Inside, Outside, the Dialectics Once More

by James Seay

for my son Josh

How could we have known or cared with our tourist cameras
whether it was Sterno or Campbell’s Soup?
The hook was how he had disconnected
the lights on the Christmas tree
outside the Church of the Heavenly Rest
and plugged his hot plate into the only extension cord
he could find in the east Eighties.
That, and maybe the fact that our heads were so full of van Gogh.
The cipher, that is, of the same hand holding and letting go:

we had wondered for hours at the nearly ninety canvases
of the final year and a summer,
seventy of them done in as many days, the numbers alone
a closure we couldn’t shake off.
Like the others in the museum line
we looked for signs of ultimate intent,
the suppressio veri he had surely coded for detection
so that we would overtake him on the road outside Auvers
before he reached the suicide field.

But except for a crow over a wheat field
we were left with olive trees and cypresses,
the great starry night, irises, two views of Daubigny’s garden.
If most of that seems to spiral from cyclotrons
or strain toward fission like a vision of nuclear day,
consider its valency also in the way of life
coming back around to life in the constant cosmic charities.
So what was our evidence finally
but a further calculus of alternatives?

Another portrait of how we might be lifted and turned
was the Oriental woman high in the bell tower
on Christmas Day. I raised my camera once,
then let it drop unshuttered, the way her eyes were shut
and taking in the sun glancing off the river,
the way her hands rested
on the railing around the carillonneur’s booth
as French and Dutch carols pealed from the tons of bells
and shook even the stones that held us there.

If the portrait seems a Zen cliché almost,
consider that I mean also the way Rockefeller millions
had put Handel finally in the air around us
nearly four hundred feet over Riverside, the way her coat
was crimson against her black hair, her butterfly blow
whimsical and silver in the winter light.
Consider that later as my son and I ate the sushi & sashimi
combination on Christmas afternoon, something
we had planned days before, we talked as much of the double-

square canvasses van Gogh had turned to at the very end
or of photographs we might have had
as of anything Eastern or otherworldly.
One final turn, though: if our talk seems remote
from the events and unrelated to the chemistry of warm saki
or how we walked out onto Broadway near sunset
the light was the light of boulevards and fields held
in the pledge of return, consider that we knew containment was not
those formal things alone, the way the world everywhere we found it

seemed something other than other.

James Seay was born in Panola County, Mississippi, in 1939. His publications include four collections of poetry (most recently, Open Field, Understory), two limited editions of poetry, and a documentary film about big-game hunting in East Africa, In the Blood (1990), co-written with the film’s director George Butler. His poetry has been selected for inclusion in some thirty anthologies. He has also published essays in general-interest magazines such as Esquire and in literary journals such as Antaeus. From 1987-1997 he served as director of the Creative Writing Program at UNC-CH. His honors include an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a Bowman and Gordon Gray Professorship (1996-1999) for excellence in undergraduate teaching.