I find myself reading this poem both literally and as a metaphor for our lives. On the literal level, Moira Linehan focuses with intensely loving detail on the Japanese brush painter. The first four lines list with tender concern all the things that might go wrong in the painting process. The next five lines move into the painter’s being: his years of training, his now “leaning back on his heels” picturing a heron that will soon return to his pond. Then the poem’s final sentence holds its breath, as the painter waits, patiently alert, for hours—waiting for the “floating line” of the heron’s descent to “take over.” In his integrity, the painter can’t draw this line until the heron’s descent first traces it. So, metaphorically, how does this poem suggest a way to live our lives? First, there are the risks inherent in just living. But, then, do we rush ahead, stumbling through each moment, inattentive to harm we might be doing to ourselves or others? Or do we train ourselves, like the Japanese painter, to pay intense attention to what comes to us each moment—and to wait? Of course, we must go about our daily business; but do we do so in an attitude of alertness to whatever perfection might float our way? And do we allow “that floating line” of perfection to “take [us] over”?
The brush might absorb too much water.
Not enough. His stroke could be too heavy
or hesitant. The ink could blot. Refuse to
spread. Spread in the wrong direction.
The Japanese brush painter has trained
for years to face this moment. On his knees,
leaning back on his heels, today he pictures
the heron, come back season after season
to the small pond behind his house. Hours
he’s waited there for the drift of its descent,
for that floating line to take over.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Moira Linehan
Moira Linehan lives in Winchester, Massachusetts. Her manuscript If No Moon (Southern Illinois) was selected as the 2006 winner in the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry open competition.