Henry W. Leung

Question for a Painter

I start seeing her in Bologna, where she tells me
writing is the highest art: it communicates.
I ask, “And painting?”
She, a modernist, disguises her canvases
under cotton fabrics. She shakes her head:
“Pictures. Who can understand one another?”
Elizabeth Bishop the poet made paintings,
outlined objects like maps in which colors
tug at one another: furniture as empty,
skewed, uncompressed seats where
people are not, and one sleeping figure.
I once asked my grandmother, a traditionalist, to paint me
a violent scene from a cartoon. “I can't,” she said. “Look
at the story it tells.” She painted reclining birds.
Those last fragile years she dotted narrow lines
while someone raked leaves outside—

Lies. Too pastoral. I never visited Bologna. But
I ask, “What about music, isn't that the highest art?”
Her ex used to play the saxophone;
a piano sits in her bedroom, dusted
like fine mahogany furniture.
“What about Forster's Beethoven, emotions expect-
orated in crescendo, and that conviction of goblins
overrun in the final movement?” More clothing
hits the piano. She pants, “What goblins?”

Fable from my grandmother: an executioner overcome
by anxiety flees to a monastery;
a monk, for months, makes him write
the ideograph for “three”—three horizontal strokes—
endlessly: the swift gesture of a hand after steadiness,
straight lines sprawling blank sheets.

My grandmother lacked this certainty,
celerity of what one's ready to let go.
Moments passed into single flawed lines.
Elizabeth in her poems and paint
knew perspective is all: once you fix the point
from which begins your vision, then distortion
elucidates an eloquence we call re-vision.

At a caffé for foreigners she buys me
the best cappuccino in Bolognia while, in the piazza,
a Chicago blues guitarist, Native American flutists,
and a Michael Jackson memorialist vie for change:
desperate, other hunger's sounds.

Once I asked, “How do you know the value
of a person?” She answered: “You're worth
what other people say you're worth.
It's none of your business.”

“But do they know?” as if
the uncovering were all.

In her room in Bologna she undresses her canvas
for me. This must be love: somatic temerity
sustaining its own discontent. Along her open spaces,
strokes concentrate into busy
language and our fingers

(my grandmother died under a blank sky)
(Elizabeth was the loneliest person alive)

our fingers trace the lines, crooked,
provisionary, a gravure.

Lantern Review: A Journal of Asian American Poetry
Issue 1 | June 2010 | pp 57-60