five siblings and I divvied up my mother’s possessions after her death, this one was easy to overlook: a small, yellowing rectangle of paper upon which was scribbled: “Each day is Valentines Day.” It was written in my father’s often un-decipherable hand, but a certain amount of care had been taken to make the five brief words legible. If I recall correctly, the message had once been glued to a red paper heart with white doily trimming. A home-made valentine, no doubt concocted in a state of panic on a late afternoon of a February 14th now lost in the mists of time.
My father, though a romantic, was disorganized and slapdash. Self-made, he embraced an improvisational approach to life. My mother, who never stopped longing for the financial security of her childhood, had to make do with her husband’s seesawing fortunes. Surely a part of her yearned for a store-bought card and a box of good chocolates. But this is what she got — and what she kept. Year after year, taking it with her as her world devolved from a ramshackle 32-room mansion and large, chaotic family, to a far-too-early widowhood and the quiet one-bedroom apartment of her final decades. The little fading rectangle was always tucked — like a post-it note reminder — into the mirror of her dresser where she could see it when she woke up every morning. “Each day is Valentines Day.”
My Funny Valentine
My funny valentine
Sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art
Is your figure less than greek
Is your mouth a little weak
When you open it to speak
Are you smart?
But don’t change a hair for me
Not if you care for me
Stay little valentine stay
Each day is valentines day
— Lorenz Hart
The American poet Richard Wilbur died last October at the age of 96. He’d served as Poet Laureate and, over the decades, had had all the usual literary treasures strewn at his feet, including the National Book Award and two Pulitzer Prizes. But he was never as well known as his teacher and mentor Robert Frost or his contemporaries Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath. He was a formalist in the age of the Beats and free verse; restrained and subtle during the heyday of the “confessional” poets. Along with his own eleven collections of poetry, he Continue reading
Christopher Columbus seems to have been knocked off his pedestal lately, but, to his credit, he did bring lemon seeds with him when he landed in Hispaniola in 1493. This bright hard sour little fruit has been cultivated for medicinal purposes for millennia and has curative powers that range from alleviating scurvy and dissolving kidney stones … to fighting colds, flu, and some claim even cancer. It’s also a workhorse in the kitchen. I use lemons almost daily: Continue reading
As Thanksgiving approaches, I find I’m needed in the kitchen and so have asked my occasional guest blogger to step in this month:
The other day, wandering lonely as a cloud through the recesses of the Strand Bookstore in New York City, who/whom should I exchange elbows with but Henrietta “Etty” Alogos, considered by many linguists to be the doyenne etymologist of our time, a woman who when she gives you her word expects you to preserve it in amber.
“My word,” she exclaimed, “it’s you—Bennett. Or, in French, Benet, a silly little country bumpkin beloved by all.” Continue reading
Summer has lingered far into this strange, dry autumn. It was a welcome guest at first, especially when it came to lawn work, the spade sinking easily into dirt that is often frost-crusted this time of year. But then, seasons never come and go the way they’re supposed to. Like the calendar, they tend to be just a comforting conceit, an attempt to organize the unpredictable. This is perhaps especially true in the Berkshires. Winter can often seem as epic and interminable as a Tolstoy novel, a siege state of endurance, a long hard retreat through enemy territory. Then, spring brief as a chaste kiss. Continue reading
It was such an unusually cool, damp August in the Berkshires, I think most of us gave up on summer before Labor Day. The trees were already starting to turn. It was too chilly to have dinner on the porch. Every once in a while, the furnace would kick in — a familiar yet ominous sound, like a phone call late at night. And then last weekend summer came Continue reading
The honey bees were back in force this summer, especially in those early weeks when all the world was in fragrant flower. The last few years, their numbers had thinned— making us worry about colony collapse — but, like so many things in nature, their absence seems to have been just part of a larger cycle, at least in our neck of the woods. It’s such a joy to observe bees at their busyness — the meticulous combing of every pollen-dusted pistil, the hoovering across the seed-roughened face of a sun flower. Continue reading
It was foolish of me to plant mint in one of the raised beds in my vegetable garden years ago. Mint was born to be wild. It refuses to stay boxed in. Every summer it seems to discover a new escape route — digging underground to pop up in the middle of the marjoram patch or making a bold public grab for purple sage territory. And I have to pull it out by the roots — a thick leggy network that always puts up quite a fight. But the smell that fills the air — that burst of pure freshness — is almost worth the struggle in itself. And then there’s the happy dilemma of what to do with handfuls of fresh mint. Continue reading
The fireflies are back. Last summer they were a rare sighting, the occasional sad lone light, blinking on and off like a distress signal. But this year they’re out in force, drifting above the wild flower field, rising through the trees and above, to move across the path of the stars. Their bioluminesence is used to attract mates — “I’m here, where are you?” —not unlike teenagers carrying cell phones. And, like so much else about summer, they’re magical with memories of childhood: the jar full of them, glowing in the canvasy heat of a pup tent, the first night I ever slept out-of-doors. Continue reading
A small congregation of jack-in-the-pulpits sprouted up seemingly overnight in a patch of newly spread pine bark mulch. I’m not sure whether they traveled as stow-aways in the mulch bags or transplanted themselves from our own woodlands, since these North American natives thrive in moist thickets from Nova Scotia to Florida. They reminded me of the Emily Dickinson poem about going to church by finding heaven in your own backyard. Of the many things I admire about Dickinson, her determination to eschew organized religion is right up there on my list. Continue reading
One Sunday when the world was still teetering between winter and spring, we drove east with friends through the Berkshire hills to South Deerfield, Massachusetts, home of Magic Wings Butterfly Conservancy and Gardens. From the outside, the building looks something like a large community sporting facility — a skating rink or bowling alley, perhaps — but inside it’s heaven. This is the year-round home of some 4,000 exotic and domestic butterflies and moths, surrounded by a tropical paradise of hibiscus, ferns, bamboo, palm trees, lollipop plants, and an astounding variety Continue reading
Shore birds are a tenacious lot, foraging for survival between the unforgiving sea and mankind’s ever-encroaching footprint. They’re adaptable, too, and clever. On Captiva Island a few years back, we watched a Great Blue Heron, standing in companionable silence next to a fisherman at the shore line. The heron, whose gaze was directed unconcernedly out to sea, appeared to be merely intrigued by his new friend’s surfcasting skills, but when a cut of the catch was eventually tossed his way it disappeared in a flash. Continue reading
‘Paterson’, the new movie by Jim Jarmusch, is about a week in the life of a poet/bus driver whose poetry is inspired by such every day items as a box of matches. The movie’s poems were actually written by Ron Padgett whose work has brilliantly straddled the every day and the absurd for decades, but I’ll save him for another time. With Valentine’s Day approaching, I hasten to bring you this poem by Continue reading