Inside the rented van, a stone-gray moth head-butts
the windshield, drops stunned in a looping catch, and rises
to the same task, intent, not on light—there are other
windows, some of them open—but this one light.
Now it pauses in a midair hover, its hinged wings wide
and minutely scripted in a flowing hand like God’s
first text composed under older laws of gravity and death,
the new ones not yet raised overhead and flung
down the mountain to strike and rebound largely intact—
though fractured at the fault lines of a future breakage.
For another long moment she watches the moth battering
hard sky, impelled by forces built into its tiny
unreasoning mind where flight has fashioned itself
from unspeakable will and a faceted eye.
ii. Late Morning
The van stands open in a field. Outside, wild grasses
and a blue plastic chair; in the distance, low roofs, rising slopes.
Closer in, long waves of a bone-colored wind roll down
from the hills to worry the pastures.
To sketch these scrolling heights and vales would require the whole
of the human body: palm and thumb, the muscle of the tongue,
veins that run the inner thigh, the flanks’ and shoulders’ pliancy,
the weight of the heart’s standing stone.
More: a grasp of history—its pillage and want, its humbling,
its stubborn hope. More still: a Hokusai’s genius of fixity,
endless canvas, an eye for light, costly pigments, a season’s rent,
far more wine than she has at hand in this paper cup, and years,
years of an artist’s life.
From her chair in the field she scans expanse: everywhere,
a fur of floating seeds in search of soft ground. Nearby,
an assiduous snail hauls its bright coiled shell up a weed
by the left front tire, intent on a task that can only end
in gravity: the grace of a gradual arc of descent or the sudden
tumble of the umber shell onto a distillation of dirt
and layer on layer of pollen and crushed body parts—
earth’s suspect dust: it’s an older world here than at home.
Yesterday, driving the Wicklow hills, her host remarked
on the generations it took these tough, ambitious farmers
to learn they’d need to leave the stones untouched in the fields
if they wished to grow anything, ever. Above, in higher cuts,
squares of turf stood stacked in the open—free for the taking,
such that a poor man, an artist, might gather it home,
might burn his way down to his pigments there,
in his own hearth, warming, the while, his own bones.
Canvas, though, runs high. Come winter, he’ll paint
his ashen faces on abandoned boards. Dark faces. Disturbing.
Already, they will have lasted the ages.
iv. Late Afternoon
Near the van’s front tire, one vanished snail. She understands
it has passed the point that it never sees will always come.
Has it, assisted by gravity, arced to the blade of a neighboring weed?
Pitched unheeded to the composite soil? Or, urged somehow
to a middle way, retraced its path—backwards and blind—
to a balance-point allowing a pause, a brief erasure of error before…
But, it’s never over, and all she knows is her snail has vanished
into one of its three available futures.
Back in the blue chair sketching, she takes herself to task again
for faithlessness: an artist worthy of her art would find a way
to capture this absence.
v. Early Evening
Her host explains the logic of the un-cleared fields:
boulders, it seems, gather heat to fend off an early frost.
But how does a young farmer clearing his land
for ease in the plowing come to that understanding?
How many generations of labor are wasted before
such knowledge comes down, unquestioned, father to son?
How many years of being wrong before, exhausted
by earth’s inexplicable laws, he hurls his fate
down the mountain, turns, and lets the fields
have their way. How humbling, she thinks, to grow old
on so unyielding a farm, tending thin soil, watching
until sterner laws at last reveal the true task of stones:
holding the sun in place.
The sun goes down fast behind these hills. Driving back
to her bed-and-breakfast discouraged by her day, her work,
she spots on the dash the remains of the same gray moth.
It must have battered its spent heart all day
against a dimming transparency, with less and less ardor
as the hours passed. Its wings seem to her as unscripted now
in the growing dark as the lines of her own aging flesh,
whose task on earth is as hopeless to decipher tonight
as the dust of God’s lost tablets.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.