Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil

Monet, 1873

 
Two banks, one golden, one green,
                                    and in the center, the town
                        ahead, with a spire needling up,
            a puncture into clouds,
                                             and vague suggestions
of industry—buildings, smoke, and noise.

What I love along the bank are the skiffs
                                    drawn up, five or more
                        at the golden side, the first boat
            a bright russet like a horizontal flame
                                             on water,
the next two mauve, one a sailboat,
                                             one not.

The ochre-gold spills down from the cottonwoods,
                                    pouring under the hulls,
                        entering the river with the same
            intensity of burning
                                    we see in life at its peak,
or life with the flame
                        threatening to go out.

In a month the trees will be masts
                                    bare as the boats,
                        the man we know, ill with a fatal brain tumor,
            will be gone—the Grand River
                                             burnished with ochre and red
                        as the Seine is,
            cooling air hinting at winter’s knives.

One bank green in the painting,
                                    green going away,
                        and the river placid, calm—
                                    in the center of it—
            the flowing never ceasing, rhythm of moon,
sun, the turning earth, pulling it outward,
                                            eternal, restless, to the maw of the sea.

 

 

 

Tent Caterpillars

 
Terrible to look at them closely
through gauzy webbing,
how they writhe and twist,
a jumbled mass, squirming,
faceless, mouthparts moving, chewing—
are they eating the excretions
from others in their nest?

Sometimes men seize on a gem,
an idea of burning them out
with a gas-soaked rag held aloft
like a torch on a long pole—
the whoosh as the rag lights, an awful
purse-shaped bag of flame
blackening as the insects
ignite, consumed.

Kill the infestation but not
to light the shed—its wood
so crackling dry it wouldn’t take
much, the sun’s rays concentrated
on a nailhead heating up, spontaneously
combusting the nearby slats,
crumbling brown boards.

And the woods themselves, not to
stumble, toe caught on Virginia creeper,
ankle turned on a leafpile or log,
not to drop the pole, or let this
caterpillar nest-fire drop straight down,
liquid melt setting duff, mounded oak leaves,
deadfalls, last year’s Christmas tree ablaze—

and if you do—the quickness with which
it catches, runs, blows up to the treetops—
lighting them. How many nightmares
of fiery extinction, this purge to destroy
a spreading pest but rescue the cottonwood?
How many visions of a thing burned clean,
the mass destroyed, what’s left made
beautiful by riddance, by a scouring flame.

 

 

 

Patricia Clark is the author of three books of poetry, most recently She Walks into the Sea (2009), as well as a chapbook, Given the Trees, part of a subscription series called Voices from the American Land. New work is forthcoming in The Atlantic, Controlled Burn, Upstreet, and Black Market Review (England).

Header image — Autumn on the Seine, Argenteuil by Claude Monet, 1873 — courtesy WikiArt.

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