Carolyn Kizer’s tribute to Morris Graves

When I first read Carolyn Kizer’s Ungrateful Garden I completely overlooked the poem "From an Artist’s House" which is dedicated to Morris Graves. I overlooked it simply because I knew little or nothing about Morris then, Recently, though, I keep running into Morris Graves, everywhere. As a result, he now seems more and more like a key figure in the Northwest artistic movement. As often happens, the more you study a subject, the more links you discover to familiar and unfamiliar ideas.

Needless to say, then, that the following poem resonates with me:

From an Artist’s House

for Morris Graves

A bundle of twigs
On the roof. We study pictures:
Nests of hern and crane.
The artist who built this house
Arranged the faggots here.

In the inlaid box
With a gilt hasp concealing
A letter, a jewel?
Within, a bunch of feathers,
The small bones of a bird.

The great gold kakemono
With marvelous tapes and tassles,
Handles of pale bone,
Is a blaze on the wall. Someone
Painted an oak-leaf to the silk.

Full of withered oranges,
The old,lopsided compote
Reposes on the sill.
Poor crockery, immortal
On twenty sheets of paper.

"Moor Swan" 1933 Morris Graves

The concrete details in the poem of a mini-study of Graves’ style and influence. At least at this point in his career, Graves was most famous for his painting of birds, and, though the paintings are more symbolic than realistic, they convey the feeling that the artists truly understands the very nature of birds. And as the second stanza suggests, the birds seem to be the most valuable thing in life, more valuable than any mere jewel. The third stanza suggests the fusion of eastern and western art that takes place in Morris’ paintings. And the final stanza, suggests that Graves’ paintings will, by their own immortality, make the "poor crockery" immortal, too.