Background: Mark Rothko
    Christina Pugh

At first there were subways and satyrs,
curving stairs or a violet dress.

He painted his own eyes
behind dark glasses,
his beard clouding a totem pole.

But blocks of color
floated behind the figures,
gathering opulence
and a voice:
the call of background,
a bitter call.

He was barely forty,
and on this side of the Atlantic,
the world still brimmed
with faces
and buildings he could render.

But background
murmured on the radio.
It honked in Manhattan traffic
and whispered in his ear as he slept.


In 1946, Rothko sat in his studio
and held background in his hands.
He turned it over,
tracked it like an eight ball,
laid it in molecules
under the microscope.

He glimpsed the outline
of a rectangle,
then frayed its corners,

loosening colors:
black on red on black,
red on black on black.

I will say without reservations
that from my view there can be no abstractions,

he said.

And though there are no
right angles in nature,
his paintings shared darkness
with the larger stars,
the comet that stays in the sky
night after clear night.


Brooklyn College in the fifties.
Rothko in a parka
zipped to his chin, smoking
and pacing the sidewalk,
tapping ashes
to a street packed in dirty snow:
a hell of an instructor.

He'd roll his eyes,
refuse to demonstrate.

My idea of a school
is Plato's academy, where a man learns
by conversing with men of consequence.

During breaks, he never fraternized
with the faculty.


Here is the hope
that yellow gives to blue
and to that mottled strip
of white below: forms torn
from a world we've never seen
but know. How it shines--
your own heart,
stripped of its anatomy.


Imagine the scarred floor of the moon
on a TV screen in Rothko's living room.
That's when the lights went out.
Blocks flat beneath his brush,
the black square
unable to kindle--
laid on white,
mum as newsprint.


At the National Gallery retrospective,
I lingered at the hazy oils,
his cumulous islands
of bright on bright.
But in the corner, there:
two ink rectangles,
squiggled as if by a child.

He'd drawn them at sixty-five,
after an aneurysm
left him too weak
to hold a brush.

Two tiny rectangles in ink--
one hand undiminished,
groping toward the absolute:

there can be no abstractions.

Christina Pugh's chapbook Gardening at Dusk was published by Wells College Press in 2002. Her poems are published or forthcoming in Harvard Review, Columbia, Hayden's Ferry Review, and elsewhere. She is a winner of the Grolier Prize and Poetry Magazine's Ruth Lilly Fellowship; and she will be a visiting assistant professor of English at Northwestern University, starting in the fall of 2002.


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