Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Plaza After Rain

Washing our cars outside on this gray day, I thought of this painting, Paul Cornoyer's The Plaza After Rain, and this piece I wrote about it eleven years ago, when I was in graduate school:

It feels like a day in late November, or early December, Christmas in the back of the mind but nowhere to be seen in this wetness, this cold. The patina of water on the dull street mirrors back at the mother and two children the black trees and gray buildings and gray, unassuming sky. Water tiptoes into the grated drain in the crotch of the curb. Water sprawls out, exhausted, on the beaten muddy strip that divides the street in two. The children step behind their mother, warm in coats that extend to mid-thigh, hats that casually cover their ears. Their mother carries umbrellas for each of them. They may remember this day fifteen years from now but forget the errand that brought them outside into the mostly empty streets. They may remember a feeling of emptiness—the sunless sky, the street made more lonesome by the one mail carrier trudging behind them, the double-decked bus and the horse and carriage waiting at the curbs down the block, waiting and empty, waiting. They may remember the emptiness, the cold and wet, and yet they may also remember a feeling of shelter, not just in their generous coats and hats but in the embrace of the buildings that line the avenue that leads them away from the plaza. They may remember looking back to the plaza and seeing the faint pink light that only one building seems to have grasped, and grasped only fleetingly. They may remember seeing, out of their darkening avenue, the equestrian statue, no doubt brilliant and gleaming in the sun but muted now except for a golden flourish on the horse’s rump. The day holds no promise of spring, only of a few more weeks of falling away, a few more weeks till the few yellow leaves—fluttering now on the uppermost branches that finger up into the sky like reverse roots—fall and join the general dormant brown.

So much depends upon the date of this day, for if it’s January and not December or November then the small signposts of color in this drab scene—the mother’s blue scarf in her brown collar, the mailman’s red shirt under his dull green coat, the wan pink lingering on the building that borders the plaza, the doomed yellow of the leaves, the stalwart evergreen bushes—point nowhere. Spring is unimaginable. But with the memory of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas (anticipation that is really just the memory of all the Christmases that came before) sheltering the pedestrians like the honeycombed, cubbyholed buildings on either side of the street—only with these internal and external monuments is this day bearable.


I’m looking at this painting on October 28. This painting is the future, as fall falls further and winter, the bland giant, lumbers impassively in the distance. But the painting is also the past. Indeed, the painting enacts the creation of the past, of memory. The children, the mother, the mail carrier, the bus, all the busy humans and vehicles in the painting are moving ever forward, down dark avenues that lead away from the softly glowing, indistinct plaza. The feeling of the day is palpable, as thick as the wet air, but no one in the painting can hold it now, for it slips away into the past and they must keep walking and driving, eyes on the concrete and the mud and the black trees ahead. The loveliness of the plaza, the subtle blues of the sky, perhaps not so featureless after all, the airiness of the buildings beyond the plaza—these can be seen, by the children, the mother, the mailman, only in the warped mirror of the glazed street. The present cannot be savored like a painting. Only the past can. Only in memory will the children be able to love the plaza after rain, to look back behind them as I look back behind them at the elusive beauty of an ugly day. And their memory, like the painting itself, will be impressionistic, indistinct, blurred by rain or nostalgic tears.

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