Campbell Corner Poetry Prize

The Poetry of Matt Donovan: Distinguished Entry, 2003

Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice

Montezuma's Painters

The Scabbard of Limbs Means Flesh

Towards the Sound of a Heron Stepping on Ice

February mist, morning thaw just begun, and the heron that is the same
color of slate as the park pond on which she moves
                                                                                                        today is nowhere in sight.
Two days ago, my wife & I watched her
                                                                                hunting near the drainage pipe

and heard at first nothing at each supple step.
                                                                                               Then, just as her foot
touched, a vague, muffled creak of something giving way, her body's weight
pressing at ice. We lost track of how long this lasted: patternless,

a few steps of audible silence, surface giving nothing back, and then -
cleanly, sporadically - a tap of pressure on the ice's crust.
                                                                                                                        She was stalking
God knows what, moving on a pond frozen entirely through - slowly, determined,

then lingering, affixed on something we couldn't see.
                                                                                                             A heron hunting tucks
one leg back, lifts its neck &, with a sudden stab through air, allows
its body to unfold. This one, though, I've never seen do anything

except take these tentative steps,
                                                                     lean in, wait implausibly, then begin
moving again.

                                                             What happened took place weeks after
Isadora Duncan's children drowned and isn't much of a story at all.

This was after
                             the driver turned the stalled car's crank and the vehicle
lurched & tumbled down the embankment, broke the river's surface
and was gone.
                                Somewhere on a beach in Corfu, Duncan imagines

the Seine's ribboned gray - its surge, its gradual calm - and pictures
the hooks & dragging lines, an anchor latched to a sun-glazed wheel.
Then, although she's promised there will be nothing more,

she watches her arm move.
                                                         Wave froth, sand fleas, stem of beach grass scruff.
Her hand lowered, raised. It seemed, she later wrote, like the first gesture
I had made.

                           She bends her wrist gradually back & makes what the body does

willed: for a moment, almost, mending, evanescence, the body both
forgotten & salve to itself,
                                                      fastened to a way of saying that somehow seems
to suffice.

                                                      For years a man born in Croatia is satisfied

documenting his walks. It is, he claims, the most telling art, the same way
someone once claimed his town by plunging a sword blade deep
into the earth
                            and when water pooled at the soil around it, told the crowd,

Scoop it up, giving the town its name. It's a story
                                                                                                    the man sometimes considers
while drifting through streets & hills, snapping endless pictures of himself
doing ordinary things, stark naked in each one.
                                                                                                   Catching his breath

at a barbwire fence, waiting for a passing mule. Shuffling past a pastry shop,
scattering a handful of pigeons. Arms outstretched, leaping from a rock.
Sipping walnut brandy in the shade.
                                                                          A friend once tried to explain this to me,

defining it in terms of dailiness, ritual, the precarious
framework of the mundane. Think of Duchamp's urinal, I was told.
Or Rauschenberg's Erased de Kooning,
                                                                                a piece in which absence, held

in a gold leaf frame, becomes an end in itself. In which absence takes the form
of a yellow sheet of paper
                                                      clumped with remnants of ink & crayon.
It's not the same, is it, as that story of Pollock - most likely far from true?

How he once bought a Picasso in order to erase it, to learn
how the line should work,
                                                     how the body's dialect finds voice.
Lead on cream paper, c.1908. Four Studies of the Human Hand.

How his task filled hours - each fingertip, knuckle, each wrist.


                                                                                                                                   In a photo taken
somewhere in Russia, a boy leans from a train carriage window, offering
papers to a crowd. A sea of hands reaches up, eager for what he holds,

hardly caring it's mostly lies.
                                                            But now here is the reason we look at it,
why it is preserved: in the window next to the boy - there must have been
an order, or simply his body's fact - someone has been painted out.

