Swamp Mallows


text and photograph by John Rosenthal

In 1996, Gibbons Ruark, Raleigh native and well respected poet, wrote a splendid poem called Swamp Mallows. It was inspired by the remarkably beautiful Ben Berns painting of the same name in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection – and both painting and poem were published in the museum’s 1997 publication, The Store of Joys. Ruark’s gift was to locate in his own personal history the mysterious mood of the Berns painting. Call it a coastline mood – a way of being connected to a part of oneself that exists only where land and sky and water converse quietly among themselves.

Ruark’s coastline, which is the poem itself, appears suddenly at the edge of the Berns painting when he senses his father’s presence “just out of sight around some mallowy bend.” It is 1949, in Eastern Carolina, a day of “nearly still water winding among the grasses.”

I know a poem can’t be paraphrased, but how else can you add your voice to its music?

On this remembered coast, Ruark’s father steadies a little jon boat and, after making sure his young son is “balanced in the bow,” hands him the fishing tackle “and steps down gingerly into the business end.” Only a single paddle is necessary because this will be a small journey, no distance to it, merely down and around a channel “so narrow we can touch the brush on either side.” Then, after a while, “it is all drift and fish.”
The poem dreamily captures the lazy day, the lowering sun, “the ‘weedless’ hooked lines skimming the bottom for bream,” the casting and reeling, and finally the laying aside of gear as father and son “give in to drift.” A stillness has been found, a dear lassitude, which Ruark captures in two strangely heartbreaking lines: “My father’s hat is tilted over his eyes/ As we float in the freedom of saying nothing.”

This father and son fall into “a drowse.” It’s such a little thing, it’s barely a story: their boat drifting under a small footbridge while above them, unseen, the “old ones” wearing kerchiefs  “are lifting their crab lines with the patience of heaven.” When their boat scrapes a tree stump, they wake to find they have drifted back to where they began: the same low cloud of mallow blossoms, the cumulus sky, the barely moving water. Ruark’s final stanza is the reason why poems are written: to use words to say what can’t be otherwise said; to express the immortality only words can offer to our disappearing life:

We have come around in a backwater silence

Still white with mallows. In the face of all this air

And water and slow-to-perish brightness,

We might for once imagine death has been neglectful

And surrendered our passage to be banked with bloom.

In the Berns painting, Swamp Mallows, a breeze shimmers on an inlet waterway, and the mallows, half in bloom, drift across a green marshland. When I was younger, landscapes like this – realistic and precise – seemed old-fashioned. Now that I’m older, the very idea of fashion embarrasses me, and I realize that this landscape, this water, this light, this stillness, is for me. Too often the shoreless Piedmont sky is pale and empty. I haven’t smelled salt in the air for weeks. The digital world is a cemetery for beating hearts. Summer has just begun, and I am a dull man.

Praise those painters and poets who see the world finely and rigorously. Praise them for me, while I am too busy not seeing it.