Time and Stillness
Pablo Picasso, 1920
Musée Picasso, Paris
I knew someone just like her,
a copy editor on a daily
where I worked in the ‘60s.
She wore shifts, a woman
of size and almost spooky
calm, and she wrote headlines
better than anyone I knew.
She was fast, didn’t need
to count characters, just wrote
the head, and it always fit,
no small thing in the hot-type era.
When I struggled, she’d quip,
“The first thousand are the worst,”
and write it for me, always
accurate, on point, unforced,
straight or witty as needed.
Still, she would hit a hard one
from time to time and
plant a bare foot on the floor
(she often kicked off her shoes),
cross the other leg on a knee,
cradle her cheek on thick fingers
and look off into the distance
as if in a trance. While it lasted
it seemed that the process of time itself,
the present ceaselessly
becoming the past,
streamed through her stillness.
But she was working,
and once the head came to her,
she would stir, glance around,
type it out on a half-sheet
and stick it on the spike.
Small Pieces Refusing
–Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler
Pablo Picasso, 1910
Art Institute of Chicago
after an interpretation by Elizabeth Cowling
I wake before dawn in pieces, light and dark
smokey facets tinged with rose; my feet,
blind moles, search the gloom for slippers.
I feel my way like a poorly organized front
of hesitant gray clouds — tweak the dour
resting face in the mirror, comb the inherited
cowlick into a part, select from limited
options a shirt and a narrative for the day.
So I gain an assembled self. But at what risk
of losing these fragments? Each a view
from a different moment, a different angle,
the way cocking one’s head reveals
a strawberry hiding in the patch, the way
memories come from nowhere when nowhere
is given room: Smell of dry grass, a phrase of Ravel,
the auditory hallucination of my father
calling me to supper across the garden at dusk.
Time flaking away. The richness of small pieces
refusing “to lock together to produce
a clear, fixed, unitary image of the man.”
–Family of Saltimbanques
Pablo Picasso, 1905
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
If they seem lost in the dusky rose and blue
middle of nowhere it’s because they’re not
working: Fat Clown’s not honking his rude
horn or miming slap-stick indecencies;
shape-shifter Harlequin’s up to no pranks;
even the child acrobats and the slender youth
with a drum on his back are poised and still.
No one trades a glance with anyone.
And the woman, who sits apart
in her non-performance skirt and shawl,
a tall sun-hat circled with flowers
precarious on her head — how hard it is
to know what to say about the woman.
She and they have reached a moment
when the tent is struck, the gear loaded,
and the hard-earned skills, shtiks, roles
and routines that hold them together
seem grubby, shopworn. They are not
unhappy to be free of them, to have
a little time to be their lonely selves.
John Palen‘s latest book, Riding With the Diaspora, won the Sheila-Na-Gig 2021 chapbook competition and was published in April, 2022. He has recent work in Sleet, Cider Press Review, and Spoon River Poetry Review, and lives, writes and gardens on the Grand Prairie of Illinois.