Seaside Pentina for a Chinese Painter by Marly Youmans

Seaside Pentina for a Chinese Painter

Originality should not disregard the “li”
(the principle or essence) of things.
—The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting

The fish-scale glitter of the sea, the cloud
That hung its careless grace above the dock,
The solo fisherman who hauled a fish
To air: these were the things that pleased her eye,
The seaborne images she wished to mark.

Not for the picture’s sake she wished to mark
The dock’s salt-silvered boards or floating cloud,
Not as a souvenir of things her eye
Perceived, nor as a fleet of things to dock
And moor on paper, nor as captured fish.

She wished to snag another sort of fish
Entirely, and to hit a deeper mark
Than what the shimmering and brine-soaked dock
Proposed to others there, or what the cloud
Above seemed saying to a staring eye.

Nor did the watching painter wish to eye
The scene in search of novelty, or fish
For some surprising shock of sense to cloud
Quicksilver minds; instead, to freely mark
The world of things and tug her thoughts to dock

By finding out some essence of the dock,
By understanding aim of hand and eye,
By striving without strife to hit the mark
And catch the fluent spirit of a fish
Or mystery inhabiting a cloud.

So li that lives in cloud or dock or fish
May find a willing eye and hands to mark.

by Marly Youmans

Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: This delightful pentina uses lush imagery to draw the reader into a landscape that feels as ephemeral as a painting, but with a structure that perfectly encapsulates the concept of “li”.

The Young Wife’s Reply by Marly Youmans

The Young Wife’s Reply
…gif he þin beneah. (…if he has thee.)
—from “The Husband’s Message,” Exeter Book circa 970

Riddle of runes, safe-hedged in my hand,
Writings I cannot read but now hide in heart’s hold…
I am the girl who gleams like an elf,
Glinting in light-shafted glades of the wild lands,
The one who has, often and often, watched from the walls
As nightingales loose their dream-songs, deepening the green of leaves,
The one who is close-clasped by the sibilant cry of the sea,
Bewitched, called by the Christly wave-walking ships and whitecaps,
Who pines, who will listen to no lesser prince,
Who will skim the marine swells like a Manx shearwater,
Angling, aiming in all haste toward your hand.

I’ll dare the salt, the drowned water-world,
For no jeweled hunting-hawk or gem-collared hound,
No horn-hilted seax or serpent-hoard barrow
Could compare with the prize of your presence:
You, rare in renown, mine and monarch among men.

by Marly Youmans

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Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: The alliterative meter in these lines hearkens back to an ancient form of English verse—fitting because the speaker is answering an ancient question.

The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx by Marly Youmans

The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx

On the northern and the southern roads,
He reveled, shooting at a bronze target,
Pursuing lions and vast herds of beasts
Until his chariot was a gold blur
And horses changed to coursers of the wind.
At noon, the young prince napped between the paws
Of Horus-in-the-horizon, the Sphinx
Who guards the sun and gates to the beyond.
And there he dreamed the carved stone spoke to him
And promised him the kingship of the earth,
Both the White and Red Crowns of the Two Lands,
If he would only, grain by grain, remove
The sands that choked the limbs of the Great Sphinx.

And though he wasn’t next in Pharoah’s line,
These things promised in dream did come to pass.
Some say this was the first recorded dream
In all our wayward human history,
Some say this is the way ambitious men
Have always spoken of themselves as dream:
The chosen of the race, the mystery.

by Marly Youmans

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Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: The iambic meter in this poem is just consistent enough to establish a rhythm, but not enough to lull the reader into a false sense of security.

Icarus, Icarus, Paratrooper by Marly Youmans

Icarus, Icarus, Paratrooper
Homage to Charles Causley

Slung down from heaven, torn silks whipped
By precipitous wind, he tripped

From air and rammed the blasting sea
That seemed a gun, cocked vertically.

Seas stalled in the chute, let him down
More than he’d ever been let down

By men, hurled and harrowed farther.
Glitter strafed the skin of water.

Stars and starfish are just fool’s gold
Where salts turn iron—he burns with cold,

Fingers like candles, a birthday wish
Darting and slipping off like fish.

