Canadian Poetry Online top banner link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page

The Art of Water

Harold Rhenisch
From:   Dancing With My Daughter, 1993


The high clouds —
torn thin by wind
above the poplars —
are watercolours.
Except from the distance
of this late century,
heavy with history,
they seem transparencies
instead: an art more of longing
than fulfillment. They are lit
not from behind —
nothing streams through them —
but from within.

I have a friend
in East Kelowna — his family
was one of the first to farm
that basin of light and storm —
with a watercolour
of a simple sheet of river —
magma, liquid sky
shifting through gravel:
it is from the last century —
everything about it
gives that away: the frame is dark,
and as it is nailed from the corners,
holds still, and holds
the river within it.

What is remarkable about it,
however, is that the water
moves: the water is,
in other words,
water:

what artifice it contains
is the stream of water
off the brush, the channels
it can find over the dusty paper,
the weather — cirrus,
shifting above the high,
sun-bleached limbs
of the poplars.

The painters of Northern Europe —
who flourished at the end
of the last century — held forth
that Northern Art was an art of longing,
not of happiness. They were,
I would gather
out of the faces of their men and women,
concerned, despite all their words,
not with universal symbols,
or National Art,
but with personal symbols of wealth.

The poplars are not just
grey in this light —
there is an even brighter light
to the one side of their trunks;
and although they stand in shadow,
shaded by even the smallest
of their twigs, and are,
in that shade, outside of the light,
they have light within them, reflected light,
burning from the leaves
scattered through the grass: earthlight.

It's like a house
being set on its foundations;
it is the personal symbol
that is important:
you lay a bed of rushes —
one bundle of rushes, and then another,
at angles to each other,
weaving them — the scent
off the rushes
is the scent of the dark soil
sinking into fall water
under the weight of leaves —
as a pathway
for Her
to enter
and bless the house
and so help
to make it a dwelling place
and not merely
a fire;

and if the wind
surges through the open door,
cold,
drenched with a near-frozen rain,
and spreads out
like the voice of the moon
through all the rooms
and corridors of the house,
and slams up against the windows,
staring out,
rattling the glass in its panes,
it has to be.

All winter, the trees have smoked, watery,
out in the tall, amber grasses,
their limbs crossing, scattering with each gust of wind.

The light through glass is the same,
or the light that shines through wood,
or the thin sheets of wood and cloth,
old rags that have moved once
with the body, which are paper,
and that a river can be painted on
because they hold the water,
just as the tension of water
between the brush and the paper
releases it:
they are watercolours.

Not only is the sky,
after all, that colour:
lakes take it on as well,
and trees — not out of choice
or defeat, but simply: the soil,
like water, its colour radiant —
a raw umber spread on thickly
and yet not covering any of the light
shining from within and behind it —
has been brought into the world;
its colour has passed over the threshold
into colour that the eyes can see.
We always consider the sky so distant,
but it is hardly so: it is here,
right down to the surface of the soil.

Even a clumsy watercolour,
that somehow dulls itself
with an innacurate line,
although the water is laid on thinly,
in obvious recognition of its great wealth,
cannot conceal the intensity of the light which is the earth
and the liquid sky. Perhaps someone may ask
for a meaning
or purpose, or proof,
for art,
but it does not need it: it is a longing.



Harold Rhenisch's works copyright © to the author.


Canadian Poetry Online bottom banner link to University of Toronto Libraries home page link to Digital Collections home page link to University of Toronto Library catalogue link to Canadian Poetry Online home page link to University of Toronto Libraries home page