Volume 15 • Number 1 • Spring-Summer 2023

Deborah Keenan

Burchfield and his Wallpaper

I found the wallpaper design in my research and understood how I had been claimed many years before. For a brief time, Burchfield lived in New York City and designed wallpaper. Not a happy time for him, though productive. I came home from summer camp when I was eight, and my mother had wallpapered my small bedroom. The pattern was birches and leaves. I loved it. When my Aunt Lorretta moved in with my mom, after my Uncle Ben died, we re-did my old bedroom for her. Burchfield’s pattern gone. I miss that wallpaper. I miss those two women, that small house on the dead end street. Burchfield reminds me to go back, to not lose my memories, to respect their power. All the houses I’ve painted and drawn for so many years look nothing like Burchfield’s mystical houses. He’s one ghost I try and stay responsive to, though I am very busy remembering things and trying not to remember things.

Oh, The Blues

These blues, this wheat field,
a family owns this Burchfield,
friends of his. I am the kind
of person who wouldn’t have known
how to be Burchfield’s friend.
I know his spirit would have been
too much for me.
So I am feeling it today, the weight of art,
the pressure, certain days I can’t let it
give me any relief, I can’t stay in the moment
of the work of art because it wipes me out,
it hurts me and I believe I can’t handle
this version of pain. Oh, the blues,
in Wheatfield and Tower, the blues
are all I want, and the long view to the horizon,
I want that, too. And I want this pressure
to leave my body and spirit alone.
So many blues in this painting.
I’m a little dizzy thinking
about his work.
I’m seeing how
he got to me, I’m admitting it all

Sun, Moon and Star

In this painting by Burchfield there’s a kind of gesture
towards happiness. As our eyes find the sun, the moon,
and the star we’re back inside beloved children’s books,
the memories of how we learned to see.
I walk down his street, at peace with his usual rusts
and creams, grays and dull golds. I want to think
he was just fine the days and nights he painted this,
that the sun, moon, and star gave their light to him
and he understood this light was privilege and joy.

Author's note:  I lived with Burchfield wallpaper as a small girl, as I mention in The Saint of Everything.  Then I grew up, found his work again, and felt so protective of his visions I didn't speak about him for a long time.  Now, I share his wildly varied paintings when I can, see his work in museums, follow sites that students tell me about to see his work that rests too often in museum and gallery storerooms. He inspires me, though I do not love every work of his. What I deeply love is his painterly/poetic gestures in so many directions.  He reminds me to be as bold as I can be with my poems and my collage work.  His abundance also inspires.  He could not stop being an artist.  I am grateful for that spirit in him. My thanks to the editors at Sleet for letting these Burchfield poems come into the light.

The Saint of Cruelty

The animal was sick and forced its way into my arms.
The saint said, Oh, go ahead, heal him if you dare, if you can.
The animal died and the saint said, I'm not here for him,
just to remind you:  hands that heal was not our gift for you.

The saint of everything walked past, tried to comfort me,
took the animal from my arms, told the saint of cruelty to leave,
but that's not the way it works in this world.

she sees red leaves on the small autumn tree and feels better for a moment

We leave the meeting together.  I don't know her, only know her husband
has died recently.  It's autumn, and the red leaves can be understood
as comfort, as perfect forms worth sketching every day of one's life.
We understand the leaves that way, briefly, and follow different sidewalks
back to our offices.  To me, with all I don't know, and all that I know,
she is a heroine, and her bravery seems bold, like red leaves on fire.

Deborah Keenan has published eleven books, ten of poetry, one of writing ideas. With Roseann Lloyd she edited Looking for Home, Women Writing About Exile, which won the American Book Award, and which is, sadly, more relevant now than when it was first published. Her new book, The Saint of Everything, includes some of the poems from her collaborative book created with Susan Solomon --twelve poems/twelve paintings, so she had the world, published by Red Bird Chapbooks.