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Michael Simms: Portrait of Unknown Couple

He first noticed them because
            their backs were to the sea
sitting on the bench facing
            the people walking by
He sketched in charcoal
            the arch of a shoulder
the movement of a hand
            the woman’s head 
turned and tilted slightly 
            toward the man who 
looks toward the mountains
            behind the artist
Both man and woman are bundled 
            in heavy coats, a magnificent
sunset behind them but they’ve seen 
            all this before
the artist thinks maybe
            they’ve grown bored
with gaudy sunsets and now
            are watching 
the more subtle beauty of the land
            rising toward the blue 
mountains and beyond. The woman 
            wears a woolen
head scarf, the man 
            a fisherman’s cap, but 
he doesn’t have the hands 
            of a fisherman 
the artist thinks, more the hands of 
            say an accountant
or teacher, soft yet certain, yes
            a couple of retired 
teachers the artist presumes. The woman
            clutches the scarf
tightly against the wind, a light
            spray of the sea
against jagged rocks, birds circling 
            over the reddening
water behind her. The artist 
            somehow knows
the couple is the center of
            the story, the other
people walking by or standing
            at the rail looking out
at the corrasions of weather are merely
            suggestions, local
color in a colorless city
            estranged from
his attention, the eye 
            so subtle compared
to a possible sketch, he must make
            each line a gesture
of the moment, refined, distilled
            twisting in place
as the wind blows across the paper 
            lifting the birds
on extended wings which then fold
            into dives below the paper’s 
surface. A plastic cup blown by the wind
            catches on a rock and 
he captures the distraction with
            with a single movement
of the charcoal. The couple 
            looks settled into 
place, belonging by 
            long habit, the man
with deep lines on his face, 
            the woman perhaps
younger, squints at him, not gazing, 
            just a quick 
read of his mood. The artist moves 
            his hand to their shoes 
the man’s brogans as they used 
            to call these thick soled 
lace-ups, scratched and scuffed, 
            still serviceable, but her 
shoes are delicately tooled leather 
            not new
carefully polished 
            a design of red and black
Spanish perhaps, elegant
            and expensive, her gloves
red and black as well perhaps
            bought at the same 
shop they discovered in Madrid 
            the artist imagines
their tenderness when 
            alone, an old couple
in love. The old man’s hands
into the pockets of his great coat 
            his affections 
disguised, known only 
            to the woman 
who holds his arm in fierce 
            possession which 
he doesn’t seem to mind
            at all, comfortable 
in the habitual grip of the very 
            married. Later
the artist washes the scene
            in watercolor, a blur 
of blue-gray and rust
            over the drawing 
of the old couples’ 
            habitual comfort together
solving the formal challenge 
            of the layers of tension 
between the subtle intimacy of 
            the couple almost invisible
among strangers and the crashing waves 
            spraying spumes into the air 
and the wine-blue sea darkening

Michael Simms is the founder and editor of Vox Populi. His most recent collections are American Ash and Nightjar (Ragged Sky, 2020, 2021).

Copyright 2021 Michael Simms. From Nightjar.

Still of YouTube video by Peaceful Scenes

10 comments on “Michael Simms: Portrait of Unknown Couple

  1. loranneke
    September 24, 2022

    (…) comfortable
    in the c c

    Oh my, this hit me as something I have wanted to say /write/describe/photograph for decades! The so true of KB and I: ” comfortable //in the habitual grip of the very //
    married.” — and there you have it: you framed it in 9 words!
    Damn, you’re good!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Vox Populi
      September 24, 2022

      Thank you, Laure-Anne. I see so few poems about the love between old people… I was thinking of how an artist might see Eva and me, but I think the scene is a description of many couples.


      • Lisa Zimmerman
        October 2, 2022

        “the artist imagines
        their tenderness when
        alone, an old couple

        in love.”

        A beautiful poem, Michael. A love that lasts for decades is a holy thing.


  2. John Z
    September 24, 2022

    The smooth flow of the poem invites reading in one go. Like especial this part in the three stanzas–“the old couples’ habitual comfort together solving the formal challenge of the layers of tension between the subtle intimacy of the couple almost invisible…”–really nice.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sean Sexton
    September 24, 2022

    I’m there.
    Storm pending here, out over that wineful

    Liked by 1 person

  4. louisehawes
    September 24, 2022

    Line breaks used so artfully! And then there are the persistent phrases that push through them: “in the habitual grip of the very/married.” Yes!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Vox Populi
      September 24, 2022

      Thanks for noticing the craft of the poem, Louise. It may look chaotic on the page, but as you said the phrasing and the movement work together.


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