Airbrushing, cropping, faces ink-smudged or excised with a razor-
it was all common, I know. Except here the work is so ineptly done
it seems deliberate - how the black of the window barely blends

with the space where his body should be, how all of his contours are clear.
At his torso, at the oval construct of his head,
                                                                                               each brushstroke
so thick & obvious, patterned in thumbprint whorls, they resemble

even proportion lines from some amateur How To Draw book.
Symmetries, ratios, augmented angles, methods to ensure each of the parts
is in harmony with the whole.
                                                             It's as if whoever removed him from this scene

was only beginning to understand
                                                                      just how the body works - its axes,
the traversing lines of his gently narrowing shoulders. That single mark
from his scalp to his ribs.
                                                    Polyclitus knew the beautiful comes about

little by little, through many numbers, and perhaps with our rules
for rendering ourselves
                                                 mimesis is nothing but math. Perhaps, too,
someone botched this work
                                                           in order that we might notice, might begin to guess.

That this man who stared down half-asleep from the train
                                                                                                                        was the same man
who seared his brother's eyes with a rust-flecked awl & walked
from his home without a word. Whose father hacked a branch from the yard

& raked his son's footprints from the road.
                                                                                       Or who, one night, was made to kneel
in the woods before they slit his throat near a cluster of pines.

                                                                                                                              Done in one take,
forty seconds long, the first film ever made - Lunch Hour at the Lumière Factory-

shows only a crowd walking into sunlight, hurrying into a blazing lane.
A rush of wool dresses, carnations fastened in hats, wicker baskets,
knotted scarves. A shrug, a flinch, a hand
                                                                                    dropped into a pocket,

a mastiff's fevered joy.
                                              Behind & above, back in the factory's rafters,
the pure geometry of light & wood.
                                                                        At the film's climax,
a side door opens, a girl fiddles with a button, a black horse trots nimbly by

harnessed to a cart covered in canvas that gives back as it passes
the thin shadowed branches of an oak.
                                                                                By now, it's December, 1895.
In a cramped Paris basement salon, a crowd watches the image

of a crowd projected on a pinned white sheet. A machine whirs
& rattles along with the same effort of its name -
from the Greek, meaning writing the movement. They watch

soundless blacksmiths striking at steel, the lift & curve of waves,
and then, suddenly, a passenger train
                                                                              gliding into the station
-its tapered boiler, pistons & valves, steel plates & advancing wheels -

that seems to them like artifice
                                                                for only a single breath more.

Muybridge, I'm told, invented moving pictures by making a horse circle a track.
First, it galloped & broke
                                                    each thread laced carefully across its path

that, in turn, tripped the cameras' shutters & told us how it moved -
how its body curved, lagged, compressed,
                                                                                       & how there were moments,
indiscernible, when not a hoof touched the earth. A few years after

he hunted down his wife's lover playing cribbage at a Calistoga mine
and shot him point-blank in the chest,
                                                                               Muybridge made
naked dancers & gymnasts move against a grid of white lines.

Here is A Man Walking and Turning, A Man Heaving a Boulder.
Carrying a Rifle. Digging with a Spade. A Woman Drying Her Feet.
Listen: there is no better time to finish one story I began to tell you before.

It's about the artist who roamed Zagreb's hills & I'm not even sure it's true.
What I heard is when war began
                                                                   the man arranged to end his walks
& put his camera away.
                                                Instead, he began to choose. He chose

which of the dead he would allow them to bury, which Rottweiler,
woman, which ear. He chose to make them move barefoot towards the truck
and chose bedsprings & truncheons & stones.
                                                                                             He chose where in the earth

to dig & to take his time. But listen:
                                                                         in one series of Muybridge photographs
a woman approaches a chair. She is naked, in profile, and beginning to move
closer to its curved pine back. She is the same woman who pours

a single glass of water, who stands after sitting on the floor.
                                                                                                                        This time, though,
she takes a few steps, kneels at a chair, pauses, then rises again.
She has either a look of solemnity or a half-smile latched to her face -

because she knows what she is about to do. By the fifth frame
we can see it, almost in entirety, and she touches it with her knuckle.
This is A Woman Kneeling at a Chair and somewhere within or near

the eighth frame - since this is all she intends - gesture & desire
coalesce. She lowers her body
                                                              & clasps her hands, in one motion bowing
her head, and even if this lasts for only this fractured second she seems

to be honestly in prayer. As if not kneeling at but to a chair. Adamant,
resolved. As if there were nothing else to kneel to.
                                                                                                        As if knowing
in a moment she will be finished & begin to rise but for now it is still not yet.

