The Light of Ordinary Day
“Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can
only call yellow — pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold.
How beautiful yellow is.”
—Vincent to Theo, August 1888
By DAN COYLE.
THE WORD YELLOW grew from the Indo-European root ghel meaning “to shine,” and yellow shines like the sun. It is the most luminous and visible of colors. That’s why you see it on New York cabs, school buses, highway lines, crime scene tape, McDonald’s arches. Yellow wants to protect us. It’s the color of caution, the color of the rain slicker you wore to elementary school, and on safety patrol. The yellow traffic light, positioned between the red and green, does not command you to stop or speed up. Instead, it asks only that you be attentive, fully aware of the present moment. Buddhist monks wear saffron robes. During the Ch’ing dynasty, only the emperor could wear the color yellow. The divine or saintly nimbus is yellow. Gauguin and Vincent loved yellow, and so did Edward Hopper, especially in his later years. Yellow is the color of single malt scotch, butter and biscuits, honey and harvest, ripening grain, and the autumn leaves of willow, gingko, aspen, and cottonwood. Every bright color has a dark side. Yellow is also the color of jealousy, deceit, cowardice, and illness.
YELLOW WAS THE color of the first car we bought on our own, a 1975 Datsun. We foolishly ignored her father warning us that a yellow car was likely a lemon. How right he was. The house in which we raised our two children had yellow siding. Yellow was the color of her hair in junior high, and yellow it magically remained the next forty years, yellow the color of her eyes when last she opened them, signaling bodily surrender to advancing sepsis. I seldom speak of my strangest encounter with yellow—an experience so magical yet so corny. Because I’m from western Ohio where corn is plentiful and corn is yellow, I’ll continue. As the family sat at the grave site and her friends gathered around, the minister delivered the final blessing, and at that moment a yellow swallowtail butterfly flew onto the bouquet of roses on the casket and moved methodically from blossom to blossom. When the minister concluded, the butterfly flew off. The sceptics among us were baffled. What was that? Pure chance? My daughter and her family live now in the house where she grew up —images of yellow butterflies in every room. Yellow is the color of sunshine and sickness, love and loss, radiance and remorse. Because we are born of the forest, we perceive more gradients of green and yellow than any other colors, and the gradients of yellow branch out into such lovely words—amarillo, celandine, gamboge, saffron, tawny, and sienna.
LIKE A MINER panning for gold, I’ve been sifting through old photographs in search of yellows. I found this picture of Patti and Ryan from 1981. Mother and son, our two towheads, his hair shaggy and tousled; hers, radiant, in perfect order. He is confiding in her as he often did. Such were the bonds between the blondes. What was he telling her? I know from the china closet that we were then in my parents’ house in Florida. Perhaps some silly thing his grandfather said or did, or some family secret a cousin had passed on to him. Her knowing smile says to me, “Yes, yes. That’s how it is in your father’s family.”
IN THE SUMMER of ’65, when I saw her at a local fair chatting with a group of her friends, it was the light-yellow hair that drew me, but the loveliness and gentleness in her face that won me over. I didn’t think I stood a chance with someone so beautiful, but I wedged my way into the group, made a few wisecracks that made her laugh, and walked her home that night. Along the way she said to me, “You know, I’ve had a crush on you since seventh-grade grade geography.” If the high five had been invented then, I would have given myself one. We went steady through high school, stayed together through college, and got married a week after we graduated. Things like that happened in Ohio.
WHEN YOU SIT with the gravely ill,
the stillness of everyday objects stays with you
long after you leave the room. One morning
at the kitchen sink, you will remember
the water pitcher on the night stand,
the yellow roses on the dresser.
Sitting there, you track the hours
not by the clock but by sunlight
on the window shade blanching pallid
then going golden as day passes
toward evening. Her delicate breath
on your fingers as you spoon the ice chips
into her mouth stays with you as you sign
yourself out of the hospice that night.
Years later you think of her when you see a painting
by Morandi—diffuse yellow light on two pitchers,
a jug, a long-necked bottle. The jug and bottle
are without labels. Nothing but forms.
