Albany Poetry Examiner
Poets see beneath the surface
‘You must become an ignorant man again
and see the sun again with an ignorant eye
and see it clearly in the idea of it.’ –Wallace Stevens
Poetry consists of observation and images, meditation, and metaphor. Stevens is saying that poets and other writers need to see a thing as they did the first time they set their eyes on it – not from the viewpoint of someone else’s description or explanation. With her poem, ‘The Swing,’ Judy Wells, a popular East Bay poet, shows us what that means.
I am standing
in front of a famous Renoir—
“The Swing,” in French, “La Balançoire”
Young woman in white dress
stands on a swing, seven
blue bows adorn her dress
from neck to hem
Oh how the light dapples down her dress—
that Renoir touch
Those red apples on her cheeks
She looks away from her admirer
A man in light-dappled yellow hat
away from me, another admirer
A voice, calling my name,
awakes me from my Renoir reverie
Amidst the crowd, a former student
“This is my favorite painting!
I came back through the rooms to see it again.”
The crowd thickens around “La Balançoire”
We step aside
“Did you hear about the concert?
Last night. At the winery.
A man committed suicide.
He climbed on a roof
over the stage and jumped.
I was right up front.
I saw everything.”
She has a wild look in her eye
I am horrified for her
“He was at the concert.
The music was very stirring, passionate.”
She waves her arms
“He acted on it.
I have to go back to my friend now.
We took off today to…” she hesitates
I complete her thought
“to see something beautiful.”
“Yes,” she says
I look back at Renoir’s “La Balançoire”
Someone came unbalanced last night
All over the world
people are struggling to survive
terrible floods, fires, cancer
while a young man
swings out over center stage
and lets go
Stops a concert, traumatizes an audience
Ends his life. Why?
I turn back to rooms
filled with beautiful impressionistic paintings
to hundreds of viewers
struggling to understand
how that white snow can shimmer so
how those green strokes can compose a bridge
how those blue bows can fascinate
Author’s Note: I wrote this poem after my visit to the Impressionism Exhibit at the de Young Museum in San Francisco in August 2010. I was struck how tragedy can strike within a beautiful aesthetic moment, both at the concert and at the museum. I later learned the music at the concert was a ballad called “When Your Mind’s Made Up.”
Editor’s Note: I like this poem for many reasons. It is a deep commentary on how beauty, whether through art or music, has a powerful effect on us. Judy finds beauty through her observations and the specific images that allow us to visualize the scene – a white dress, seven blue bows that adorn it from neck to hem, and a man with a yellow hat. She allows us to feel the action through the light dappling down her dress and the numerous action verbs used: standing, adorn, dapple, touch, committed, climbed, jumped, struggling, lets go, plummets, etc. Red apples become a metaphor for the woman’s cheeks. Her use of alliteration such as dapples down her dress brings rhythm to the poem.
And then she looks inward (meditation) trying to make sense of tragedies like the one her former student witnessed at a concert, where the music performed was stirring and passionate, causing the young man to leap to his death. The young woman seeks healing through beauty (to see something beautiful). The tragic event leads Judy to think of other problems people experience: floods, fires, cancer. She, too, turns back to rooms where the artists’ strokes vividly portray scenes that reach deep and bring healing.
Bio: JUDY WELLS has published ten collections and chapbooks of poetry, including most recently: I Dream of Circus Characters: A Berkeley Chronicle (Beatitude Press), Little Lulu Talks with Vincent Van Gogh (Malthus Press), Call Home (Scarlet Tanager Books), and Everything Irish (Scarlet Tanager Books).
She received her B.A. in French from Stanford University and her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Judy is also co-editor of The Berkeley Literary Women’s Revolution: Essays from Marsha’s Salon, McFarland, 2005, a chronicle of the founding of Women’s Studies in the Comparative Literature Department at UC Berkeley in the 1970s. Her essays have also appeared in Travelers’ Tales Ireland and several editions of The Borzoi College Reader.
Judy taught writing and literature at various Bay Area colleges before a career as an Academic Counselor for adults in the School of Extended Education at Saint Mary’s College of California, and as a faculty member of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Saint Mary’s. She is now devoted to her poetry full-time and lives with her husband, avant-garde poet Dale Jensen, in Berkeley.