“Paul Delvaux: The Village of the Mermaids”
Who is that man in black, walking
away from us into the distance?
The painter, they say, took a long time
finding his vision of the world.
The mermaids, if that is what they are
under their full-length skirts,
sit facing each other
all down the street, more of an alley,
in front of their gray row houses.
They all look the same, like a fair-haired
order of nuns, or like prostitutes
with chaste, identical faces.
How calm they are, with their vacant eyes,
their hands in laps that betray nothing.
Only one has scales on her dusky dress.
It is 1942; it is Europe,
and nothing fits. The one familiar figure
is the man in black approaching the sea,
and he is small and walking away from us.
“Edward Hopper’s New York Movie”
We can have our pick of seats.
Though the movie’s already moving,
the theater’s almost an empty shell.
All we can see on our side
of the room is one man and one woman—
as neat, respectable, and distinct
as the empty chairs that come
between them. But distinctions do not surprise,
fresh as we are from sullen street and subway
where lonelinesses crowded
about us like unquiet memories
that may have loved us once or known our love.
Here we are an accidental
fellowship, sheltering from the city’s
obscure bereavements to face a screened,
as if it were a destination
we were moving toward. Leaning to our right
and suspended before us
is a bored, smartly uniformed usherette.
Staring beyond her lighted corner, she finds
a reverie that moves through
and beyond the shine of the silver screening.
But we can see what she will never see—
that she’s the star of Hopper’s scene.
For the artist she’s a play of light,
and a play of light is all about her.
Whether the future she is
dreaming is the future she will have
we have no way of knowing. Whatever
it will prove to be
it has already been. The usherette
Hopper saw might now be seventy,
hunched before a Hitachi
in an old home or a home for the old.
She might be dreaming now a New York movie,
Fred Astaire dancing and kissing
Ginger Rogers, who high kicks across New York
City skylines, raising possibilities
that time has served to lower.
We are watching the usherette, and the subtle
shadows her boredom makes across her not-quite-
impassive face beneath
the three red-shaded lamps and beside
the stairs that lead, somehow, to dark streets
that go on and on and on.
But we are no safer here than she.
Despite the semblance of luxury—
gilt edges, red plush,
and patterned carpet—this is no palace,
and we do not reign here, except in dreams.
This picture tells us much
about various textures of lighted air,
but at the center Hopper has placed
a slab of darkness and an empty chair.
William Carlos Williams
in the shape of
a red brick chair
90 feet high
on the seat of which
sit the figures
of two metal
commanding an area
of squalid shacks
side by side–
from one of which
streams while under
a grey sky
the other remains
Classic Landscape, 1931 by Charles Sheeler (1883–1965)
Our neighbor, tall and blonde and vigorous, the mother
of many children, is sick. We did not know she was sick,
but she has come to the fence, walking like a woman
who is balancing a sword inside of her body, and besides
that her long hair is gone, it is short and, suddenly, gray.
I don’t recognize her. It even occurs to me that it might
be her mother. But it’s her own laughter-edged voice,
we have heard it for years over the hedges.
All summer the children, grown now and some of them
with children of their own, come to visit. They swim,
they go for long walks at the harbor, they make
dinner for twelve, for fifteen, for twenty. In the early
morning two daughters come to the garden and slowly
go through the precise and silent gestures of T’ai Chi.
They all smile. Their father smiles too, and builds
castles on the shore with the children, and drives back to
the city, and drives back to the country. A carpenter is
hired—a roof repaired, a porch rebuilt. Everything that
can be fixed.
June, July, August. Every day, we hear their laughter. I
think of the painting by van Gogh, the man in the chair.
Everything wrong, and nowhere to go. His hands over