A great bawling travels
through the other wooden houses
lining the streets of Dvinsk –
houses of carpenters, closing their eyes;
houses of watchmakers, pulling on thick pajamas.
The message? Jacob and Kate Rothkowitz
with newly born fourth child:
praise God. Now please,
if you can, quiet the child,
so we can get some sleep.
Marcus Rothkowitz is frail, given to fits
of crying. Over what? Perhaps a calcium deficiency:
red-cheeked and coughing, wide-open brown eyes,
they stare in infant terror as tears form like spittle
at their edges. Each day, Father Jacob trudges off in the snow
littering the lamp-lit cobblestone streets at dawn
to his pharmacy. And though there are no pogroms in Dvinsk,
there are Cossacks with whips on horses, galloping like ghosts
through the streets, bloodying Jews.
Behind, between, beside the rectangles,
a damp muted blue, with solemn black
reminiscences within the blue. “Color,”
our teacher says. “Think of how hard,
to describe a color.” How much harder
to choose one. I think of Robert Hayden’s
“blue-black cold,” but Rothko’s blue
isn’t cold, or warm. Touch metaphors
feel ill-fitting, if only because I don’t touch
this painting – its hard-to-see bumps and ridges –
so much as I feel it, the color, its – how do I say –
desire and unwillingness to communicate.
What was Rothko trying to do? I think
of Eliot’s “extinction of the personality,”
an act of erasure in the name of transcendence,
(the squares could be big erasers, or erased spaces,
though what is being erased, and what comes through?),
but Rothko was too expressive for aiming at objectivity.
There is such an extravagant reticence,
and the painting is a paradox. Returning to it,
as to an old friend, I feel again its strangeness,
the taciturn way it looks back at you,
eyeless, body-less, a field of color.
These shapes wait for me in the present,
although their neat untidiness
reminds me of childhood, as Rothko might have intended,
even as they hold their secrets
like ambassadors from the future.