"Painting in Winter"

Written by Ken Alexander, the winner of our June 2023 Father's Day Poetry Contest.

I remember how we struggled up
the logging trail like pack mules in tandem,
the air so clear and cold the condensation
in our nostrils crystalized as we
sucked breath, but still, so that we didn’t feel
the cold. The track climbed steep where other sons—
another generation—snaked oak logs
down the mountain leaving only stumps
that squatted in the snow between the trees
like hooded dwarves or cowled monks in prayer.
Dad kept saying, “Just a little higher
to where we see the light that floods the gorge.”

“It’s all about the light,” he said as we
stood to our shins in snow at easels he had
made from broom sticks, “See the black spears
of spruce against the snow field? Paint them like God
cut them with a cold chisel and make the snow
behind them sing like angels in the sun.
You have to show them or they won’t believe.
They said photography would put an end to
painting while it captures light waves in a box
and puts them down on paper to record
reality precisely like no painter can.

But they were wrong. A painter goes beyond
reality behind it, changes it,
transforms the light inside his head to substance.”
And as he spoke he jabbed the frigid air,
his sable brush a sword against the dark
or a baton conducting light waves into
symphonies that played upon his easel—
while fire began to burn inside my boots
and gloves, as cold seeped through the insulation
until I thought I’d die, a sacrifice
to art.

Today in searching for a scrap of history
I’d misplaced, I rifled through a box
unopened now for thirty years. Surprised,
I found our watercolors tucked inside
a folder labelled in my father’s hand—
the crude attempts of amateurs, not brilliant.
I noticed frost fronds fixed into the paint
where the wash froze before it dried that winter
day when I was twelve and followed father
up a mountain—a bundle of sticks on my back—
to learn about the light inside his brain.
And I remember what I lost. What I forgot.

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