Ordinary objects not made to last,
THERE DWELT IN Patti a sadness that I tried to ameliorate but never really understood. Sadness always wants to resist the understanding. In Manhattan for a library conference, we spent an afternoon at the Whitney, where she spent more than a New York minute studying Hopper’s Woman in the Sun, then said, “She makes me want to cry.” There is sadness in the faces of Hopper’s women as well as longing for more than the world can give them.
YELLOW SUNLIGHT FIGURES in so many of Hopper’s late paintings. Sun in an Empty Room, one of his last, is not a typical Hopper interior. It’s a room without a story to tell. There’s no woman at the window, no troubled couple on a bed. Only sunlight on a blank wall, a bare floor in shades and hues too numerous to number—at one extreme bone white, at the other, burnt umber. In between the shimmer and shadow are splayed the gradients of yellow and gold ranging from citron and celandine to coriander and turmeric, all in the light of ordinary day. Hopper’s late work has this effect—the yellow light hints at mystery and transcendence, while the mise en scène negates it.
BEING HERE IS hard for me—not a grouper—
the only widower among the widows.
Maybe that’s why I come every week.
I cannot speak plainly as they do
of dark particulars and wintry moods.
Unable to say straight out what it was like
in the room when her eyes suddenly opened,
the whites yellowed out, the pupils contracted
as if from overmuch light. I put my face
over hers hoping for something.
And when the news took hold,
the light in the room made heavy
the air like a late Hopper painting—
sunlight in a room made empty
of people and objects, quadrangles
of yellow and white on a blank wall,
a bare floor, a room empty of everything
I STAYED WITH her every night in the hospital and in the “step-down” wing of the nursing home. I couldn’t bear the thought of her waking in the middle of the night and wondering what in the hell was happening to her. After she was gone, I spent my nights in our bedroom asking that question of myself.
Thieves in the Night
“Don’t try to solve serious matters in the middle of the night.”
― Philip K. Dick
A GANG OF thieves ransacks my room nightly
and tosses my clothes about. Instead of stealing
my wallet, they slip it into the pants
I wore last week. I’ve found my glasses
in the freezer, my keys in the dog’s dish.
They’re setting me up for a major crime.
These the same thieves who made off
with my wife’s will. After a search
of attic boxes and desks, we buried her
intestate, much to the delight of thieves.
A week after the funeral, empty whiskey bottles
in the kitchen, cigarette burns on the sofa.
Last night I caught them rearranging my books
in the den. By the glow of a Coleman lantern,
I knew them as boys from high school,
pranksters skilled at getting away with everything.
Forty years later I still remember the lessons
they taught us, none of them good.
Of them, it could be said, they hadn’t aged a bit.
Eubanks and Alford were drunk; Sanders, high
on glue. They were taking my car for a joy ride,
asked me to come along. We rode through
the neighborhood, yelling epithets, tossing
empties onto freshly mown lawns silvery
in the moonlight. We lit cherry bombs from
the tips of our cigarettes, left them
in mailboxes of adults we hated.
Eubanks steered with his pinkie finger.
He was the gifted one.
The next morning, nothing made sense.
My car in the front flowerbed.
My mailbox in pieces on the lawn.
I could not find my keys.
THIS WORLD, I tell you, was too much for us,
. . . still is . . . just too much …. Our last trip
to Nag’s Head, I think it was. . . . We arrive late
at night at the rental house and walk the beach
with the kids telling them no no too dark too rough
wrong thing to tell teenagers so they’re running
ahead of us shedding their clothes running
into the surf out too far out for us to see them
way too far should have stopped them somehow we say
where are they now we think we see them way out
but only a whitecap and you in tears calling out
breakers cresting five feet or more drowning you out
then before too long but long enough, thirty feet
to our left, they rise up large from a wave laughing,
their bodies golden, sand-covered, and glowing,
IF YOU WERE to color code a map of Ohio, you’d make the western half yellow for its corn and soybeans, the southeast black for its coal, the northeast gray for its industry. Two visionary artists, two artists of the beautiful, emerged from the black and gray towns of eastern Ohio—the poet James Wright from Martins Ferry, an Ohio River town, and watercolorist Charles Burchfield, from Salem, 60 miles to the north.
