A regular sort of marsh, stuffed like a St. Anthony’s day turkey with aluminum, garbled sludge, and feathers. The studio stood shyly among the pines. Birds hung from the rafters on the porch, all kinds. A woodpecker with its wings drawn back presided over a table of magic sand candles. A kingfisher eyed the fire from his rosary nest across the room while two finches huddled in the scraps of a baseball glove. The flames dried his wings, whispering over colored sand. It was delightful. Caterpillars ranged over melted sheets of plastic. We toasted them with mugs, coffee sediment cemented to the bottom.

Acadian music leaked from the radio. It was so off-tune it might have been the city distorted by the marsh, all of its sounds, whatever that meant. Either way it was a fascinating sort of noise, unpredictable and alive like an eerie Morandi or the eyes in a portrait of Jeanne. He compared the sound to art, then to his own work, a comparison as garbled and fleetingly sublime as anything. I was in no mood. He said painting was like this, like transmuting noise into Acadian folk fables about the Lusitania. We moved on. I moved on.

He worked in the vanitas tradition, he insisted, not still-life. But either way an ars moriendi, mining vitality in decay, fishing out constants from subjects whose chests sunk by the hour. Though their bodies faded their feathers retained such color I suspected plasticine or tar. They outshone the rainbow sand on the table, mixed as it was with ash.

He fleshed out the rest of the canvas with marsh salvage. Only the birds were constant, in his painting as well as in the tradition. A dead thrush’s wings break almost by the weight of their own feathers, separating quickly even in the sluggish currents of the marsh, but they persist across the centuries and not the powder horns or ivory radios which surround them in the paintings and in the dunes.

But if Vanitas vanitatum, dixit Ecclesiastes; vanitas vanitatum, et omnia vanitas, I asked him, why such precision, such delicate colors, such care? For that too has remained constant, the pursuit of aesthetic perfection even in a tradition which aggressively renounces the pursuit of aesthetic perfection, if it would ever even concede the possibility of such perfection. But something perfect, he said, exhausts all its possibilities, and since there is nothing left for it to be it shines forth only in its inadequacies and limitations. So be it.

He wanted to say, with Wallace Stevens

Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations….
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.

and from this affirm the vanity of thought, act, and desire, condemning the entire complex of the soul for its lack of reasonable heating or adequate shelter. There were neither illusions in his work nor anywhere to escape. We returned to the dock after looking at his paintings. Piers sloped to the west, light died on the water. Fireflies settled sometimes three to a can. We watched.

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