by Chanda Feldman
Who plays... all of heart and... skill / Will also work with heart and will,
-Banner appearing in the painting Past Times by Kerry James Marshall
But what of the bluebirds in the painting’s grand landscape bannering the
air, Who plays... all of heart and... skill / Will also work with heart and will,
over the Black folk in their leisure whites, day boating on the lake, setting
the weekend picnic on the lawn? The bluebirds’ sweet technicolor wings
and breasts in a Disney true blue, their industrious beaks swoop along the
unwavering sign. You could complete this message in the banner’s folds, as
if written on your doorpost and on your forehead, strained in the voices
of your mother and father, their treatises on excellence, on the couches of
your aunts and uncles, striping your childhood deaconesses’ peppermints.
The girl scout troop leaders’ badges in your eager open hand. Your hair
dresser, a doctor of philosophy, a professionally trained operatic soprano,
who straightened hair on the weekends in her basement, the Black
professional women wrapped in the beauty of this song. In the Black school
teachers’ rooms your parents requested. In the supermarket line, your
mother and the Black clerk alley-ooped a rapture of progress. The bluebirds
bear the presence of what was served like sermon at dinner, tucked in
your nighttime prayers, pressed among your clothes when your parents said
let’s go for a Sunday drive amidst the treelined streets, even if that white
neighborhood raised its eyebrows and bulged its eyes. The words laced the
radio, darted in the sun splotches along the car windows, ribboned your
braids, each note a thin whistle through your teeth as you stared back in
a state of repose at anyone’s stares. The winged message escorting your
family’s move out to the suburbs. When you closed your eyes in that new
house, there you reclined in your new childhood bed. The room’s pattern
on the curtains, duvet, and wallpaper you chose, the repeating motif of
climbing thorny roses.
This poem comes out of looking at Kerry James Marshall’s painting, Past Times. I was captivated by the grand scale, vivid palette, and the deep blackness of the figures. The setting also felt familiar; it reminded me of my time in college, living next to Lake Michigan.
In continued looking, I appreciated the juxtaposition of the leisurely pursuits in the painting—golfing, boating, croquet, a picnic—and the pointed, wary gaze on the faces of the figures on the picnic blanket. After reading a few articles and essays about this painting that described the gaze of the black figures as questioning the viewer, I realized I didn't feel like their gaze was directed toward me at all, and instead it was one I shared and understood.
I wanted to write this poem to explore that shared intimacy. There were themes about race, class, and historical narrative that were personal for me. Initially, and for several months, I tried to write this poem by solely describing the figures and their activities and the lushness of the painting’s colors, leaving myself out of the picture. That didn’t work. Then it occurred to me I’d ignored the banner’s words and the lyrics floating through the scene. Paying attention to the text in the painting evoked auditory memories of my family and community, providing me with a new point of entry into a conversation with my own life and the painting.
Chanda Feldman is the author of Approaching the Fields. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Oberlin College. Feldman’s poems appear in journals including The Cincinnati Review, Denver Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, Orion Magazine, POETRY, and The Southern Review. Her work is anthologized in The Best American Poetry 2021, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, and Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade.