Back Road Country

Aug 18, 2017

Today’s poem is “Back Road Country” by Marsden Hartley. Widely recognized as one of America’s great painters, Hartley also published three books of poetry in his lifetime.

He was born in Lewiston in 1877 and died in Ellsworth in 1943. An exhibition of his paintings, Marsden Hartley’s Maine co-organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Colby College Museum of Art, will be at Colby this summer and fall. In “Back Country Road” we get to hear the world through the eyes of a painter.

Back Road Country
by Marsden Hartley

In this house there are swallows
resting upstairs.
In the farthest rafters
they have with rich cups of clay
mouthful by mouthful made them
strong for their destiny.
You see the print of their swallow
lips laid row on row.
There are rakes and plows and sleds
sitting silently, cluttering old sheds
where back bone meets breast bone
of each conglomerate skeleton
The plow will never meet the furrow
the sled will never see the snow,
where futility now beams through.
Festoons of tethered moth and grey
illiterate fly
bespeak in accents moribund
the crude festivity.
The weather here will never find
its east or west
or north or south
for everything is sunken to its knee
in homely travesty.
Wild mint comes wafting over
brake and flag
where senile lintels sag,
pony cart in devastated blue
a phaeton in calico dismay
await some touch of useless charity.
Yet somehow furtively
these effigies in clutches of decay
bespeak coolly touch of recognition
to soften their perdition.
The paper on the wall is ignominious
brown,
yet when the sun goes affluently down,
over river, mead, and then the mountain,
these walls light up pathetically
as of a long stilled voice just spoke
and everywhere are touches to evoke
a day, an evening and a night
when the common things were far less
erudite.
I hear the “hermit” from out of the darkened
wood
give accent to the evening wood
as if he though there must be touch
of song
for everything gone wrong.

Poem copyright © 1987 Marsden Hartley.
Reprinted from The Collected Poems of Marsden Hartley, Black Sparrow Press, 1987.
Poem is in the public domain