archives spring 2008



Every Possible Blue
                        —Pierre Bonnard

That he would go back
after hours to retouch
the ones hanging in the gallery—
he must have had an in
with the guards—to get it righter
if never right, you’ve heard
before. How he’d revisit
the light—bring it up
or turn it down—just as I have
returned to this morning
all afternoon. They make me
hungry, these two pears
he must have hurried to paint
so she could eat. A few green ideas
about grapes. The apple
shows off its high bald head.
To be fascinated by fruit.
Not fruit, but light. Imperfect mirrors,
imitation mirrors. His broken
pinks and reds, green and
yellow mottle, this dash of white—
no, light—no, canvas
showing through. I almost catch
my face there, looking back.
I know this fruit. I’ve eaten it
all my life, though this basket’s
new to me—a few brown twists
of vine, uncertain transport,
but I’m moved. I’ll say that.
Made to speak. Such
tenderness, his abiding
affection for anything touched
by light. And he needed
so little. A few pieces of fruit.
A window. The sky
trying on every possible blue.


Facts about Islands 

1. The Glass Maker

Ash fell all night on the houses like snow,
I wrote, but with too fine a brush—like a cook
who turns away from the stove to wipe

his hands and catches some passing fancy
(hmm, paprika) drifting across his clear mind.
Not ash, but tephra—soot, cinders and grit,

gravelly scum and grapefruit-sized chunks
of dull-red rock stuttered and plunked
across roofs as Mount Edfell erupted

and erupted. And not all night, but fifty-six nights
and days, tephra banged down.
Fifteen feet of it. The islanders nailed steel plates

over windows. Days when the wind
shifted to sea, they shoveled
off roofs. At night, they shoveled away

steaming drifts to reach front doors, uncover cars.
Then the lava spilled out. Shopkeepers
and farmers packed suitcases, loaded

wheelbarrows and rushed down to the boats
chugging off to the mainland.
Many never came back. Lava is like liquid

glass. As it moves it cools and forms, breaks
and reforms a skin that tinks
and crinkles. A jagged, razory glitter.

Seventy houses folded over, whooshed
into flame. Telephone poles toppled. Chimneys
exploded. China melted. “But the harbor

is everything. This is a fishing village.”
So a man aimed a hose at a ribbon of lava.
It hissed, crusted up glassy. Turned

left. People thought he was crazy
but they had maybe always thought that.
So they rigged up fire engines,

pumper ships, a zigzag of iron pipes
and hoses to blast icy seawater at the lava
for the next hundred and three days.

Their beards grew shaggy and white
with ice. But the lava flow darkened.
It slowed and turned, snaked

wide of the docks. Tell me, Magnus,
who was that man? “A physicist, actually.
Local, but trained in Copenhagen—a student

of Niels Bohr turned volcanologist.
That happens here. Twenty-five years later
and you know what? You can dig in that ash

and pull out hot stones. My wife bakes
steam bread in there. You can still see him around
town some afternoons. His name’s Thorbjorn.”

2. Deep in the In-Between

All this happened off the coast
of Iceland, which is itself
only an above-the-waves blip,
a knob on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge—
the spine between
two tectonic plates, which even now
are drifting away

from one another.
The island’s coming apart
at the seam. We walked along
the bottom of this crumbly,
scree-filled rift, deep in
the in-between. It grows
one centimeter wider each year.

3. The Cook’s Story

This islet wasn’t here
until a vent in the ocean floor coughed up
lava, which exploded in cold

water, then cooled into a volcano
that broke sea-level: a pile of black
and brownish red magma, plus scocia—

that’s volcanic glass—once barren,
now colonized by fulmars
and guillemots, gulls looking for a layover

between their here and there,
and insects blown over (you can see
the other islands, if you look

hard, over there) and seeds left
by birds, or green bits of who-knows-what
that washed ashore

so that a few tough plants—
lichens, moss—got a toe-hold on whatever
specks of dirt the wind dropped in.

What sounds like a million years ago
happened in 1963. Equipment in Keflavik
picked up the first faint signs—

a green flash on a black screen, an uptick
on a seismograph out there.
But it was the cook aboard a trawler

wending its way around the Vestmann
Archipelago—wiping his hands,
glancing out a porthole, lost

in some now lost thought—who spotted
dark smoke out over the Atlantic.
What he and the captain thought

might be a boat on fire
was the ash plume from those underwater blasts,
which is to say it’s a work in progress—

all of this, everything—
Surtsey is shrinking,
the wind and waves are wearing

it away, it’s about half the size it once was
and our being here is just a blip
on some other, larger, mostly dark screen.


One Tradition

Mount Misen, when we made it, was fogged in
up top. Rain would start and stop—
a storm on the way? The promised view

lost to us, the snack stand shuttered, locked.
The wooden lookout was worn
soft and gray on one side. We’d seen no one

hiking up, and no one when we got there.
Not even the semi-wild monkeys
we’d been warned not to feed

or they’d grow fat and lazy like us.
No, a hundred feet below, a monk swept up
outside a shrine. Even the dust

has its right place. But he was old and didn’t see us.
Are we even here? Lily bought green tea
in a tall plastic bottle from his self-serve cooler.

He kept sweeping. We kept climbing.
Small stones and coins
atop grave markers were reminders

the living can come and go. It was time
to hurry. Time to look
and leave. I almost forgot to set my stone

on the pile. Then Lily set hers on top.
In one tradition, this might be
the way to heaven. You climb a path that circles

and circles, then disappears
into the fog. You could keep walking
to see if that was right. 


Matthew Thorburn is the author of Subject to Change (New Issues, 2004) and is the recipient of a 2008 Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress.