CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — I wrote “Domino Players, 1943” after studying Horace Pippin’s celebrated painting, exhibited by the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. This “memory painting” depicts Pippin’s childhood in Goshen, New York. A child sits at a kitchen table watching two women play dominoes while an older woman sits piecing her quilt. As I studied the painting, I thought about the wounded World War I veteran poignantly looking back and trying to paint his childhood and the security of home. His painting evolves into an act of recovery and restoration. I also imagined the three women in the painting as Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos – the Greek fates. They hold the thread to the child’s life and to the life of the artist and veteran. The poem suggests history’s continuing presence. The smoke rising from the pipe of the woman smoking in the painting recalls the smoke of no man’s land, the exploding shells, the terrifying destruction. The poem reflects the resonances of history and the unknown fates that underlie all our lives.
Domino Players, 1943
Tiles, stones, spinners, bones, bricks and men—dominoes
spilled atop a kitchen table knock like teeth, like tumbling
die, each tile ticked into place. In an oil painting
by a crippled doughboy, twenty-five years after the War,
two women and a child play dominoes, play and stir the tiles,
while the child, fulcrumed between the two, looks on, his eyes
like knives, like stabs of paint. His granny watches, piecing
her quilt, lifting and snagging her needle like a query.
This is recollection’s accounting: bare lathes
and cracked plaster, smoke-hued walls, a cast iron stove
fanged with flames, the window and its ratty shade,
a wooden floor agued as an old man’s bones.
But displayed on a doilied shelf, a clock and a kerosene lamp,
time and fire, one the mirror of the other, all things burning,
all hours trimmed like a cotton wick in a globe of kerosene.
In this painted room, Clotho draws her sanguine thread
while at her feet scissors lie angled on a swath of red, a sign:
All breath is thread and all flesh shroud, or all breath
tether and all flesh a bridle pieced from make-do and remnant.
At the painted table Lachesis sits in a polka-dotted blouse,
her waist strings carefully cinched and carefully bowed.
Worrying a long-stemmed pipe, Atropos measures breath
into skeins of smoke, smoke to drift over the child’s head,
the bluish brume that will rise over the sumps and shell holes
of Meuse-Argonne, the smoke of Chateau-Thierry and Séchault,
doilies of smoke that will clot the scalded lungs of fallen boys.
But that drifting smoke is far away. The child knows nothing,
nothing of how men will topple like dominoes, like black
tiles above a blackened earth, how the black rain
will beat black notes against their brows. The child
only watches, only waits, only listens through the long
rounds to the tiles’ bump and toothy-click, to the scissors’
snip, to the rocker’s beat against the crooked boards.
A wounded vet lifts his brush and studies the painted child
who cannot see him, cannot feel the shrapnel-blasted arm
that lies ahead or the pressure of the brush against his brow.