THE FACTORY DOMINATES Burchfield’s painting just as it dominates the persons living in the surrounding houses. Though an ominous presence, the factory belongs here. It mirrors the landscape, and vice versa. Its smoke billows in the same wavy manner as the walkways and snow piles. Its six windows correspond to the number of houses. There is symmetry, order, beauty in raw life of eastern Ohio.
HAVING GROWN UP in a series of modest frame houses like those in Burchfield’s painting, Wright understood the difficulties of working-class families. His depictions have a brutal beauty about them: young men “grow suicidally beautiful” and “gallop terribly against each other’s bodies” on the football field; his father, “wrestling great machines” and coming home “quiet as the evening”; his uncle Willy Lyons, “a craftsman of hammers and wood,” of whom nothing is left but “one cracked ball-peen hammer.”
FRENCH POET PAUL Eluard wrote, “There is another world and it’s in this one.” Born and raised in factory towns, Burchfield and Wright grew to love the countryside, sensing a spiritual presence inside the natural world.
WRIGHT’S MOST MOVING poems are accounts of finding a portal into a gentle, loving spiritual world inside the natural world. The eyes of Indian ponies at twilight, a brown cricket atop a book by his bed, a yellow spider on a dust-covered Tuscan hill—such creatures are doorways inviting entry. If he could just cross that threshold and step out of his body, he might break into blossom.
BURCHFIELD’S PASTORAL PAINTINGS pulsate with energy from the sun, from all living things in yellow bursts. Gifted with chromesthesia (sound-to-color synesthesia), he experienced cricket and bird song as color, writing in his journal in 1915, “It seems at times I should be a composer of sounds, not only of rhythms and colors.”
[In memory of James Wright]
BEAUTY FLOURISHES IN scarcity. Remarkable
its scarcity in Martins Ferry as he walked
along the river past slag heaps and hobo jungles,
the hills bleeding from mineshafts, the air
yellow with factory smoke. The town historian
remembers him sitting in the library for hours
translating Catullus, his boots caked in river mud.
When he left town after high school, he took the river
with him, accepting Sagami, Hudson, Arno, and Seine
as sisters of monongahela (“river with sliding banks”)
and oolikhanna (“best flowing river of the hills”)
joining at the Forks to form the ohi-yo (“the beautiful”).
From the Forks she flows with the constancy of sadness,
her currents deep and persistent. In early autumn
as the yellow cottonwood leaves fall into the Ohio,
the sumac of the bottomlands hold high the scarlet
torches of their fruits. Most will stay upright
and whole through winter, no matter how frigid.
SHE LOVED THE mountains, deserts, and big sky of the American West, and tried to instill that love into our two pre-teen children when we toured the Southwest in the early 1990s. She might have succeeded had they not brought their Game Boys with them. In the Sonoran Desert, as we awaited a sunset, she confiscated their toys, sat them on a rock, told them everything she knew about saguaro, chollas, and other types of cacti in the vicinity and then as the cumulus in the western sky lit up all scarlet and gold, the four of sat there in contentment and silence until twilight.
UNDER THE SCRIPTORIUM of sky, Ruskin in his garden
transcribes the messages of morning in sketches
of the dawn. His pencil moves quickly—so sudden
the shifts from dark to light. His cloud studies
a daily practice; his life, a daybook of aubades.
This frail apostle of the beautiful urges his fellows
to look skyward, to read the translucent mists
and colors of the variable cloudscape,
what is given daily and never repeated,
what is always found yet found but once.
When you paint the sky, he tells his students,
use a light brush, work rapidly. Do not impose
form on clouds. They have none. Go lightly.
Follow the morning clouds, the shape shifters.
Their patterns and meanings are beyond knowing.
IN THE SOUTH of France, Vincent’s colors turned brilliant and bold, especially the yellows. Some art historians believe he may have suffered from Xanthopsia, or “yellow vision,” caused by the digitalis (foxglove) concoction he might have taken to treat his seizures. More simply, he may have fallen in love with yellow, the light of Provence, as others have done. From Arles he wrote to Theo, “Sunshine, a light which, for want of a better word I can only call yellow — pale sulphur yellow, pale lemon, gold. How beautiful yellow is.”
