Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Chemical Sins, and Me

Albert Pinkham Ryder and Me, Rural Cemetery, New Bedford

            Because I am a poet, I respond to words before images, sentences before styles, paragraphs before pigments. I love to look at paintings, but for me words come first. It is not surprising, then, that my obsession with Albert Pinkham Ryder, a painter who was born, as I was, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, began not with a museum exhibit but with a review of one. When I read John Updike’s “Better Than Nature” in the November 8, 1990, issue of The New York Review, I was particularly impressed with Updike’s descriptions of Ryder’s technique and of the resulting fragility of his art. The exhibition being reviewed was at the Brooklyn Museum and ran from September 21, 1990, to January 7, 1991. It was an event. Updike wrote, “This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes.”

            I wanted to see that exhibit but never made it to the Brooklyn Museum. Upstate New York, where I live, is not close to Brooklyn, and life and my job got in the way. Since 1991 I’ve seen Ryder paintings in various museums, but only one or two at a time, never a whole room full of them. This year, despite Updike’s warning, I will get a second chance. I am determined to see “A Wild Note of Longing” at the New Bedford Whaling Museum before the exhibition closes in October.

            Even before experiencing any of his art, I wanted to know more about Albert Pinkham Ryder’s life and work. I went to a library, looked through some books, and was very surprised to learn that Ryder is buried in Rural Cemetery, where my parents are buried. We have a family plot, which means that Ryder is a future neighbor. On my next visit to New Bedford and maybe the one after that, I tried and failed to find his grave. Finally I went to the cemetery office and asked where it was, expecting to be given a lot number or other form of cemetery address. Rural Cemetery is very old, and the oldest sections are full of turns, easy to get lost in. The people in the office didn’t give any indication that they recognized Ryder’s name. They may have thought I was looking for my great-grandfather. But they went beyond the call of duty and sent a man in a pickup truck to escort me and my husband to the grave, which is in a very peaceful section of a very peaceful place. We will be neighbors, but not close neighbors. I sent a photo of the gravestone to Find a Grave, where I am known as “Zenobia.”

            One sentence in John Updike’s review jumped out at me as soon as I read it. “Ryder,” Updike wrote, “in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book, mixing his oils with alcohol, bitumen, and candlewax, painting ‘wet-on-wet,’ applying rapid-drying paints (flake white, umbers, and Prussian blue) on top of ‘slow driers’ like lamp black and Van Dyke brown, pouring on varnish straight from the bottle and painting on top of the still-tacky surface.” Because I am a poet and not a painter, I wrote a poem using part of the above sentence as an epigraph. The poem isn’t about Ryder, but then it sort of is because he inspired it. The poem was first published in Black Warrior Review and is included in my chapbook, Carlisle & The Common Accident. Here it is:

CHEMICAL SINS

. . .Ryder in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book. . .
                    —John Updike on Albert Pinkham Ryder



So, Carlisle reflects, art shadows life
in both tenacity and dissolution,
and mixes another drink and thinks about

art and luminosity and Faustian
negotiations.  Life, she reflects,
sucking a pimiento from an olive,

is luminous enough, all those tiny
pricks of light scattered along a space-
time continuum.  Rattling the cubes,

she thinks about life, how it accrues
dimension as it jerks along, caught
in ratchets, and she measures out another

shot of gin and tears into a bag
of Ruffles and nibbles and reflects
on chemistry, what little she remembers

from high school, a clutch of rotten-egg
experiments, some graduated beakers
of hydrochloric or sulfuric acid,

lots of dirty Pyrex to wash
afterwards.  She thinks about the stack
of dishes in her sink when all those lights

crackle, then suddenly start to wink at
random, eccentrically spaced
markers in some postimpressionist

universe, all absurdly almost
within reach.  A couple more drinks,
she’ll touch them, fingertips a trail

of auras that ionize and glow
in the dark.  But the chips are down
to a few greasy crumbs and she knows

a French roast and a Tylenol will work
their chemistry on the tenacious headache
she’ll wake with in the morning. 