His throat is streaked with phosphorus,
His May-day eyes are kissed (not by us),

And his arms hold harms like lilies
In the deep green meadows of the seas.

by Marly Youmans

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Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: This poem’s nod to Icarus calls to mind notes of Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” as well as Brueghe’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” while also drawing the reader into modern times. The imagery is no less striking, but somewhat more violent (gun, cocked, harrowed).

Epistle to F. D. by Marly Youmans

Epistle to F. D.

This morning when I turned from sleep, I found
You in my thoughts, a boy with other boys
On Philpott St., where you swapped bread for words,
Though I was only there as in a dream.
Settled by my mother on the matting,
I learned from her to spell my words and read,
Syllables flashing in my mind like sails,
Like royals and moonrakers snatching light,
The letters gleaming in a mystery
Of change, as if in contra dance where hands
Are joining in new patterns, make new shapes
Like stars that waltz to music of the spheres.
How could it help but be all metaphor?
The joy of it, each clutch of letters joined
To stone or branch or water’s glittering
Has left some smear of brightness in my mind.
“Dear little boys” near Bailey’s shipyard served
As teachers—hungry boys who wolfed your bread
And gave you words and freeborn sympathy
When every thing that lived, the roadway stone
Or branch of apple blossoms, glitterings
Of distant waves beyond the mallet strokes
Of dockyard men who joined the ribs to keel
All shone and spoke one silver word to you,
The curled, triumphant horn of liberty:
A name to trumpet news, a spiral whorl
That whispered skysail freedoms to your ear.
So many years ago, sea captains steered
Their wind-borne ships to Africa and swapped
A coin for flesh. Time flees and stalls at once,
So somewhere is a girl whose flesh is free
To loveless men, who dreams of liberty,
Though she is caught in coilings of a net.
The sails beyond the harbor snagged the light,
Ships wandering at will of wind and wave:
Your dream grew silvery and metals-strong.
At night the starlight flittered on the sea,
Flicking here and there, as free as sparrows
Who flit and fly and gather table crumbs,
Then sleep like flowers, thoughtless and at peace.
But you were restless on your narrow bed
And anxious in the watches of the night,
The North Star like a bonfire in your mind.

by Marly Youmans

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Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: Blank verse shows off its grace in this poem to stunning effect. The repetition of “liberty” and “light” adds to the cascade of imagery, supporting the narrator’s voice as the poem’s form spirals into itself.

I Met My True Love Walking by Marly Youmans

I Met My True Love Walking

I met my true love walking
. .Out in the open air,
My arms all piled with books
. .And flowers in my hair.
Summer sun was spilling
. .Fine arrows everywhere,
And I was struck by gold
. .And bright, magnetic stare.

I met my true love strolling
. .Along the bayou’s edge,
Where thrushes sing in rain
. .And crickets in the sedge.
The light caressed his face
. .As he ringed my wrists with wire,
As he filled my hands with stones
. .And gave me to the mire.

by Marly Youmans

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Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: Just when the reader loses all hope of escaping the sweetness of this poem, the last four lines redeem it utterly.

Note from the poet: The trimeter quatrains are close to ballad meter. And the poem has a certain slantwise relationship to Yeats’s little song, “Down by the Salley Gardens.”

Landscape With Icefall by Marly Youmans

Landscape With Icefall

Imagine that a chandelier has fallen from the sky,
. . . .And dangerous cut glass lies shattered on the ground.
Imagine red, red blood that runs through heaps of emeralds.
. . . .Oh, no, not that: cold winter grass will never bleed.

Imagine crumpled winter leaves, still latched onto the tree,
. . . .That shake and rattle out the news to winter winds.
Imagine the blue hills around the frozen lake hold still,
. . . .That every swerving line of landscape’s packed with soul.

Imagine angels peering down in curiosity
. . . .To see the glitter of that dropped chrysanthemum,
And how I have by some strange mortal magic thrust my grief
. . . .Into the hills and lake, the grass and scattered ice.

Imagine that a chandelier has fallen from the sky,
. . . .Its mighty shine shared out among the grass and stones.
The little demons of the hills slink into shade and cry
. . . .Because my sorrow’s cold against their naked feet.

by Marly Youmans

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Twitter: @marlyyoumans

Editor’s Note: This poem shows off iambic feet with its focus on imagery, turned to an internal mirror in the third stanza (the speaker’s grief). Note from the poet: Unrhymed poulter’s measure, a mix of alexandrines and fourteeners or iambic heptameter.