Mudlark Poster No. 59 (2005)

Poems Based Exclusively on Artwork

Dan Masterson

Tableau Vivant | Old Woman with a Broom
Sticks | The Jackdaws at Thor Ballylee
Born to Kill | Mailing a Package to a GI in Iraq

Dan Masterson’s New and Selected (ALL THINGS, SEEN AND UNSEEN) was published in 1997 by The University of Arkansas Press. Two of his poems have won Pushcart prizes, and a number of poems have appeared in texts and anthologies. His work has appeared in many journals and magazines, including The New Yorker, Ontario Review, Sewanee, Shenandoah, The Georgia Review, Hotel Amerika, Poetry, The Paris Review, and Esquire. The founder and editor of Enskyment, an online poetry anthology of journal poems, he also directs the Poetry Master site for writers. He is in his 41st year at SUNY/Rockland.

Tableau Vivant

(based on Vincent van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, 1855,
Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam)

“I have tried to emphasize that those people, eating their potatoes
in the lamp-light, have dug the earth with those same hands
they put in the dish, and so it speaks of manual labour, and how
they have honestly earned their food.”

                                                            — Vincent van Gogh

She’ll be on her own soon enough, the girl
With her back to us, the girl who seems safe
On the sidewalk side of a store’s plate-glass
Window, peering in at a family
Frozen in place, sharing a bowl of bruised
Potatoes left to rot from their day’s stoop
Labor. But she is not. She is inside,
On the wrong side of things. There is no glass,

No store window, only the girl seated
At the same table where she would have spent
The rest of her life, if not for the hearth
Fire that was left untended & soon turned
The others to ashes swirling about
The dooryard: fallow land to be sold off
For taxes. She’ll save only the teapot
As dowry to give Old Man Gunnora,

Across the hedgerow, who will take her in
To work the fields & share, too soon, a low
Loft of straw to be left empty cold by
An addled wife whose prattle creeps toothless
Throughout the room. The gray knot of burlap
She keeps wedged in the teapot’s spout gives off
A flavor of hemp to each cup of tea
She serves at night, after the girl is sent

To town with a basket of vials, each one
Slopped to the rim with home-brewed elixir:
A cure made of spud juice to be peddled
To households of door-slammers not given
To believe that it will heal a blemish
Or cankerous sore, ward off warts & boils,
Dyspepsia, soothe frostbite & sunburn,
Conjunctivitis, sore throats & toothaches,

Warts, insomnia, sprains, ruptures & gout.
After another night of no-sales, she’ll
Make her way back, skipping along, singing
The workers’ ditty she learned in the fields:
“One potato, two potato, three
Potato four....” until the cottage lights
Slow her step & bring a wish to her lips:
That Old Man Gunnora now be no more.

Old Woman with a Broom

(based on George Luks’s painting of the same name)

“All country and small-town people have seen such old women,
but no one knows much about them.”

                                                      — Sherwood Anderson

Her dead husband’s boots are too roomy,
Even with bunched newspaper stuffed in
The toes, but they keep her dry as they did
Him when he’d walk his beat in the Irish
First Ward, making sure all the shop doors

Were closed & bolted against any hooligans
Snooping about the alleys, as they always
Do when a storm roars in off Lake Erie,
Sending drifts curling up against the eaves
Of their two-room house until it seems that

There are no windows at all. He’s been gone
Now since early fall, & the snow shovel isn’t
In the cellar where it belongs; it’s as though
They must have buried it with him, but she
Knows that can’t be so. Her fingers, gnarled
Around the broom handle, are starting to give

Way to cramp. The snow is too wet to sweep,
& the late sun has turned it all to slush, soon
To crust. Her babushka & great-coat, even her
Woolen pantaloons, are all growing thin to
The chill, & the porch seems too many steps

Away, as her eyelashes gather a frozen mist
That stings as it clings. She recalls how he’d
Clear the walk: great heaps of snow flying
Away under the strokes of his muscled arms,
His frosted breath rising like pipe smoke

Pumped from his lungs with each heft of his
Shovel now as absent as he is, as she tries to
Sweep away the snow, & sees us staring at her
As we drive ’cross town, warm & wrapped,
Too curious on a pleasant Sunday afternoon.


(based on Henri Matisse’s Jazz Icarus, 1947,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

“Back-street bars such as those located on West Genesee, Mohawk,
and Michigan, have given rise to a resurgence of interest in cool jazz.
The trend has afforded the area a much-needed economic boost.”

                                        — The Buffalo Courier Express, 1951

His folks buy the lie: he’ll hit the books
Over at his buddy’s house, & grab supper
There, catch the Friday night double-feature
At the Royale, stop off at the malt shop, &

Be home around midnight. He slides his sticks
Up his sleeve & heads off past manicured lawns,
Alongside the library, & hops on the Delaware
Bus heading south through the projects.

Where Division cuts cross town, he transfers
To the rush-hour local & rides it to the end
Of the line, reading chunks of a crushed copy
Of King Lear that travels in his back pocket,

& Still has time to work his sticks through
A few rudiments before the bus does its
U-turn in the train yards. Just two blocks
Beyond the freight house, he takes the alley

They warned him about, & comes out on Perry,
Smack in front of The Kitty Kat, its transom
Sign rimmed with rust but still pulsing cool
Blue neon through the eyes of a snarling cat.