Montezuma's Painters


Fly swats and muddied cloaks, slop buckets
and greyhound tongues.

                                                                           And so from behind the grasses they watched
                                                                           and on bark paper strips and henequen cloth
                                                                           rendered all of what they saw.

Torn linen bandaging a thigh. And their black beards,
their anchored ships, the wooden crates of quail.

                                                                           For this is what he had asked.

Buckles, cups made of Florentine glass, hides
stitched into carafes of wine.

                                                                           And while some carried
                                                                           maize-cakes, baked fish and plums,
                                                                           the images were rushed back, inland, to him

Crossbows, the cannons' inlaid brass, tattered pennants,
each length of pearls.

                                                                           so that he too might see these men and the shapes
                                                                           of all they had brought.

Their crimson caps, muskets, hammered bronze,
tassels, scabbards and blades.

                                                                           Each thing seemed just as it should:
                                                                           each particular was beautifully faithful to itself,
                                                                           the details were lavish, precise,

Half-greaves and back plates catching mid-day sun,
ash-colored horse tethered to a palm -

                                                                           and their uses still unimaginable.

The Scabbard of Limbs Means Flesh

                               In this version of the story, the work
is almost the same - at least in how
                               it begins. The task of it, the means.

The shine of skin skinned back.
                               Yet this one omits the muses,
the meager sweetness of the flute

                               & when what happens finally ends
the river's dark water, thick with its silt,
                               remains wholly unchanged.

Someone has hand-colored the shot -
                               its visible branches, the field behind,
the crowd's neckties, smirks. It is postmarked

                               San Antonio, 1906, and in the photo
a girl clutches a darkened swatch of cloth
                               she's torn loose as a souvenir. In the center,

in the foreground, two men
                               have been kneeling for at least an hour,
or now close to a hundred years.

                               One tips his bowler, puffs a hand-carved pipe,
while the other mops sweat from his neck.
                               With his mallet, his nails, & a kind

of nimble grace, he is careful not to split
                               the barrel's sapling bands, to methodically
space each one. The crowd waits - rapt, intent

                               - and does not look at the woman
at the postcard's edge, naked & strapped
                               to a hackberry trunk by a belt & loop

of rope. No one, that is, except
                               the cowlicked boy who grins & whispers
at her ear, who at any moment,

                               one imagines, will exhaust things
to say & will only watch in silence
                               as the nails pierce the cask & the uses

of the ordinary change.
                               In order to describe the unspeakable
beauty of immaculate light,

                               Dante calls upon Apollo: Come into
my breast and breathe there,
                               as when thou drewest Marsyas

from the scabbard of his limbs.
                               Which is to say Marsyas was skinned alive.
Apollo leaned in, attuned to his work,

                               for hours, even after he was asked,
Why do you tear me from myself?
                               Because this is what he chose to do.

Which is to say in San Antonio
                               this is what they wanted, too. At least
when they began. They began

                               at her feet with a pocketknife
but either grew bored or perhaps
                               understood they weren't quite the same

as the gods. Yet there was time.
                               There is time and they turn to other things,
and since we have only ourselves,

                               our flesh, our metaphors for skin,
the myth is nearly useless by now.
                               What happened was this: they finished

tapping in the nails & sealed the barrel shut
                               with the woman inside, who remained
for a while alive. And several times

                               in what must have been laborious work
 a group of them watched or helped roll it back
                               up from the river to the hill.

Forget the gods & the body as one wound.