Under the eastern trees in a northern city

of a southern state a yellow sun is fast rising–

10,000 degrees there and 18 here, with no wind

except the wind of change. Black against

the gray-blue orange cloudless sky, fat robins

flit in the tops of frozen trees and twitter to

witness this advent. “Expect the un-

expected,” someone said yesterday leaving

to fly north with the snow white

nor’easter, a surprise on the margin

of expectation, the fringe of prediction. Late

this week it will be 70, blowing again.


Another landscape attracts me later at the art museum,

sharing space with Wyeth’s cold worlds in warm

browns and grays, its swirling shades of

gray mist frozen in oil and wax on canvas, pale

mountains across a body of white fog-covered

water, distant mists abstracting distant hills.

Sitting at the top of a scooped-out bay or

cove of rock, this windless place feels good,

like misty dawns at the tree-line of familiar

mountains, Black and White. Like a planetary

painting in an old astronomy book, there’s no

life but smears of green in the foreground

suggesting moss – no leaves, no shrubs, no birds,

nothing with legs on the lonely, cold road.


A vision of a scene somewhere, not here:

where a mind can be lost in its clean void.

Lost and restored, to go back

to the party in the foyer, the poetry

reading, the friendly talk, to go out

where it’s now dark, still cold. No wind

yet, no one on the street, where the creek is

not rising anymore, but you can still

hear it flow.


Comments on the poem, Still


Having decided that I needed something better than "flow" I came upon this quote in the book Chaos by Mitch Feigenbaum, the discoverer of "universality" in chaos theory - he found a kind of mathematical similarity in turbulence of phase transitions (like the instant water goes from not boiling to boiling) which people were not able to see. "Scale" is very important, too - as in fractals. Say you're measuring the coast of England with all its ins and outs - how long the measurement is depends on how long your ruler is - if your ruler is just an inch and you measure all the tiny inch-long diversions in and out by a single rock, the coast is very very long. Fractals are lines within the boundary of a circle which are theoretically infinitely long.

Here's what he said:

"In a way, art is a theory about the way the world looks to human beings. It's abundantly obvious that one doesn't know the world around us in detail. What artists have accomplished in realizing that there's only a small amount of stuff that's important, and then seeing what it was. So they can do some of my research for me. When you look at early stuff of Van Gogh there are zillions of details that are put into it, there's always an immense amount of information in his paintings. It obviously occurred to him, what is the irreducible amount of this stuff that you have to put in. Or you can study the horizons in Dutch ink drawings from around 1600, with tiny trees and cows that look very real. If you look closely, the trees have sort of leafy boundaries, but it doesn't work if that's all it is - there are also, sticking in it, little pieces of twiglike stuff. There's a definite interplay between the softer textures and the things with more definite lines. Somehow the combination gives the correct perception. With Ruysdael and Turner, if you look at the way they construct complicated water, it is clearly done in an iterative way. There's some level of stuff, and then stuff painted on top of that, and then corrections to that. Turbulent fluids for those painters is always something with a scale idea in it.

"I truly do want to know how to describe clouds. But to say there's a piece over here with that much density, and next to it a piece with this much density - to accumulate that much detailed information, I think is wrong. It's certainly not how a human being perceives those things, and it's not how an artist perceives them. Somewhere the business of writing down partial differential equations is not to have done the work on the problem.

"Somehow the wondrous promise of the earth is that there are things beautiful in it, things wondrous and alluring, and by virtue of your trade you want to understand them." He put the cigarette down. Smoke rose from the ashtray, first in a thin column and then (with a nod to universality) in broken tendrils that swirled upward to the ceiling."

(The way smoke breaks up even if not visibly disturbed is one example of a phase transition which the book mentions regularly.)

Basically, he's saying that maybe artists know what to look at better than scientists do. I was looking very closely at the painting I wrote about, and also the Wyeths next to it, and noticing how different the scale makes them - what from a distance looks like a scene on a flat surface from close up is just daubs of paint (looking very abstract!) and the surface is quite rough.


The Gayle Stott Lowry painting Departure…Arrival was the inspiration for this poem and can be found online. It was purchased by the North Carolina Museum of Art and I'm not providing a link or image since it might require a request and fee and there is no budget for that.