Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Balcony

i'm clearly losing my mind and am feeling, frankly, suicidal.  and pus-y.  paging dr. frank pus, paging dr. frank pus!  is there frank pus here?

so let's listen to the tale of how i came to write a poem, let's hear the story of how it came to be!  this is called distraction from pain, my beloveds.  i have refractured my frigging ankle and that has... made me forget about telling you about this lovely poem.

i was somewhat known, in a very irritating way, possibly, within academic circles, as being obsessed with horace's not so brilliant observation that ut pictura poesis.  (a poem is a heck of a lot like a painting.)

and it looks like, though academia left me in a ditch, horace still has a hold on me.

there are these artist types, the ones that use oils, pastels, water colors, crayons, those sort?  well, they have en plein air contests, whole weeks where they do nothing but stay within the confines of a certain locale, the very definition of confines... and well, they paint.  supposedly, they paint in the tradition of the impressionists, in fleeting light, trying to capture light, the moment of light, its essence.  you know!

if you have a bit of talent with a palette, i suggest you join up with these happy troupes as they travel the country and the world, gathering in competition and in festivals and probably staying with local hospitality wagons and eating a lot of buffet food.

so a few years ago, someone had the bright idea to pair up groups of very amateur writers with these en plein air painters, now that technology limits us just *so* much.  as they bring their paintings in during the course of the competition week and in between buffets and receptions, and such, and is this beginning to sound like alice's restaurant?  well, see, the thing is... now you can get some excellent photography of the these brand spanking new pieces of visual art, as they hang in what is called the "wet room,"  drying, and the poet -- somewhere else in the virtual world -- can choose a painting to which to write.

to be inspired by.
moved by.
mused by.

so i thought, okay, i will try.

but first, i had to be a royal pain in the ass, because my body is dying, and i refractured my ankle, and they want to but undersea snake snail slime in the intrathecal space of my spine, fred is still sick with a double ear ache, and my mother, 83 or 4 or something, is being used and abused in a way no old person should be.  young people?  they can still kick you hard between the legs and run away, or, in this case, ground you, and take away your allowance.  but an old woman with broken bones from falling over 40 times in 6 months?  they can't do much.  so now you'll see why i had to be a pain in the butt.

i noted that the artists down in winter park florida got to keep painting until the end of the day saturday, which meant that there could still be paintings coming in as late as 4 pm that day.  but our poems were due by midnight.  so i, the retired educator, cried "foul"!  and because i raised such a ruckus, they were all polite and thoughtful and concurred.

guess which painting i ended up writing about, to, on, whatever?  the first one that came in on monday!  chuckle.

i did send a little gee, i'm sorry i made you change the rules and extend the contest and by the way, I'M DONE!  letter of apology.

so i am looking at this painting, which i don't think i am allowed to reproduce here, but HERE IS A LINK TO IT -- it is called "the balcony" and was painted by bill farnsworth.  now, that's a pretty odd choice for an en plein air piece, don't you think?  the light as seen, kinda from the side, through windows into what looks to be a magnificent run down theatre.  except, of course, you cannot see the stage, because your point of view is from the balcony.

i know this guy is painting a structure within winter park, florida, so i read and read about winter park and learn some interesting facts, some interesting to me in a political way, but i try hard to suppress, repress that. don't want to be called a pinko commie fag, not this week.  and i wish people would get it straight -- it's more of a sometimes bisexual, always socialist (but with investments) moniker that i deserve.

anyway, i start trying to find pictures of theatres.  movie theatres.  none of them are very impressive, none of the outsides seem to match this inside.  then i think, well, now, this is an artsy-fartsy place, a college town, a monied town, and the contest is being put on by a local museum 'n all.  then i get an itch between my big toe and my second toe.

so i checked the registry for historic buildings, specifically for theatres, and lo, the angel of the lord came upon me, as the bibble says.  i found this picture of the annie russell theatre building at rollins college in winter park flah-ri-dah.

self, i said to myself, i think we've got it.  if you match the arches up and imagine yourself in the upper left of that second story, might that not be the place where that painter was sitting?

what difference does it make, you might be asking, to know where the painter was?

well, further reading revealed -- lots of stuff, but this is how i summarized it in an "author's note" beneath the poem (yes, there will be a poem, eventually):

The first performance at the Annie Russell Theatre was Browning's In a Balcony.  Built for Ms. Russell by her friend and benefactor Mary Louise Curtis Bok (Zimbalist), Annie Russell ruled the roost there for the last four years of her life, teaching, acting, and directing.  Good authority has it that she haunts a certain balcony seat, although she is frequently both seen and heard elsewhere in the theatre, sometimes via the lighting, sometimes by taps on a window.

that, sweeties, is called the icing on the cake.  yes, of course, i wasted precious hours then reading Browning's gawd awful play in verse.  oh. my. god.  but it had to be done.  anyway, that was when it became apparent that there was nothing left but me, this wonderful painter, and a blank page.

here's the poem, along with a picture of the gal of the hour, ms. annie russell:

For Annie Russell: Bill Farnsworth's "The Balcony"

We peer at what seems sad, at what seems faded,
maybe fated so, just as all light does that streams through windows, 
arched or plain, but that cannot beat back dark the whole way
to velvet curtains (flush, plush, and likely red). There's no stage here.
Before this balcony, light must stream and steam in profile,
sidle and push solid walls, plus the slow, sloshy weight of outdoor's damp,
just to outline weak-bulbed chandeliers, their rich gilt barely there.
How does that lamp stay in the air?  The sun's gift slides 
and smokes, twists and twirls in byzantine, serpentine, girly curls --
but fades, circumspect and shy, before the drama of a ceiling sky.
Annie Russell haunts the theatre, her go-die-happy gift,
(Philanthropy's excuse? Her bad lungs and nostalgia.)
It was Philadelphia Curtis money, Bok Journal money, 
but it took this painter's gift to lead us back -- in dust mote, lit,
in theatre's creaky squeaky quiet -- to Annie's spot in the balcony.
One report reports the seat she haunts fell and rose again, untouched, but still --
It's the light that streams, steams, and changes all with the ferocity
of water. From here, you'd think to see all, and clearly, wall-to-wall all:
Is that not the point of a balcony? But peer and peer, things fade
and patterns swirl where there is no naturally given light,
so we see jewel-toned Persian rugs, precise mosaic, knotted
raw silk, slick satin. Our fingers trace arabesque and pictograph;
We hear Ottomans marching, marching across the way, while outside -- 
It's staid stucco and roof rows of tile that hold the sway.
Mehmed and Suleiman, Vienna, Yemen, Azerbaijan, even the old Poland,
all the gift of light denuded, frayed and flayed, seen by the ghost of one old woman
who haunts a balcony in Winter Park, this holy ark, this creation space,
directing, still, and acting, keeping invasion at bay and chandeliers from falling.


  1. Oh, I love how you've written about LIGHT!
    "all the gift of light denuded, frayed and flayed"
    and especially
    "light that streams, steams, and changes all with the ferocity of water"

    *blinks rapidly in awe and admiration*

    Writing well about a place is hard-- and you've done it.

    I've only just started watercoloring (I use watercolors like acrylics--don't think that's what it's made for, but I figure things are whatever we like to use them for)-- anyway, now I want to go spend a weekend in plein air. What a great excuse to travel!

    I am sorry about your ankle and the lurking (?) presence of Frank S. Pus.

    I hope the pussies are well.

  2. Gee, I'm away for a few days fighting a new computer system, and you go and break something :(
    Well, good luck with the snail slime, I hope it works.


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