“The Beautiful Particulars” by Alison Townsend

Alison Townsend


after Xu Bing’s exhibition, Background Story: A New Approach to Landscape Painting

Because I have forgotten to bring
my small, travelling notebook
to this exhibit, where I have come
to fashion a poem, I’m making notes
on the first piece of paper I find in my purse,
scribbling gibberish about the ocean
and mountains that unfold without end,
willing images to catch and hold, heavy
as black ink in the Chinese brush
of the mind, and thinking grumpily
how the background story of anything
is almost never what it seems.
But when I turn the page over for more space
I see it’s the last veterinarian invoice
for my ancient cat, printed the day
before she died, the record of her failing
kidneys somehow colliding with my mother,
who dies again each autumn,
though she’s been gone fifty years—
everything from my one, small life
illuminated by a Chinese “painting”
that isn’t really one at all but a box
of light that fools the eye with shadows
of found things become something
other than themselves when lit by LEDs,
our ephemeral world limned
real in black and sepia and pearl.
I don’t want to write about sadness
or try to fit the word “synchronicity”
into a poem. I want to be the one figure
in the painting’s huge landscape, staring
into the distance from a grass hut
at something only the artist sees.
But it’s all done with shadows
and this is what I have—loss invasive
and beautiful as the branch of bittersweet
at the bottom of the light box and the silhouette
it casts—this paper I write on shining
like a receipt from the dead.
The truth is nothing lasts.
Not this installation,
which will be taken down
and scattered to the wind,
its beautiful particulars—ferns,
corn husks, hemp fabric, paper,
plastic bubble wrap—never quite
the same, no matter how carefully
they are reconstructed.
Not my cat, beloved familiar,
lying in her grass-lined grave on the back
of our Wisconsin hill. Not my mother,
dust for most of my life, or the girl
I once was, standing at her grave, a clod
of cold earth clenched in my hand,
Not even the shadow that memory casts
on the radiant scrim of my life.
Nothing lasts.
And I wouldn’t have believed it possible
to paint with light if I hadn’t
seen my cat’s grave glazed
with gold one afternoon, last leaves
sifting down, piebald over its surface,
or if I didn’t remember my mother’s face
outlined once by sun when she tilted
her head back and laughed, savoring
the heat of living. I wouldn’t have believed
the dark can tell us so much because of how
it shapes the bright, or that I’d be standing here,
seeing this painting as the act of magic it is,
dazzled by how many places
light unexpectedly lands.
The phrase ‘how many places / light unexpectedly lands’ is from Eloise Klein Healy’s poem, ‘Finally,’ which appears in A Packet Beating Like a Heart.

from Rattle #58, Winter 2017
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Alison Townsend: “I write poetry to make discoveries, to articulate what feels (at least initially) beyond words, to find out what I don’t know I know. ‘The Beautiful Particulars’ began as a kind of assignment, when I was invited to write an ekphrastic poem in response to Xu Bing’s exhibition, Background Story: A New Approach to Landscape Painting, for a local museum reading series. At first, contemplating the magnificent lightbox landscape, I drew a blank. But then I started jotting notes on what I observed, resorting to the back of the last veterinary invoice for a beloved cat I had recently lost. One loss calls out to another, and as I wrote the poem, my mother’s death (which occurred when I was nine) wove its way into the poem, as did the autumn season. Poetry, for me, always emerges from the physical world, so the details of the exhibit and the personal imagery in the poem guided me to the larger understanding that (I hope) it reaches at the end. During the writing process, I was most pleased (and surprised) by the way the poem gathers a lot of different details and experiences, and then holds them all in relation. It’s a meditation on impermanence, as well as a celebration of how that impermanence is also illuminated in so many surprising and beautiful ways. I couldn’t have written the poem (one of the most meaningful for me in the last few years) without the assignment or the exhibit, for which I remain deeply grateful.”

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