I mounted the steps of The Art Institute Of Chicago in the blizzard night. There had never been a snowfall like this and I trudged to the museum down the center of Michigan Avenue even as the city was put away, its tall buildings and lights encased in drifts. The museum was open on most Wednesday evenings, and I hoped I could pass its guardian lions and haunt its galleries.
I had known I would write poetry exclusively since I was small. Like the first, mysterious wet dream I’d produced my first mature poem at about eight. It was, I learned later, normal to the craft, and I recognized its benignity. I’d read nothing to advance my work, at first. I was innocent of everything but free verse, the opposite of this winter’s night.
The museum was open and I was free to roam. I flew up the Institute’s grand staircase and stood before the long blue glass of a Chagall window. My poetry–the interior light I hoped could be made perfect– was betrothed to the scenes I studied on every wall. I would lead the reader along line breaks, sometimes as confused as the mark of skates on a frozen pond, to the inevitable end of the poem that would have been undiscoverable but for the witness and encouragement of art. I turned from the Chagall stained glass:
I think when God
walked shy to Moses,
stars clustered in his hands,
he led our rabbi down
to the orchards of the heart.
The two walked near the other
and traded dreams like brothers
before sleep. They paused
afield and watched the sun,
lifted by themselves in unison,
race overhead. And Moses knew
not to disappoint this man
with faltering steps or speech.
God wept uncomprehending
of his artistry and Moses scratched
some lines in stone to honor
a beloved friend.
I could not have been the only poet who was undergoing struggle, or finding succor in paintings. There is nothing new under the sun. When I couldn’t sleep, I would look at the long row of buildings along Chicago’s Outer Drive. At the deepest hour, there were windows lighted. Were they sleepless too? Sparking with words?