The Potato Eaters, unguarded
Shortly after the May 4, 1970 Kent State massacre
If I could say it in words
there would be no reason to paint
If you hear a voice within you say “you cannot paint,”
then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced
Vincent van Gogh
An abrupt January snowsquall
was pushing aggressively into the late afternoon
as I retraced a friend’s off hand comment
over and over again.
And despite the wolf-gray illumination
the winter storm cast over my resigned mood,
the words came to light as an artist’s colorful
and distracting palette
that led me to follow my own footsteps
in a shrouded circle
as jagged flakes stung the eyes
and erased each new imprint.
This random and irrelevant fragment from the past
exerted unseen powers
and momentarily altered my subdued composure.
I know that dormant memories
sprung loose from their dark prison cell
routinely flare and fade—
but like now, occasionally they spin up faster
and faster into the sound of unexpected gunshots
ricocheting on a quiet campus quadrangle—
leaving me to watch with curiosity and disbelief
as an old nightmare forces its way through
to freeze the mind caught out in the open.
Awkward, I stood on that former patch
of green grass, waiting for the dazed
and confused response to wear off.
Unlikely as it sounds,
it was a forgotten spur-of-the-moment choice
to see a Van Gogh
that reopened a heavy museum door
one more time to expose the turmoil
and muted disquiet held hostage for a long time.
Rediscovering this simple act
of pulling at a solid brass handle
a half century after the fact
escapes the understanding of my own memory
which usually only magnifies and punctuates
the failures and indignities
I have carefully isolated beyond my normal reach.
Those unexpected recollections
have always thrown me off stride
for a fleeting instant—the toe catching
an exposed root on the trail
with a furtive stumble
that with luck goes unnoticed
by many reproachful onlookers.
But this flashback was more subtle,
confusing, and complicated.
This building that suddenly reappeared
along a busy canal in Amsterdam
blended easily with the older surroundings—
and if it is still there,
I am sure I couldn’t find it a second time
since it has long disappeared beyond my field of vision
into years of steady rain I picture
blowing off the North Sea
to be replaced in lustrous sun drenched photos
by a contemporary showcase
of elegant glass and soaring steel.
This I remember clearly:
after purchasing my entry ticket,
my walk down the steps fifty years ago
was not the choice most people would have made,
and the display room I entered
was small and unoccupied except for a unfamiliar family
commencing their meager meal
under a dim lantern casting a light
that seemed an earthy green mixed with the dark dirt
clinging to each new potato
brought in from the field.
Since I had never wandered accidentally
into a wrong house at dinner time,
there was no simple apology ready
for a rude intrusion—
or no grip on being ignored so stubbornly
with such impassive expressions.
What I cannot see anymore
is the neighboring paintings and drawings
that should have gathered as old friends
around me in my unwitting arrival.
Their unlikely absence is a baffling heist
time has pulled off with impunity.
What I do remember clearly
was uneasy dark quietness
conflicting with the raw energy
I had carried with me from the outside world.
Truthfully, I had sensed that the main display area
was up in another direction—and I keep telling myself
that it was the surprise and distraction
of the vending machine dispensing cold beer
that altered and disoriented a logical route.
Instead, I have to admit it was not this novelty—
but merely a mindless throw of the dice
or a usual divergent choice hardwired
into how I pick unexpected routes.
Except for possibly adopting a traveler’s inquisitive attitude,
I still am not sure why I was there.
Paintings, drawings, and sculptures
had only ever been at the edge of my visions,
and the fame of this masterpiece
had not reached through to me
before this unexpected viewing—frankly,
I was hunting for another experience,
something with a movement and energy
to transport me outside of my body
and counter the violence, the burning napalm,
the bombs dropping from B-52s,
the lush leaves shriveling from Agent Orange—
it crossed my mind that I was searching
for the painted sunflowers I had admired
creating their impossible magic
on the wall of a friend’s apartment—even as the glossy paper
curled its aging edges
around the beauty of each chosen flower,
or perhaps my curiosity was aroused
by the strange and exotic swirls in a night sky
I had noticed fading quietly on a poster
displayed by a crestfallen travel agency,
or, for all I know, it was sympathizing
with the ominous but unhindered crows
rising dramatically over a wheatfield
that had been trapped in the oversized
coffee-table book carefully designed
to be idly thumbed through page by page.
What I knew at the time was that, suddenly,
I was completely present
and caught in an unavoidable exchange—
a give-and-take with an unknown force
mindful, at the same instant,
that some writers, starved for words,
have entered stranger self-delusions.
I stood there motionless
and made the deliberate choice.
not to undo this vision.
Optimistically, I want to believe
my powers of recall
are still very clear, but now,
with many dusty layers having accumulated
into new formations of knowledge,
I am confused with which variant
of this painting confronts me
in this memory—I say this
even though I obstinately assume
it does not really matter
if I have lived a whole life
within a fictional final version of my choosing—
but my power of recall
is positive that my paid admittance
let me enter into a legitimate space
that had a reliable feel to it,
and they would not have offered patrons
a student’s prize winning copy
or a confiscated forgery.
