In Plain Air

Mar 1, 2019

Today’s poem is “In Plain Air” by Elizabeth Poliner. She is the author of a poetry collection, What You Know in Your Hands, and two works of fiction, As Close to Us as Breathing, and Mutual Life and Casualty. She teaches in the M.F.A. and undergraduate creative writing programs at Hollins University. A graduate of Bowdoin College, she frequently returns to Maine to write.

She writes, “I wrote this poem in the midst of an autumn in Washington, D.C. My neighborhood there, just off Connecticut Avenue in the upper Northwest section of the city, was filled with old, beautiful trees that I had the pleasure to observe as I took daily walks. The look of the trees often took my breath away, but this was especially so in the fall. I was close friends then with a visual artist, a landscape painter, and upon telling him about one particularly lovely tree he seemed to know just what I was feeling — a little undone by the beauty — and this poem ultimately came of our talk. The poem reminds me of many wonderful (and often funny) talks with this talented artist, and of how enriching a friendship between a painter and writer can be.”

In Plain Air 
by Elizabeth Poliner 

The day was already
brilliant: sky
swept clean, air
charged with the cinnamon
scents of late October.
Yet in this elm—
ablaze with color,
backlit by a low-lying sun—
I was sure I’d found it:
a little perfection.
And then what?
Once you’ve seen it
what do you do?
Weep? Run along
as if nothing has happened,
as if you could go on? 

A painter I know
gets up early,
a whole day’s looking 
ahead of him.
He sees perfection,
natural and obvious,
all day, each day.
“Sometimes,” he says,
“The tension’s too much.”
And about that tree:
“You can’t paint a fall tree
when its glowing!
You settle 
for smaller:
this backyard
or my garage
or the neighbor’s laundry
drying on the line.
Maybe your face,
maybe.” 

He gestures
toward the back steps,
angled with wear;
the fall garden, cosmos
still wildly in bloom;
the tilting, makeshift
picnic table; his tenant’s
motorcycle, flickers
of red and silver.
He says, “Some days
I could die from it,”
as, words failing,
he points at the air,
then at the light 
in the air,
as good a way as any 
to embrace it—
perfect light,
plain air. 

Poem copyright © 2015 Elizabeth Poliner. Reprinted from What You Know In Your Hands, David Robert Books, 2015, by permission of Elizabeth Poliner.