Oct/Nov 2007 Poetry Special Feature

Breakfast in the Open, c. 1910

by Jennifer Finstrom

Breakfast in the Open, c. 1910

Carl Larsson (Swedish, 1853-1919)
Gouache, watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, laid down on canvas

First, a description: riverbank and birch
trees, a soft blur of grass running down
to the river's edge. The hint of a dirt
road rises up in the foreground, and
the birches are a forest of angular
bones. Look beyond the trees now
to where the river is drowsing.
It is a flat transparent mirror, at once
consuming and giving back.
The people—six women and one man—
move among the birch trunks like they
and the trees are all guests at the same party.
The farmhouse, seen in the distance,
is a toy on the river's other side.
It is small and brown, emptied of all
it once held.

The women have brought a long table
covered with a white cloth,
a wooden chair painted green, and
a basket overflowing with food. There are plates
and glasses, a squat vase with a single
sunflower bestowing its small warmth.
The only man sits in the green chair.
He has pulled the brim of his straw hat
down to cover his face, and seems to recede
from the women along the winding road of sleep.
One gray-clad leg is crossed, and the sound
of the women's gossip must reach him,
for surely they are speaking as they
poke at the fire and set the table,
arranging the simple platters of bread and fruit.

The women wear long shawls and aprons,
hats that are plain, and hats adorned with flowers.
They look realistic and sensible,
the sort of women who know what is expected
of everyone, including themselves.
But that only accounts for five of them.
No one is looking at the sixth woman.
It is as though her dreams have cloaked her,
and until the breakfast is ready, the coffee
heated over the flames, no one will
remember that she is standing near
the edge of the dirt road, leaning back
against the widest of the birch trees.
Her arms clasp the trunk, her head
against its white bark, and she is gazing,
not at the world that she knows,
but at the place where the road fades
in a haze of cloud and dust. Her dress is pale,
a white that is almost amethyst.
Her head is uncovered. Longing is clear
on her face. She wants to follow that longing
as if it were the river, and despite the danger
of rapids, of waterfalls, of treacherous rocks,
to travel as far as it will take her.

But the familiar world still summons her.
The neat stack of white plates
is a premonition of her life to come.
Meal will follow meal, days consumed
as if they themselves were sustenance.
The sun is a sun of bread, of flesh.
She remembers an old tale, where a wolf
once chased and devoured the sun. That same
wolf is always near, pacing outside
the house where she sleeps, the house
where every day she wakes a little older.
If only she could take to the river,
the ravenous wolf could not pursue.
She would cast off in the sailboat built
of her desires until it fails and sinks, and even
then, she would grip the splintered wreck
and float.


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