Wednesday, July 28, 2010

`Motion is Life'

Absorbed in Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place and abstracted to another place entirely, only slowly did I hear the wind. Our living room window faces a house crowded by cedars four times as tall as the one-story residence. Roused by the low moan, I saw the shaggy boughs blown horizontal. The convergence of wind and trees is always a multimedia show worth watching and this was better than most. Pinecones hit the roof. Somewhere I heard wood slamming wood. Leaves and dust blew down the street, and a baby stroller on the neighbor’s porch fell over. All in brilliant sunlight, no clouds or rain, and over in ten minutes.

Burchfield (1893-1967) was a great painter and fellow northern Ohio native. Trees and flowers were his trademark subjects though he also painted urban and industrial scenes. Go here to see “September Wind and Rain” and here for “North Wind.” Burchfield was also an accomplished writer – in private. He kept a journal for more than half a century, totaling more than ten-thousand pages, and a generous selection edited by J. Benjamin Townsend was published in 1993 by the State University of New York Press. Here’s an appropriate and not unusual passage from Aug. 17, 1914, when another sort of wind was raking Europe. Burchfield writes:

“If all musical sounds were to be forever silenced – orchestras, bands, human voices, birds & insects – and I were allowed to retain one sound to cheer me, I would ask that the wind might play in the tree-tops. The wind! Motion is life. All is dead that stands still.”

Burchfield is a rare painter who suggests motion on canvas. Sometimes he does this with squiggles resembling a cartoonist’s agitrons. They animate his pictures. His representations of wind remind me of this passage in Geoffrey Hill’s The Triumph of Love, Section XI:

“On chance occasions –
And others have observed this – you can see the wind,
As it moves, barely a separate thing,
The inner wall, the cell, of an hourglass, humming
Vortices, bright particles in dissolution,
A roiling plug of sand picked up
As a small dancing funnel. It is how
The purest apprehension might appear
To take corporeal shape.”

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