Green Hair & Jam

A couple of weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the news items on Poetry Daily’s website, I came upon Ruth Weiss’s obituary. Although I didn’t know who Ruth Weiss was, the thumbnail in the news feed immediately caught my attention. Ruth Weiss, who was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a “trailblazing poet in the ‘boys’ club’ Beat scene,” had died on July 31 at the age of 92. She was less well known than her male counterparts and even less well known than Diane di Prima, who came later to the North Beach poetry circuit. Ruth Weiss is credited as being the first poet to read to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. And she had green hair.

The jazz poetry thing happened by accident. She was sitting in her basement apartment working on a poem when a friend rushed in, saw the poem, pulled it out of the typewriter, and ran out of the room. Ruth ran after her poem, as anyone would, and ended up in an apartment where a party was going on. There was music. Ruth was urged to read her work. She started to read, and the bassist and piano player soon joined in. She had started something.

Ruth Weiss was born to a Jewish family in Germany during a time when Nazism was gaining strength. The Weiss family got out of Berlin, seeking safety in Vienna and later in the Netherlands. They came to the United States in 1939, and Ruth’s parents became American citizens.

In the 1960s, Ruth began spelling her name in lowercase letters: ruth weiss. She was protesting against Germany, against the Nazis, against the German practice of capitalizing nouns. And, in another act of protest, this time inspired by the film The Boy With Green Hair, she dyed her hair green.

The Boy With Green Hair (1948) was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Dean Stockwell as the boy, Peter Frye. The film has been variously described as a fantasy/drama, a drama/comedy, and a parable. Because a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, I’ll go along with parable and fantasy. But this is not a funny movie. It’s serious stuff. Back when it was shown regularly on a classic movie network, I watched it several times. Those of us who love The Boy With Green Hair will never forget it.

Here’s the plot: The boy, Peter, has been sent to live with Gramps, a retired or failed actor now working as a singing waiter. Gramps is not his real grandfather, but the two of them hit it off. Peter believes his parents are in England working for a war relief agency but later learns that they have both been killed. Shortly after receiving this news, he looks in the mirror after his morning bath and sees that his hair has turned green. The color won’t wash out. Gramps tells him that it’s “a grand color,” but Peter wants to be like everybody else.

In what has been described as a dream scene—but I believe it really happened—Peter is wandering through the woods and meets a group of children he recognizes from the posters of war orphans that are taped to a wall in his school. “Your green hair is very beautiful,” the children tell him. “Green is the color of spring. It means hope.” They tell Peter that his hair is a symbol to remind others that “war is very bad for children.” That’s one of the messages—yes, this is a message movie—but the stronger message is about tolerance. “How many of you have black hair?” the teacher asks. She goes on to ask about brown hair, blonde hair, green hair, and red hair. “Are there any questions?” she asks.

In 2019 the director and cinematographer Melody C. Miller released a documentary film about ruth weiss. Titled ruth weiss; the beat goddess, the film has been shown at festivals worldwide and is winning awards. I don’t know when or if it will be coming to a theatre near me—or to a TV set near me—but I know I want to see it. Here’s the trailer:

ruth weiss’s hair color is sometimes described as teal, and in fact Peter Frye’s green hair was leaning toward the teal side of green. Perhaps that had something to do with the hair dyes that were available in 1948. Now, of course, it is possible to buy green hair in a drugstore. Googling, I found a range of vibrant green hues, some of which glow under black light.

The green-haired star of the moment, of course, is Billie Eilish. I first became aware of her when she sang the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2020 Academy Awards. Only 18 years old, she suddenly is everywhere. She even made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, urging everyone to  “vote like our lives, and the world, depend on it.” After her brief talk she introduced a new single, “My Future,” which she co-wrote with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Billie Eilish’s green hair is much lighter and brighter than ruth weiss’s. It is green at the crown only, and her two-tone hairstyle is similar except in color to that of the late Agnes Varda.

OK, time for the jam session. Peter Frye is an old man now, but his hair is still green. Let’s imagine that he has learned to play the double bass. He starts a bass riff as Finneas sits at the piano. (Finneas does not have green hair, but you can’t have everything.) Billie and ruth take turns at the microphone, Billie singing with her sweet, whispery voice, and ruth reciting playful, incisive poems. This jam is my fantasy, and, if I want them to, they will keep the beat going all night long.