Inside, wishing he were black, he sees what
He hoped to see: Big-Gate Clossen setting his
Traps, his ride cymbal blazing in the klieg
Light’s glare. The place is filling up, still

An hour or more before the opening set of five,
& the kid asks if he can drum for mike checks,
& gets a Yes instead of the door! He rattles
Off his own double-8: smooth triplets sliding

Into a roll that blurs out atop the closed high
Hat. The sound man wants it again, & BG stops
To listen, & tells the kid to hang around, that
He can sit-in for him on an early set or two.

The kid nods, & slides his sticks into his belt,
Somehow making it to a booth without his heart
Banging through his chest. He orders a beer, but
Settles for the coke they bring him in a mug.

The trio starts early, whacking the room awake
With Frenzy, & eases into Bird’s version of Easy
To Love, BG’s shading so delicate, his brushes
Must be tipped by strands of velvet, not wire.

The kid figures if BG waves him up, he’ll go easy
On the bass pedal, chatter some with both hands
On snare & tom. Just like back home, behind the
Closed French doors: Max Roach on the turntable,

Perdido set at 78, & geared down to 33 for study,
& back up to 45, before going flat-out at 78,
Beat-for-beat with the master, ending with his
Signature tinka-tink on the crash cymbal’s crest.

The trio’s back from break, & BG’s calling to the
Kid. He’s on his feet, hearing what seems to be
Applause mixing with the pounding in his head, &
Someone yelling for him to blow the roof off!

The Jackdaws at Thor Ballylee

(informed by Barbara Morris’s Dance)

“I would ask you to call and see me but I live in a medieval tower
on the West of Ireland, beside a bridge that may be blown up any night;
and it may be a long time before I am in London.”

                                                    — W.B. Yeats, August 9,1919

Three miles from Gort, below
The falls on the Cloon River,
A wind-toss of hardwoods pushed
Off in the night, pokes high
Enough to take the storm down
To half of what it needs to be
To turn the troop of jackdaws
Inside out like so many crumpled
Gloves hurled aground: the roosts
They come back to waiting ahead
In the sudden dark, their circadian

Rhythm ending their late daystart
Early, sending them home, off on
Their hedge-hopping way, skimming
The reed beds bent by this rain,
Following known contours online,
Astern to others whose thrust is
Not quite frantic yet more than
Concerned, safer from predators
In such weather, but some will be
Battered down to take bruising
Shelter in a broken place, impaired

Plumage drowning their slim chance
Of reaching Thoor Ballylee, while
The flyers gain the side parapet,
Entering the common slats edging
The staircase of flatstones, atilt
At every turn: mounds of nesting
Dung steaming anew in its tangle
Of twigs, 12-brick high, as dozens
Of wings fold in torn sleep, quiet
As the toppled graves cluttering
The sodden earthline beneath them.

Born to Kill

(based on JMW Turner’s Gamecock
Leeds City Art Gallery, England)

“Now, to put him in condition to fight, you only have to take out
the inside fat, tone his muscles up, build up his wind and stamina a bit
and finally dry out his tissues enough to make him a little hard to kill
and be on his toes, alert to fight for his life.”

                                            — Grit and Steel Magazine, 1964

You want that one? Okay, but you can’t take
Him home. Too young, six months. You can
Have him for $300. Very good stock: a fine
Butcher Mother, butcher son, inbred. Best I
Keep an eye on him till this time next year.
He’ll be all  gaff-broke by then, & you’ll
Need another five months more to get him

Used to you. Don’t want to hurry a good one
Like this. He’ll do you proud over there at
Kellyville. Rush him on & you’ll be watchin
Him drain out empty in some old tin pit in a
Back-wash alley. You want better than that
For him. We can mark him now for you: nose
& toe punch, wing bands. Why, we can even

Throw in a belly brand, if you like. Treat him
Real good: feed him nothing but Chanticleer
Slasher Feed & raw egg. Fresh-pulled liver &
Fish pads mid-week. Then, close onto his first
Battle, we’ll get him revved up on black coffee
Laced with brandy. Makes him fast & brave &
Reckless. You got a cock here who’s gonna be

The champion. Little doubt of that. Gonna take
You lots of comfort once you get him home.
The more love you got to give him, the more
Ferocious he’s gonna be for you in the ring.
Treat him poorly, he ain’t gonna have no cause
To live. Name? He surely does. At first sight,
The wife called him Majestic. Fits him, don’t it!

Mailing a Package to a GI in Iraq

(based on James Montgomery Flagg’s I Want You for the U.S. Army, 1917,
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)

“The Old Lie: ‘Sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country.’”
                                                          — Owens/Horace

Just like the old days: brownies fresh
From the oven, cooling in the milk chute
At the side door. This morning’s paper
Lining the empty shoebox. Three months’
Worth of Smithsonian magazines curled
On the bottom, alongside our family’s
Scribbled note staying away from being
Far away: chit chat of neighbors & how
His old team won a close one on Saturday,
& how the VFW lodge donated fireworks
To set the field ablaze afterwards, &
The terrible noise they made, & about the
New red, white, & blue uniforms the band
Wore when it marched through the streets.

But these days, there are no Uncle Sams
On lamp posts, no rationing of gas or butter
Or milk or eggs. No one saving milkweed
Pod fluff for life preservers, no window
Cards honoring those dying in a war we
Continue to be told ended long ago, but see
No end in sight, & must be careful if we ask
What in the world we’re doing there anyway.

The cookies are cool enough to pack, &
We’ll use bubble-wrap beneath the lid. No
Hemp string this time around. Clear tape
Will bind it all like a well-wrapped wound.
I’ll have some answering to do & forms to
Complete at the post office, but that’s okay,
What’s a war without an arsenal of brownies.

Copyright © Mudlark 2005
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