Six poems

Agnes Martin (2002)

Plaza de Retiro
12,000 feet up

In the turpentine glare
Of the desert sunlight
A converted motel

She stands there waiting outside
A few minutes early
White shorn chopped-off hair
With the face of a holy child

If you did not know who she was
You would probably mistake her
For another elderly lady
Living here in this retirement home
Heavyset limited budget by the clothes
Functional pants shirt hanging out

I hand her the yellow roses I've brought
And slowly follow her in
An almost empty living room
With a simple open kitchen
To put the flowers in a plastic vase

I can drive but I can't walk she says
And holds onto my arm
That's my car she points
To the white Mercedes in the parking lot
My dealer gave it to me
But do you mind if we take your car?

We go to the Trading Post Caf
Where she still has lunch almost every day
With 1 glass of Chianti

Her eyes
A pale blue from another world
That have taken in all the hurt of this world
But now see beyond


Here in the unrelenting light

In the high desert
Of canyons and mountains and mesas
Where a sea once was
And now the sky extends beyond the horizon
With ghostly tides rushing in
Mirages of crashing waves

Here at the core of the light
Where the light reigns
On the other side beyond sight
Vision begins


Blank bank of days

Blank bank of days
She sits and waits
In her almost empty living room

Blank space
Wherein she spends her days
In the rocking chair or in the Eames

Or in her studio
A few minutes away
Next to the Harwood Museum
Would you like to see my paintings?
She says after lunch


In an octagonal room seven paintings
Broad bandwidths of pastel
Horizontal fields of palest pink yellow blue
And barely visible white light
With her simple titles:
"Perfect Day" "Friendship" "Lovely Life"
"Ordinary Happiness" "Love"

Octagonal she explains from antiquity on
8 was the symbol for Eternity
I sit there on a bench with her
At the Harwood in the wing named after her
In front of her paintings
She holds my hand
Ancient child


Blank bank of days

Would you like to see my studio?
She says when we come out of the museum
Into the empty adobe street
In the blinding sunlight on another planet
The air extinguished by the heat

I try to work every morning she says
But I haven't been well this last year
She pushes open the unlocked door
A small clean bare space
An old bed with a blanket over the mattress
A hardback chair
And a number of state-of-the-art stretchers
Stacked against a wall waiting
And two new paintings

They might be finished she says

Blank bank of days

Waiting for the clouds to lift
To sail out
Into the clearing

Plaza de Retiro
We pull back into the driveway
Would you like to come in and visit some more?
I would like that she says

We sit on the couch in her living room
No sign of who she is
Except for a poster and a few announcements
Of recent shows on the walls
And a new catalogue
Amidst a handful of books on Buddhism
On the one-shelf cinder block bookshelf

On the ottoman of the Eames chair
A folio of prints
Of a rather well-known contemporary artist
Or someone else whose work resembles his
Perhaps a recent visitor?


Blank bank of days

Waiting for the moments
Between the months weeks years

Fog of days of life that goes on
Is only what is seen and not beyond

When it all clears
And the light is there
The cloudless blue of the sky

To fly above the cloud bank
And coast along

Into the light

The fields of time


Bandwidths of pastel
Fields of palest pink yellow blue
And barely visible white light
Tune us in
Channel us
To where we should be:
Happiness Peace Joy

Mondrian's Flowers

"Yes, I might still have a few," he would say,
when that's all a collector wanted—
one of his old paintings or drawings of flowers.
And sometimes he would paint one
and let it dry for a while or do a quick sketch.
They did not even want to look at his new work.

20th Century Monk
High Priest of Art
The Legendary Master—
in his bare immaculate altar of a small studio
in the heart of New York City—
trying to manage to survive,
after finally getting out of Europe alive
in the middle of WWII.

His close friends did what they could to help.
A few neighbors often left food for him at his door—
he looked so thin.
Always properly dressed,
in his dark suit with a white shirt and tie.
Ascetic and reserved, in a higher abstract world—
though he did also go dancing several times a week
at Roseland and to jazz clubs—
and watched the lights on Broadway:
Red Yellow Blue primary colors—
Broadway Boogie-Woogie . . . New York City III . . .
Composition in Red, Blue and Yellow . . .
Paintings he ended up selling to artist friends
for the most reduced amounts.

And so he resorted to his flowers
on whatever canvas or paper was available.
Pale pastel poignant apparitions—
the fragrance of such sadness in their wake:
otherworldly chrysanthemums, amaryllises,
and gray, beginning to fade, autumn sunflowers;
bright festive striped feather tulips,
and pure saintly white roses.

It was another cold winter.
He kept working, even though he wasn't well.
Two of his friends found him
passed out on the floor, in his unheated studio,
in front of his composition wall of color planes,
and got him to the closest hospital.
On the death certificate: pneumonia.
He'd been trying to finish a new painting,
Victory Boogie-Woogie.
He knew it was just a question of time—
his new work would soon be seen the way it should be.
In the meantime, he could always sell his flowers.

