Last week, my “Literary Animal” workshop — can you tell that I really love this class? — left the classroom to take a field trip across the street to the museum. Our assignment: Wander through the hallowed halls and be inspired by an animal in a work of art. From there, we were to write something. Sounds easy enough, right? Sure, except that writing something good is hard, even if — especially if? — it includes some cute little monkey on a Chinese vase dated 610 B.C.
The class fanned out once we were inside. Where did I go? Straight downstairs to Decorative Arts, of course. I thought I might find a cool animal carved into an ash sideboard from 1802, or maybe some jade rabbit on a chair.
I found those and more. There are so many animals in the things we make and paint and carve. We live in a world with animals and they show up, let me tell you. It’s really neat when you go looking for something and realize it’s all around you all the time (e.g., love, generosity, cats, etc.) But though I found lots of animals, nothing stopped me in my tracks until I saw Winslow Homer’s “Croquet Scene,” painted in 1866.
And there’s no animal in it.
Why do we respond to art? Why is it that sometimes, something just clicks into place when we see a painting or hear a song or see a quilt at a show and sometimes, we get nothin’. When I turned my head and saw that painting, my heart and brain flooded with understanding, familiarity, and something close to kinship.
It’s the woman. Do you know what I thought when I saw her? I thought — and this is basically verbatim thought process, here — “She hates where she is. She loathes croquet. She wants to go home. She’s newly married and is alienated from the family she married into. She’s looking at a field mouse and she wishes she were him.”
The animal in the picture isn’t in the picture. But that little field mouse is real.
So I decided to write about that. I tried some prose but I hated it. I decided to do a poem. But what kind? My approach was to do research on the time period and see what sort of poems were popular in 1866 when this picture was painted. I’ll spare you details of the legwork, but I will tell you that Helen Hunt Jackson was a poet popular at that time and I found a one-verse poem by Jackson with a fascinating (read: hard) rhyme scheme: ABABBACBADDADAA.
I know, right?? The prose might’ve been easier in the end. But nope: I went for it, and I’m so glad I did. I really love this little poem, even though it will continue to be polished. I do feel that I captured my heroine’s black mood and her longing for a simpler life. Like, real simple. Field mouse simple. Don’t you feel that way, sometimes?
The Field Mouse
Inspired by Winslow Homer’s Croquet Scene, 1866.
(c) 2016 by Mary Fons
I’ve seen him twice, now, run past the ball
Near wicket three on th’ flattened grass
Of this scorching lawn. As we shift and stall
And wait for Ben to make his pass,
That nimble field mouse, cool and fast,
Dips through shade, finds waterfall;
I’d give my life to trade with him.
The petticoats and primers, yet another looking glass,
— Ben’s mother’s high tea protocol! —
Oh, for a tail and four silent feet
To streak as lightning through golden wheat
And leave behind this game and all
The family I must rise to meet.
We kings of beasts are mannered, tall—
But field mouse is free, if small.