40th Anniversary Feature: ROTHKO

Oct 7, 2013Archive, Feature

BWR Guest Poetry Editor, 1978


I flew into San Francisco on the Monday night
before 9/11, the unthinkable becoming
that point where beginning has no choice
but going on. Planes grounded, I spent days
in front of Rothko, his great canvas exploding
to seeing from within, not the driven sun
of the burning news. To watch in that silence
the last of the masters
looking back through me,
the entire white wall given to two colors,
the fade into each like a tree line at sundown
opposite the peak of a distant mountain,
threw a shield from the tension rising on the street.

Eighteen inches, he believed, was far enough
to stand away, the distance from the head to the heart,
the eye through the paint into the story.
I came that close twice
before the baby-faced guard
thought it safer
I keep my seat on the backless sofa.
Eighteen inches from a Rothko
nine and a half feet high, eight and a half wide,
it is not possible to pull apart from the paint
that explodes out of nowhere and has yet to settle,
afterglow orange. what has already been lost
in flame, staining into the precise shade of blue
that backdrops the open skies of fairy tales,
the slow turbulent transactions of the two rectangles
growing inward and outward at the same time,
making its own strange soul.

These nights in Sylacauga, Alabama,
twelve years gone,
and more than forty from the day
Rothko took his life at sixty-six,
when I too rest
with the easy turn of evening light
falling into constellations,
I imagine a man behind my back,
the snap and flare of his lighter,
the rattle of ice cubes,
a man disheveled, balding, gaunt,
his eyes behind clear plastic glasses
almost too sad to hold open,
taking a long drag on his cigarette,
his wrinkled white shirt sleeves rolled up,
blood-stained bandages up to both elbows,
his Adirondack positioned where he can see
only the blue-black, physical psychology of space
well before the living wake, replenished by their dark provision,

leaving him to himself, working his wet skin of canvas.


Louie Skipper is the author of five books of poems and currently working his way into a sixth. His poems have appeared in the BWR, Blackbird, Crab Orchard Review, Georgetown Review, Kenyon Review, Louisville Review, Poetry Miscellany, Poetry Northwest, Quarterly West, Southern Maine Review, Southern Poetry Review, among others, including a limited edition, Small Song of the New Moon. A graduate of The University of Alabama, Hollins University, The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the Seminary of the Southwest, he is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Alabama.


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