Not surprisingly, I did not know at the time
that there were some drafts
the artist had carefully accumulated
and hoarded as a treasure of explorations
that caught everything needed
for his own personal reality.
Perhaps I mixed those images into the pictures
I have since seen of The Potato Eaters.
Certainly, too many arm chair lawyers
have spelt out to me
in no uncertain terms
that honest eyewitness testimony
is often the most convincing fiction
told to a jury.
Nonetheless, I still believe
I saw Vincent’s bold strokes of genius
and will withstand their withering cross examinations.
Obviously, it is too late to curate
my own perspective
and impose a new order with historical meanings,
just like I cannot retrace all my steps
made on an early morning walk
through a sprawling antique flea market,
distracted, absorbing the hidden knowledge
of how to authenticate, certify, and appraise
the aging items randomly laid out
to grab ahold of an unknown desire.
Today, backtracking through that shadowy flea market
there are unprompted questions
of brooding more on myself
than earlier in life,
and the strong suspicion that the random hunt
is now among those fading curios
and interesting, artful objects
that only an aging body can create.
Enough whodunits have taught me
that in that dimly lit room
with its dark valuable painting
even Agatha Christie would have invented
an interesting distraction a notorious art thief
would take advantage of
before grabbing this morose prize—
but to my astonishment,
there was no lurking guard stepping out
from a shadowy corner to chastise me,
no sympathetic security officer
in a rumpled coat and tie
wearily asking what was wrong,
no indifferent caretaker recommending
a tasty Dutch ham and Gouda cheese sandwich
in the small cafe up those overlooked steps.
There was only the unforeseen aloneness
that burrowed deep into me
as if this split second had forgotten to mark
this room on any map
with a bright you-are-here arrow
to offer a sound foothold in my inner world.
Clearly, this was a private and vulnerable viewing
as I pulled up an imaginary chair
to wait with—was it thin coffee
or watered down tea
being carefully poured into cups—
to wait, while now, it was hard
to recall a breakfast
of a thick slice of bread, creamy butter,
and then being eagerly shown
by young new friends
how to cover it all by a cloudburst
of Dutch chocolate flakes—
to wait with my fork raised
for this simple meal to commence
under the minimal glow
of a unfamiliar Safflower Orange flame .
Today, I believe that this short instant
was an unappreciated gift,
a dark beautiful spell
that must have silently haunted me
as it worked its way deeper into my core.
Since visiting that painting,
I have gazed at an unbelievable wealth of exhibits
in my naive and uninformed way.
My legs still cannot shake the fatigue and heaviness
from years of crisscrossing
countless hardwood floors
and endless acres of industrial carpets.
There have been innumerable photos,
bronze and marble sculptures,
somber or carefree paintings,
a wash of watercolors,
and many illustrated drawings
only seen when fragile old books are left open
under protective transparent shields.
The numbness that rose up behind my eyes
has not gone away.
That vintage lantern I cannot afford
hangs with its Umber Orange glow in front of me
and lights up their faces
as everyone still waits impatiently.
There is a silence, solitude, and oneness
that I am pulled into again.
I could blame all these revelations
on the bright colored poisons that most assumed
the artist ate—a notion that still tastes like Harlequin Green
as if it was the wormwood Pernod Absinthe
from the eighteen-eighties
I have never tossed back.
Looking back often springs a trap
biting its steel jaws into the present.
It has caught the actual
January storm still swirling outside
that radiates cold
behind the Frost Black window pane,
and holds me as I circle into a new sketch
and drift off into an improbable banquet,
creatively mixing some Yellow Ochre
to force the eyewitnesses to enter into their imaginations
while I impulsively savor the various pigments
Van Gogh generously discarded.
Somehow in my struggle against the creeping night
there was an odd burst of energy
to help retreat easily
into a soft Flax Yellow sensation.
And that in turn led to creating a complicated blend
with a late summer Corn Yellow
just for enjoyment—
but feeling in needed more,
an Amber Resin pendant was eventually added
to float with mystical energy on a beautiful neck,
still, unsatisfied, there were some tart Lemon Yellows
on a nearby shelf
that needed to make a still life almost complete,
and not to leave anything out,
I placed a bunch of Gold sunflowers
to wilt forever on this canvas,
followed quickly by floating with the blustery
wind blown Straw Yellow
waiting for the shiny black crows to land,
and finally, it needed a hint of morning warmth
and a soaring Burnt Umber sphere to rise
precariously balanced on the horizon
so I could brighten my mood
and push back the chair
from the oak museum piece
I see so clearly again—
but since it is difficult
to bring closure so quickly
and harmony is hard to find
when I scrape the floor
and shove away from the table
and its rumpled linen covering
framing the dark oval serving dish—
it is difficult knowing there must be a new
and uneasy equilibrium
that makes it possible to rock back on my chair,
my attention held by this unique
and frugal center of attention
exposed under a subtle spotlight—
and trying again, finally, finally without a doubt,
it should be very clear as I precariously lean back
that the many years cannot hide
how I brush away the garden’s brown dirt
which still needs to be swept
from the kitchen floor—
and finally, finally for good,
I know how this short-lived moment
cannot underestimate the intense flavor
of the fresh dug roasted potatoes.