HER MOTHER DIED in October so she always dreaded the coming of autumn, the season she remembered for the phone call at three in the morning. It saddened her to see the backyard leaves turning yellow.
LOOK TO THIS ancient tree on the morning
of the first hard frost, and when the wind
picks up, watch the butterfly leaves take flight,
not in twos or threes, but by the hundreds,
thousands, yellowing the air as though
returning borrowed light to the sun.
No other tree lets loose of leaves so suddenly,
letting go at once, all in a rush, as if schooled
in synchronicity centuries ago by monks
in the temple gardens, leaving the grounds
glowing in the declining light of day.
WHEN WE WERE in high school, Patti’s family would travel through Europe and Asia in the summer months. In my dream life, if Patti and I are ever separated, it’s never because she has died. She is merely traveling. She is in France or Japan and will be home soon. The subconscious won’t accept the finality of death. Death is another country.
HER FATHER TOLD the story that when they walked through a Thai village in the mid-sixties, the children crowded around her, reaching up to touch her hair. She knelt down to demonstrate that she was not some ethereal being.
A tourist of the country roads, I drive
wherever the car will take me away from the city
where you died. As recompense for loss,
I lose myself in the wide expanse,
stopping where the light of ordinary day
slants through tall pine or shimmers
a roadside pond. I climb over a farmer’s fence
to circle his barn, stand slack-jawed in a field,
A lover of ruins and slow time, I put my palm
to a weathered door textured like skin,
study the patience of honeysuckle
tugging on a truck’s body to make it mineral again.
After the funeral, I drove
through the Catoctin Mountains,
where we spent your last wakeful afternoon.
Coming on a wooden shed,
its door so crudely latched
that any fool might enter,
I shut the door behind me,
breathed in the fetid air of peat, urea,
ammonium in the late August heat,
wondering how it would be to spend
the next seventeen years,
roughly half the span of our married life,
underground, contented, asleep
as the seasons cycled overhead,
taking in water and nourishment
from the tender tip of a tree’s root.
How would it be to waken
from that sleep of years,
crawl out from the earth,
pass into the night air,
how would it be?
We once thought eternity a bowl of air
that potters turned to human use,
that we could scrape the floors of heaven
with our spoons. It made such sense
the children believed it. Such a scattering
when the clouds fell down.
Those holiday trips to Ohio,
the night storm that nearly took us,
the flakes so large and thick I was looking
through Irish lace to find the road.
“Like we’re present at the creation,” you said,
me thinking the very opposite,
the black pool at the furthest reach
of the headlights where the particles seemed
to form and flare out pulling at me,
darkness pulling me away from you into the night,
then me snapping back to you barely moving your lips
praying to yourself, while admiring the illuminated angels
and plastic choirboys on the porches
of the white frame houses fronting the roads
through the desolate towns of Ohio.
You had religion then.
Holy Cross Hospital, your last stay,
you, the Presbyterian believing things happen for a reason,
comatose in the ICU,
while I, the lapsed Catholic, kneeling in the hospital chapel negotiating
with the Host, twice the size of a silver dollar, translucent, the Lamb of God
encased in glass in a gold monstrance.
Not looking for miracles, just a simple wakening,
a last conversation, our own last rites.
Despite over 30 years together we never talked about last things.
I couldn’t make it happen.
October, my last visit,
I knelt with a cleanser and rag
to rub the grit from the fine characters of your name,
doing the cleaning for once.
“Housework is never finished,” you would say.
Neither is this.
The leaf torn from the tree finds the wind.
It is never finished.
Once they lay me down, give me a few weeks to settle in.
I’ll need a few soaking rains for my chemicals
to leach out and hook up with yours.
Two by two, we’ll cling to the root hairs
of the redbud overhead, then slide into the mouths
and guts of the nymphs nursing in their burrows
through seventeen seasons of spring.
Once drawn out of the earth,
they’ll climb the trunk of the nearest tree and wait
for the carapace to dry in the sun and wind,
and for a new self to emerge green and wet and shining.
It too must wait to dry in the sun.
This bug knows patience, knows that love is a waiting game.
At last it takes to the air, not flying artfully—how could it?—
but singing. It won’t be the sort of resurrection
the nuns and Presbyterians promised us in Ohio,
but we can still call it “a wakening,” can’t we?
