I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
— Wallace Stevens
The afternoon sun’s doing that thing again, splaying a complex dance of brightness and shadow across the old brick walls of the Phillip Schuyler High School across from my back-garden seat. A book on Winslow Homer’s art sits beside me. Ben Webster’s big sax plays against a backdrop of screeching kids, distant cars, rap and mothers’ talk, a motorcycle’s roar. Vines cover the brick, and the place is filled with apartments now.
Late sun peaked over the Wall of Manitou on to our back-yard slope in old Catskill. At first, all I had noticed after moving into town were the sounds of traffic and the sight of mall lights filling the sky. At my former front porch in the deep Catskills, it had been normal to count three cars pass in the hour it took for fireflies to rise before a starry background as the sun set lavender.
Some physical moments last beyond the times they inhabit. When I think of late afternoon sun in New York City, it’s of an experience from within others’ apartments. The slow setting of the sun on a weekend urban evening is settled in my memory.
Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar” centers its world on a moment about a single item in a field. Many say the poem is about our attempts to understand the world around us.
In that Catskills house, I had placed a red pushpin into the frame around the glass doors which led to the front porch. The act of pinning defined that time for me. That image would define everything that happened in that home. I lived there ten years.
Seated beside me on our deck as the sun plays out its afternoon sonata, my wife spoke about the concept of enlightenment. Certain moments are epiphanies. Our minds need to reach beyond what is.
She’s noticed how architectural drawings take in the flow of light at differing times of day. Computer-aided design and Photoshop programs do this.
I recall something that came up in a recent interview about how Bob Dylan had made such a late appearance at Woodstock ’94 in that big landscape of fields in front of the Catskills escarpment. I thought it had been planned that way so he could come on stage just as the sky deepened into an array of deep, inspiring shades of sunset colors.
No, said my interviewee. The former Woodstocker’s tour bus had simply gotten lost making its way to the concert site.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.