May 4, 2021KR OnlinePoetry

When I Can’t See; Listening My Way Back

When I Can’t See

Windows I‒V by Basil Blackshaw

“Everything we look at is conditioned by the eye of memory.”—Ciaran Carson

Blackshaw’s windows are the upright rectangles of my childhood. The bottom panes push up for air. A latch in the middle locks shut. Opening or closing requires a strong shove. A shade pulls down with a lifesaver loop, which swings until settled. I’m back in my first bedroom—I could draw a map of it to this day. A window on each exterior wall, my bed in the windowless corner. One window full of pine branches and sky, the other a slope, too steep for lawn, wild in June with daisies and vetch. A swampy patch at the bottom. A clothesline hung over gravel behind the garage. But Blackshaw isn’t interested in view, but the window itself, in light, in subtle grays and whites, in focusing

on the paint.

Instead of seeing through windows of memory, Blackshaw makes us look at the window itself, and I wonder if my brain would work in a different way if my windows had been sliders, skylights, or stained glass. Ingrained with a rectangular sensibility, I’m subtly distressed by a basement view of a narrow slice of earth. I feel a welcome lift when I enter rooms with high ceilings. Everything I write lands on a page that is taller than its width. Unlike mirrors, which trick us with inversions, a window shows us what’s outside ourselves. Even when frost patterns cling to the panes, we see the ice and not the glass. This, I know: I’m not in place when I can’t see a sky.


Listening My Way Back

The Stonemason’s Yard by Canaletto

“So he pulls out the page, thinks, and paints something on the something on
the page; thinks again, paints again.”—Ciaran Carson

Riding Amtrak, I enjoyed seeing backsides of towns almost as much
as Mount Shasta with no roads, no headlights—its shape defined by the stars
it blocked. I never sleep on trains. Too much discomfort, too much

stimulation. At the station, I’d walk with train legs, giddy, knowing I’d have
detailed dreams after I fell in bed. Dreams like the paintings Carson liked:
landscapes with hidden treasure, tiny people and animals—the more I found,
the more I searched, preferring baffling sideshows over a plausible plot.

Canaletto’s technique is realism, but the experience of looking at them
is postmodern, fitting together details of the lives of minor characters
who are deliberately diminished by buildings, ground, and sky.

I rode trains in Europe, naive and alone with my youth pass, put off
by the stench of Venetian canals, the ironic clink of coins inside St. Mark’s.
Paintings of swirling cherubs and grayish nudes bothered me. So did men,
assuming I, solo, came to Italy for sex with them. So I explored beyond

the tourist zone, tall windows with potted herbs, laundry dangling
between buildings, polyphonic bells singing the hour at slightly different
times. Each bell had a personality. If I got lost, I could listen my way back.

I avoided romantic gondolas and rode the water taxis. One night, leaving
the boat, I found a purse left behind. A small clutch, threaded with tiny beads.
I didn’t open it. I gave it to the captain, spoke inadequate Italian, shrugged.
Yet somehow having found and touched it was a kind of prize.