The artist I once compared to Ulysses
who learned to chisel frowns from quarried stone,
who painted ugliness like an angel
when the art world turned from the god-hunters,
high on infinity, in favor of the urban cool
of joke and technique, died an artist’s death
on the throne, midday, disappearing from
the nurse’s eye into the silence of marble.
Our last visit, he emerged, gloved and rubber-
aproned, pushing his jeweler’s visor bought
to disarm glaucoma, up over still-thick hair,
pausing only to point the walker more narrowly
down the ramp to his sitting room.
From there, he commenced the last lesson:
space, contour, line, stepping forth into it.
He had lost none of the manic zeal with which
years earlier he cajoled Matta into buying
a used helicopter and brought from Italy
a Roman beauty, formerly a model, and had her
dream self-creation so deep she slashed
canvas after canvas, until he showed her
how to find the ledge where space took off
and craft fell backward like a discarded barrel,
the space of the painting, I mean.
You’re better than Schnabel! he thundered
at my wife, who, like a soul in Dante,
saw already the dead memory overlaid
on the old man sitting at her elbow.
She had come with her portfolio,
the student now grown powerful herself.
He urged her to study The Last Judgment
that ultimate in large-scale organization.
Look at Kline, he said, though he doesn’t
go far enough. Always the plane: how
many dimensions to the plane? He hurried
to answer his own question. Depth is not
optical, he said, and empty depth is not
space. When things are nebulous you have
to affirm the negative with clear images.
The deeper it goes the flatter it gets.
The negative decides the contour. Hours
of this. Weeks later, I wonder how all
the cicadas draw down their racket,
then send it spinning back through the trees,
leaving dusk to sound, night to insight
because the negative space has to be positive.
And because it is evening back at the stone,
a small plane passing joins the mower.
David Rigsbee's The Red Tower: New and Selected Poems was just published this month by NewSouth Books, and his new collection, The Pilot House, will be published by Black Lawrence Press in December.