Luminist Paintings at the National Gallery
Slowly the nineteenth century is turning into dusk
on Plum Island River and the Newbury marshes
where thunderstorms gather over Narragansett Bay
and the Boston wharves are tipped in flame.
Here is an exalted dwindling light going down
forever at Half Way Rock off the Marblehead shore,
at Norman’s Woe and Camel’s Hump, Vermont,
on the western ledge of Brace’s Rock.
I suppose there is something strained
and oracular in these incandescent vistas
and glowing atmospherics, these salt rivers
and seashores masquerading as the letter S
(The Sun, Serene, Sinks into the Slumberous Sea),
the tides of Time rendered in magentas
and mauves, fiery violets and sharp new pangs
of red for rainy seasons in the tropics.
What is luminism but silence at Tongue Mountain,
a beacon shining off Mt. Desert Island,
reflections on Mirror Lake? It is melodramatic
coasts and marshlands, bleeding hillsides
and a dark radiance staining the canvas.
It is not light but a painting of light,
an exhibition of the body of light, a suffused
celestial presence, a void of wind and sea.
How far can our famous innocence carry us?
We are like torches at nightfall flaring up
and burning out under a streaked, transparent glass.
Crossing a bar common for the thousandth time
in snow puddles, at dusk, under a clouded sky,
Emerson said, “I have enjoyed a perfect
exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.”
I suppose there is always something suspect
and naïve in American raids on grandeur,
and yet I like these local negotiations
between day and night, water, shore, and sky,
space and time. I like these intimate atoms
of color—cool, palpable, planar—that make me
think of towering bells in autumn
and organs booming in hometown churches,
schooners at evening lumbering across the bay.
Edward Hirsch has published nine books of poems, including
The Living Fire and Gabriel: A Poem.