Scratching at blackbirds

Today I am teaching a wonderful essay by Andre Acimen, “My Monet Moment,” in which he travels to Bordighera on a kind of quest to see what Monet painted there. I am enchanted by what he writes at the moment of his arrival:

“I’ve come to Bordighera for Monet, not Bordighera—the way some go to Nice to see what Matisse saw, or to Arles and St-Rémy to see the world through the eyes of Van Gogh. I’ve come for something I know doesn’t exist. For artists seldom teach us to see better. They teach us to see other than what’s there to be seen. I want to see Bordighera with Monet’s eyes. I want to see both what lies before me and what else he saw that wasn’t quite there, and which hovers over his paintings like the ghost of an unremembered landscape.”

Yes: seeing both what is there and what isn’t “quite there,” the literal aspect before us and the shadow, the glimpse of something else that hovers or lurks — the thing we learn to see after seeing. I find myself scratching at images in my mind, as if with a penny on a kid’s crayon layers, trying to find the other colors beneath until they merge into a whole new picture. In “seeing” as a writer, at least for me, the work is first in the looking at and then in the translation to image on page, when we try like hell to convey both what is and what isn’t there.

One of my teachers and favorite writers, Pam Houston, had us do a warm-up exercise in which we wrote down the three most interesting things we had seen that week, a quick-n-dirty reminder to keep our observation skills sharp. It has turned into one of my own favorite assignments, both for my classes and for me. So I’m popping in to make notes about this week’s images here, the ones I have been scratching at.

3 things

1. A flock of red-wing blackbirds in the yard during two days of rain. I was staring out the front blinds, watching them peck at the grass, thinking that they were grackles or starlings, when they suddenly took flight and revealed themselves: those brilliant red epaulettes, their hidden jewels, all rising at once. They took refuge in the tops of the  winter oaks, the shorn branches bending with their weight.

2. A young man in a suit, his Adam’s apple prominent over the tight collar, his wingtips old and heavy but shined to a polish.

3. Frost killed the ferns along the back fence. (Whoops.)

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