A man stands beside the painting “Early Morning after a Storm at Sea” by Winslow Homer

Here, There, and Away

A poem by David J. Adams
--In memory of Terry Plunkett

In the basement of this funeral home there is a room whose
walls are lined with school pictures, pictures of children
gazing hopefully, or slightly goofy, from the fading gray
and chalk of paper printed for the generation leaving now.
Sometimes it is easy to imagine that an old enough world
had no color until granted it by film.

Outside the rain we hoped would wait is falling, drenching
Cleveland, bleaching the October leaves, bending them
with a sting of northern air. The day unfolding, its sky so
darkly mortal, swamps the cheer of modern liturgy in the
Mass of Christian Burial. Six soaked pallbearers struggle
with their oak burden on slick grass, to a white tent
sagging above an envelope of earth. Put your rose upon the
casket as you leave.
And emerge into the rain, part of a blur of
mourners, to realize that I am home once more. Cleveland.

Driving from the neighborhood where I was born to the
one where I grew up carries me along the lake, across the
heart of this city, less freighted than it used to be with the
smoke and fires of mills and factories—industry as climate.
The river thinned of the long ships that emptied out the
hills of taconite. The old granite, the glass and steel of
renewal, the lake—especially the lake—are gray as any
Cleveland joke. But it’s all right. More than that, amazing.
Amazing to see something for, could it be, the thousandth
time and know that it is different. The angle of light
changed so slightly upon a wave that spends its energy a
second earlier. The lake gulls riding a different wind.

Far out on the break wall a fisherman has climbed a block
above his usual perch and pulled his collar tighter.
Than when? Than ever before, or perhaps, again. It doesn’t
matter, for the place is in the moment, and that is where
the artist lives. In the place in the moment.
It’s all right, this Cleveland.

Martin Luther King Drive was once called Liberty Boulevard.
It winds through the gardens of the nationalities, as fixed in
another era as those pale photographs, to the Cleveland
Museum of Art. To Winslow Homer. To Maine.

Have you ever stumbled into something that exploded with
surprise? When every receptor in your heart and mind and
soul and circumstance was set only to receive the very thing,
just out of sight, you never figured on? So it has been, for this
flatlander, with Maine. With Ohio. With Cleveland, with
some few humans. Rooms with doors to other rooms. And
so, with Reckoning with Winslow Homer.

☙     ☙     ☙     ☙     ☙     ☙     ☙

The first time I stood upon the coast of Maine it was as I
imagined it, which was not at all what I expected. A poet’s
early lesson in surprise. I had feared that my imagination
would be wrong, that the place could not match the mythic
image it held for me—a mix of photographic seeds, Great
Lakes reckonings, wistful rumors, undergraduate
permutations of “Dover Beach.”

It must have been somewhere near Camden Hills. I
remember the mix of salt air and pine (Now I’m glad my first
visit was not to a mud flat at low tide.). The shore lay as
rough as an aftermath of battle, rocks that seemed
so permanent in contrast to the sandy beaches of my
childhood. The sheer, almost boundless power of the sea as
even small waves broke with stunning violence. But most of
all, and still, the chill sense of the northern ocean, the very
cusp of the end of the world, fish as sudden as razors.

I turned my back to the land to gauge the thunder of the
waves. In Ohio I would watch my father stand outside and
stare into the wildness of a Midwest thunderstorm sweeping
off the lake. I stood six feet less brave, my face pressing the
storm door’s screen, my eyes as frozen to the danger as to that
heart’s yearning that each of us casts out, trying to net some
fragment of a life beyond us. Slivers of a mirror in some
moment the lightning found. The pure force of particulars in
the moment, in the place where someone stands alone,
wishing not to be alone.

Imagine a necklace of lightning, strung together bolt by
bolt. A necklace of the froths of waves, their curve, the
color of their lights. To make these someone stands both in
and out of the moment, anchored with a soft ferocity. For
the maker, it is exactly that original apprehension only once.
Then it is a gift that others see from where they stand in
moments further out. The fragments of the story are
brushed into a sadness fixed and final. The painting, as
does the poem, becomes the thing we never snare entirely.
And that fact we learn to love. Waiting, watching,
summoning the sums of our particular lives like lenses.
A story.

Beyond his primal vision, or as part of it, I see that Winslow
Homer paints a story in everything he does. And the stories
accumulate their moments to the moment that he tells and
point a way beyond the canvas to...“Moonlight on the
Water”, where the night wave, as it reaches land, has cast upon
it the bursting waters of the moon. And looking down we see
the two who watch are small and dark, in a cloth of midnight
as surely formed as any granite. To watch someone watching
is a story. And this story, enlarged, becomes the different
story of “A Summer Night.” Sometimes it is possible to
imagine each of us as a study for another’s canvas. And
then the two for yet another...

☙     ☙     ☙     ☙     ☙     ☙     ☙

I think I went to the Museum that day because to do so felt
just like the story I was living in. To my disgrace, I had
thought of Winslow Homer as a dim figure who painted
postcard scenes. In the cavern of the gallery the viewers
drifted in random paths, clustering before a work, then
passing through each other.

At the first canvas I was gone. The storms stark and
powerful; each drew me. I couldn’t even read the titles. Here I
was a half a century before my birth in a moment that I knew. I
stayed until the angles of the land and wave and sky, their
colors, had metamorphosed into their separate works. Until I
truly told the difference.

A mortal day of loss forms such a conscious day. To make
art is, in part, to understand the difference between the
things from which we go and those we can’t leave
anywhere. Someone reading souls could find our true
hieroglyphics in the moment of that knowledge. Maine,
Ohio, Homer, Cleveland, the stories carried in my veins, the
images of a sad hopefulness, are all illuminated here.

There is a story, apocryphal perhaps, about Winslow Homer
waiting six weeks for a wave to break the way he needed it to
break. The talent to select is such a cruel discriminator. And
yet, one feels that the first creature climbing from the sea
turned back and noticed something, as if awakening.

When, finally, I leave, the gray has turned to urban darkness
slit with lights. It is still raining. And there is no room left in
me even for rain. Once upon a time there was a man who stepped from
a gallery into a stormy dusk. And there was not room enough in him even for
the rain.
It starts that way.

The last thing I recall about my uncle was the day he brought
some old movies he had put on video cassettes. Movies
strung together from the years around the War. In black and
white, in awful light traipsed his sisters, cousins, people from
the neighborhood. Shadowy figures playing at a picnic, nearly
hidden by the darker leaves. A frosted cake just on the edge
of someone’s table. Briefly my father and mother, he in
uniform. Others I did not know. I listened to the quibbling
over history: ...who died in the Pacific. Did his sister marry...No, she
drowned after the War, somewhere near Huron.
A future corpse
lingered on the screen, smiling uncertainly, leaning in his dark
uniform on the darker trunk of an Olds, all the light gathered
in his spectacles.

I can imagine my uncle, who was no artist, alone in his
basement running the film back over and over, bathed in the
spare light of the screen, quibbling with himself in a murmur
like a quiet, halting melody, trying to get it all right. Which is,
perhaps, why art can speak to anyone.