Cloud Study

I keep returning to John Constable’s Study of Clouds.
Oil on cardboard,
six by seven and a half inches, it shows purple-gray

one patch of blue, above low hills and two small trees flanked by shrubs
in the left

foreground. A sketch en plein air, a half hour’s worth of work at most,
it catches
exactly one scrap of sky and shifting sunlight on a blustery

day in 1820.
The year King George the Third died in Windsor Castle, blind
and insane, the year

50,000 Scottish weavers went on strike and printed a proclamation
calling for a new
“provisional government.” Their leaders were caught, hanged, and then

for good measure. This cloud study survived that history.
Two minutes later,

the clouds would have taken on a different cast of light and shape
just like the thunderheads
now piling up above the Liffey. I hobble out of the Dublin City Gallery,

take a bus to the river,
sit on a park bench with a ziplock bag of ice on my swollen knee. Its wet cold
makes the joint

ache. My body is breaking down, bone spur under the right kneecap.
At fifty-eight,
I watch young men and women in black sweats run along the River Liffey —

Abha na Life,
Anna Liffey, river that crosses the plains of Life. I envy them.
Once I too could run

over the asphalt, almost without knowing I inhabited a body
whose knees might seize up
and swell. I will not run again in this life. Cirrus and cumulonimbus

scud across the blue
escutcheon of sky. Sun’s blazon through rain rampant, my life is a cloud study
for some larger landscape

John Constable never got around to painting. It hangs in a gilded frame.
People stare at it
before passing on to more important canvases, to Renoir’s

Les Parapluies, women
and men opening shiny black umbrellas in a Paris park.
There a mother shelters

her two daughters under an umbrella meant for one.
The younger daughter
holds a wooden hoop she has been rolling along tamped dirt paths,

whipping it with a stick
to keep it spinning, before the rain settled in. Renoir painted
this small family

in his lush, impressionistic style. Five years later, after visiting
Italy and studying
Piero della Francesca’s frescoes, he came back and finished the painting

in his new “manière aigre”
or harsh style. He handled the gray silk folds of the auburn-haired woman’s dress
on the left as if they were

granite to be sculpted. She carries a market basket filled
to the brim with shadow.
To approach old age, one needs a new, harsher style. Here, by the Liffey,

mothers push screaming
infants in strollers. Five teenagers in blue jeans and bright yellow or green raincoats
walk by, joking, texting

on cell phones, smoking. One girl and her boy hang back, embrace, French-kiss
a long ten seconds.
Another boy shouts over his shoulder, “Get a room!” A pair

of mute swans
preens and swims down the River Liffey, whose amber waters mirror
how the clouds pass,

avalanche of cumulus that hangs forever on the burnished
unrippling surface
of my memory — vast sky surf, cloud after cloud cresting, breaking

to be washed
away to blue nothing. Each of us — lovers, mothers, runners, me — no more
than windblown swansdown.

More Poems by Donald Platt