The Operating System

POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 29 :: Doug Van Gundy on Eamon Grennan

The thing that first drew me to the poetry of Eamon Grennan was his deft handling of ekphrasis and his strong, playful sense of the music that is possible within a poem. “In The National Gallery, London” from his first book, What Light There Is still stands as perhaps the most shining exemplar of these twin traits in his work.

On my first trip to London a few years ago, I carried a photocopy of this poem with me. During my visit to the Dutch galleries that inspired Grennan, I found myself reading the poem out loud to the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Avercamps (and the handful of other patrons within earshot) in an effort to reverse-engineer the impulse that led to this chewy, musical poem.

In the National Gallery, London

For Derek Mahon

These Dutchmen are in certain touch 
With the world we walk on. Velvet 
And solid as summer, their chestnut cows 
Repeat cloud contours, lie of the land.

Everything gathers the light in its fashion: 
That boat’s ribbed bulging, the ripple 
Of red tweed at the oarsman’s shoulder, 
The way wood displaces water, how water 
Sheens still, the colour of pale irises.

How your eye enters this avenue
Of tall, green-tufted, spinal trees:
You tense to the knuckled ruts, nod
To the blunted huntsman and his dog,
A farmer tying vines, that discreet couple
Caught in conversation at a barn’s brown angle.
You enter the fellowship of laundered light.

From the ritual conducted around this table 
These men in black stare coolly back at you, 
Their business, a wine contract, done with. 
And on brightly polished ice these villagers


Are bound to one another by the bleak
Intimacies of winter light, a surface

Laid open like a book, where they flock—
Festive and desperate as birds of passage
Between seasons—knowing that enclosing sky
Like the back of their hands: at home
In the cold, making no bones of it.

(Grennan, Eamon. Out of Sight: New & Selected Poems. Minneapolis: Greywolf Press. 2010.)

Here is a poem of mine with an imagined rather than actual painting at its center, and which is deeply informed by Grennan’s precise description and resonant lyricism:

The Martyrdom of St. Porcine

The saint is always depicted, like Saints
Catherine or John, with the machinery
of his martyrdom: splayed across an old
box-spring, astride a bed of glowing hickory
embers. His dark eyes, though piggy and small,
glisten with kindness.

His pale pink skin is unwrinkled and clean
and hasn’t yet found a brown enough hue
to match his humility; although the inevitable
is evident in the neatly stacked billets of cordwood,
the proximity of the damp mop and bucket of sanguine
sauce, the beads of moisture that freckle his small face,
indistinguishable from his tears.

The hills in the background are vaguely Italianate
and shimmer lightly in the distance. The air is illuminated
by curlicues of scented smoke and the jubilant forms
of tiny cherubs, announcing to the heavens, over and over,
as is their wont, the transfiguration of mere mortal flesh
into something approaching the divine.

(Van Gundy, Doug. The Oxford American, Issue 61, Summer 2008)

Doug Van Gundy’s first book of poetry, A Life Above Water, was published in 2007 by Red Hen Press, and his poems have since appeared in The Oxford American, Ecotone, The Louisville Review, Waccamaw and other journals. His poem “Engineers” was nominated for a 2009 Pushcart Prize. He teaches in both the undergraduate and low-residency graduate writing programs at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, WV.  

(DVG on right)

[Editor’s note: isn’t it funny how life’s paths meander and intersect, and loop back upon themselves? isn’t it funny how you, y’know, can spend a year in undergrad with someone and stay friends with them for 14 years, and then at that friend’s wedding you see a guy ie: Doug Van Gundy with a fiddle with a shirt that says POET and of course you start talking and then suddenly you can’t remember not knowing this poet-shirt-fiddle guy, as if you’d reunited after many years? And who knew he could swing dance like that? Yeah, that sort of thing. I fucking love that sort of thing.]

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