IN HIS JERUSALEM JOURNAL, Saul Bellow writes that the sun’s light in the holy city filters the blood, cleanses the mind. He understands why the psalmist called daylight the outer garment of God.
YOU LIKE TO work the morning early
from the hedgerow’s highest point
so the tip of your small song will stipple
the inner rim of sky light blue over dark
to waken the yellowing east.
You side with Plato in blaming poets
for filling the souls of birds with longings
for other skies. You cannot abide
those dovish laments, warbled embellishments,
starling acrobatics through air.
Practical by nature, you fly
the shortest distance, point
to point. Ever serious, you aim
to say what earth things mean.
It’s why your song surprises so.
It starts out solemn enough
with three High Church callouts
to summon the sun,
then gets puckish and trills away
in antic fun like a sporty young voice
in the choir loft singing,
“Come, make light my song
of night and day, the strangeness
of being put here
between earth and sky
in this frail body.”
A WEEK AFTER the funeral I pried a stone
from a creek bed, gave it a pocket home.
a granite pebble, one side smoothed by flow,
the bedded side pocky as a peach pit.
Stone and I sat for hours in the bedroom
thinking of you . . . that first year together,
you walking across the lawn to welcome me,
the sun summery on your shoulders,
ever so lovely, my being amazed
you ever gave me a chance.
I’d work the rough side with my thumb
as if wearing it down would make me well,
imagined my print going gray as stone,
the loops and whorls wearing away,
imagined going past skin to bone.
Its pitted side ever so hard.
I hated the intransigence of Stone,
its refusal to engage, so unlike you, so spongy
your love, so welcoming your presence.
The drowsy guards at your border admitted
all comers. Cancer had an easy time of it.
Stone passed to my father after Mother died.
When he was gone, it came back to my pocket,
its coarse side rough as ever, then back to the creek,
pitted side up, for eventual smoothing.
IN THE WEEKS after Patti died, I tried to escape grief by driving away from it, motoring slowly and aimlessly down country roads in northern and western Maryland, whose rolling hills and cornfields have always reminded me of Ohio.
As I putt-putted along, I’d look right and left, giving myself up to the simple act of seeing, site-seeing, waiting, hoping to be wonderstruck by light—splays of yellow, glints of silver.
When so struck, I would pull to the side of the road and walk toward whatever drew me, camera in hand, trespassing as necessary. Many a farmer must have wondered, “Why is that fool walking round my barn?”
Carroll County was my Provence, Mount Airy my Arles, rusty cars and clapboard sheds my Roman ruins. When a certain slant of late-afternoon sunlight fell on such a ruin, I took it as a blessing of sorts. My life a ruin, I would make art of it.
I traveled without any idea where I was. By getting lost in the country, I would feel her loss again as if for the first time, but not always in a sorrowful way, thanks to a bend in the road that brought me to a brief encounter with The Beautiful.
This Old Man
Thou hath turned my mourning into dancing
I WALK THE forest paths near home
seeking stones the size of Nittany apples,
always your favorite. I stash them in a rucksack,
lug them to the creek, douse and bless
them in clear water. I then pick two that are
near a perfect round, climb uphill
to the ancient beech that generations
of lovers have scored with their names and initials.
Eyes shut to gather heart sense,
I clack two stones together to its beat,
twirl round and round the tree singing
your name, stones and feet and hammering heart
faster and faster until up-picks the wind
swaying your limbs to my clattering stones.
Walking home at dusk, I chuck my stones
to the left and right of the path. Believing as I do
that stones can talk, I hear one say to its neighbor
years from now, “Remember that day we were
gathered up as one, cleansed of clotted earth,
and for the first time in our earthbound lives
flown through the air like forest birds and granted
this new resting place?” And fathers will put children
to bed with stories made from odd bits of neighborly
chat about this old man knocking stones together
in the forest, dancing round the witness tree
calling out a woman’s name. Trust the fathers
to splice in some magical bits. Their stories will be
our story, our forest will be their forest.
Dan Coyle worked for LexisNexis and ProQuest designing and managing research databases for the academic library market. He earned a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and has taught at UNC and American University. Now retired, he lives in Washington, DC.