Bill Traylor

Such simple magical images
straight from the heart and soul
and discovered one summer day
in Montgomery Alabama 1939
where he was seated on the sidewalk
an 85-year-old homeless Black man
drawing away on bits and pieces
of discarded cardboard
with stubs of old pencils
when a young white man
and aspiring artist
walking by asked if he could look
and the rest
is pure American history
and legends of Democracy
how an ex-slave became an artist
the last few years of his life
a great artist
and his work preserved
a whole surreal cast of characters
sketched in silhouette
animals and people
often with top hats canes sticks
and in mid-motion
as if stopped flat
in tap dancing or flying acts
mesmerizing odd whimsical figures
men women children dogs cats birds
caught in the bright circus lights
of his cut-outs
in scenes from his own life
from an imaginary other reality
from the early years of Jim Crow
in the Deep South
as if a visual log from a journey
in a strange unfathomable country
an African American record
from a survivor's Wonderland

The Last Generation Before Zyprexa

The last generation before Zyprexa—
The Abstract Expressionists: Pollock and de Kooning,
Rothko, Mitchell, Gorky, Riopelle . . .
How much of their lives spent going through hell—
Before Zyprexa, Risperdal, Seroquel, Geodon:
The new generation of drugs, of atypical antipsychotics
(In the 1950s there was Perphenazine,
A mild soothing pablum in comparison).

The last generation not on psychotropics—
They went spinning away, bashed and pummeled, crashing
At top speed, untethered
Out in terra incognita in feverish throes,
Exposed to the maelstroms of self-annihilating debris
Striking them blind and paralyzed
Without warning or reprieve.

Today what would they be?
Tame and docile, sedated
On customized pharmaceutical cocktails:
Zyprexa, Risperdal, Seroquel, Geodon?
When the panic took over (The show's opening next week—
You don't understand. It's horrible—It's all awful—
I've got to work round the clock,
Put together a whole new show in a week—)
A new molecular formula would simply be added
To the already individualized potion.

Is that what the script would be today?
And order and calm would be restored,
As they would be brought back in, from those lost worlds
Where chaos had been unleashed, and back to reality:
Pliable, willing to see reason, and accept whatever
Dictates and limits thrown their way—
The way they never could or would?

And at the Art Court, they would know their place—
And could be relied on to say the right thing,
Finesse the philosophical modalities
Of constantly fluctuating rates and dictates
In the cultural currency
That is the lingua franca of mental commerce—
As opposed to flying off the charts, in freefall
Beyond-Time-Space-Continuum-Incognita, the way they had
Before Zyprexa, Risperdal, Seroquel, Geodon?

Poetry in Another Year of War
at the Beginning of the 21st Century

How do you meter/rhyme from the frontlines—
The woman whose son is shot right before her eyes
In the country where the war never ends
As the star-filled summer night sky revolves above
In what was the garden where he played as a child
Outside the rubble of ruins of their house—
A scene with palm trees and artillery fire and bombs
And his mother kneels rocking nonstop moaning
Barely human the voice of an open wound moaning
From the open grave of the living an endless moan
Echoing on even in the silence that follows
And we watch it online
Streaming live on the news—
Is this a-b-a-b or a-a-b-b?

How do you meter/rhyme life today
With a set of rules from another time
When we believed in our longing for order
And to compartmentalize would guide us along
And help us to survive?

Or in your own world-within-the-world—
How do you meter/rhyme love?
And years of days of a life together of happiness
In the human reality of the relative
That translates nevertheless into a happy life—
How to convey any of that so fleeting and elusive
Of what holds you together and keeps you afloat
Above the fray and onslaught of random events
With a scheme of words/colors/patterns
And vowels/syllables that conform
To some ancient hierarchy of higher forms?

Or the sudden loss
Of that whole life how do you meter/rhyme that?
And the wake of empty days and nights
Adrift in the cold countries of another realm
Where you navigate on somehow across the ice—
How do you convey in measured lines death?
Capture its aftermath beat of nothingness?

Here as meter/rhyme recedes
Along with the tides of time
How do we measure anything—
Today with its speed-of-light life
Where another reality could always explode
At any moment and obliterate everything
Everywhere right now all around us?

July 16, 1945

Trinity Site Zero
In the Jornada del Muerto
35 miles southeast of Socorro, New Mexico

We know this so well
The event that changed our world

The Trinity Test

And how Oppenheimer thought of the lines
From the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita

As he watched as the Atomic Bomb was detonated
In the distance across the desert at dawn

How he thought: "Now I am become Death,
the destroyer of worlds."

(Or, in the Sanskrit, that he also knew:
"Now I am terrible Time, the destroyer
of all beings in all worlds . . .")

As he watched the Trinity fireball

(As he recounted, years later)

And we see how in the photographs and film footage
It is as if everything is pulled in
To its cataclysmic mass across the dawn/night sky

How it is as if the sky itself collapsed
In slow motion horror breaking over and over
Erupting/rupturing the seams of everything

Folds of matter dissolving over and over
Revolving into itself those first few milliseconds

As the fireball took hold
With its yield of 21 kilotons

". . . the destroyer of worlds—"

At 5:29 a.m.
July 16, 1945

In the Jornada del Muerto

At what was the USAAF
Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range
(Now part of White Sands Missile Range)

The beginning of our new reality

At the crossroads

Deborah Elliott Deutschman has had poems and stories in a number of places over the years: Alaska Quarterly Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Carolina Quarterly, Gargoyle, The New Criterion, and The New Yorker, among others, and a novel, Signals (Seaview Books/Simon & Schuster, and PEI paperbacks). She has also written and co-written original feature-length screenplays and film adaptations. Most recently, she finished a science fiction novel she'd been working on for a long time and a collection of poems on artists.

These poems were first published in Gargoyle (issues 53, 68, 72, 73, and 75) and in Another Chicago Magazine.