By Donald Platt
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,
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.
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
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.