I’ve played my part as tourist in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, I skipped out of the way of ring-chiming bicycles. I drank Amstel beer under an awning while an afternoon rain dotted the surface water of the Singel canal. I nearly petted the head of an approachable white swan, and I walked through a sea of pigeons, each with a warble of complaint. I poked my head into a bar where marijuana-concocted drinks were drawn noiselessly through plastic straws—the faces of these patrons seemed slow. In Delft, among sightseers loud as geese, I rode a boat down a canal, and, in Enkhuizen, I ate herring while pondering the sea, flat and silvery, above the same clouds that propelled the Dutch ships of 1700. For a laugh, I tried on wooden clogs in Utrecht, and picked up, then put down, a dirty book in Rotterdam. I visited The Hague and, little old man that I am, stood before art that hangs at the Rijksmuseum. At the Keukenhof garden, I lowered my nose into a tulip, then walked among the beds of tulips, judging them as nothing but outrageously colorful show-offs. Big deal that they are so glorious!
I know the Netherlands. I have toted a roller bag over bridges and down narrow pathways, the faint smell of urine against graffiti-marked walls. And I’m just educated enough to recognize the work by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (and the Younger), but I was unfamiliar with the allegorical painting Netherlandish Proverbs. That painting graced the card I had received from Professor Wolfgang Mieder, eminent scholar of proverbs. He kindly informed me that he had written a blurb for my forthcoming book, Meatballs for the People: Proverbs to Chew On. Smiling, I read Wolfgang’s note, then turned it over to size up the artist’s painting, done in 1559. What struck me immediately was the busy nature of these townspeople, all of whom seemed on the lunatic fringe—no, perhaps the starring cast in an experimental college film! Initially, I didn’t read the title of this artwork or the fact that it was from Wolfgang. I was slow on the uptake. I let my eyes rove over the colorful scene, unaware that it involved proverbs behind each contorted citizen or set of citizens. What I saw was a frightening madness so packed with detail that I was glad that there was no room for my own personal demons. My private thought: God, I’m glad I don’t live there.
Then I did my Internet scholarship and graduated to a higher understanding. Now I see the artistic light and the historical light. Why wasn’t I more awake? After all, the card does provide a roster of scholars with the word “proverb” in numerous languages. Believe me, I did not lower my face to one of those straws and draw in that marijuana milkshake.
What did I learn? That in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s masterpiece Netherlandish Proverbs there are arguably one hundred and fifteen depictions of proverbs. In 1903, a scholar by the name of Louis Maeterlinck identified thirty-two; in 1915 Johannes Bolte identified sixty-nine; in 1923 Wilhelm Fraenger noted ninety-two; in 1957, in a monograph meant only for specialists, Jan Grauls reduced this figure to eighty-five proverbs. But a 1973 scholar R. Grosshans raised the ante to one hundred and eighteen. Funny, but in 2016, I, sober poet, gazed not upon pictorial proverbs but a topsy-turvy scene of village life. I was so subdued by the technical brilliance of the painting that I didn’t figure allegory was at play. Again, where was my thinking? Why didn’t I think that the citizens were crazies to stay away from?
Is this a high level of Where’s Waldo? You look at such a wonderfully rendered and iconographic masterpiece, and the goal is to find not overall meaning but select proverbs? “Here’s a proverb,” an alert viewer might say. “Here’s another one, and yet another one.” The search would involve intelligent gamesmanship, and possibly stretches of the truth, maybe wrong answers, maybe just nonsense. Still, it’s amusement. It’s good for the noodles upstairs.
I also learned this: that the son, Pieter Bruegel the Younger, made as many as sixteen copies of this masterpiece. Of those done by the son—or under guidance by the son—none is as whimsically complex as the original. This is always the case in literature, art, and music. The original is the best.
I provide an example of a reading of one proverb, which is identified by folklorists as number three in a monograph of Netherlandish Proverbs. The monograph, The Art of Mixing Metaphors by Alan Dundes and Claudia A. Stibbe, a superb duo, was first presented at the Finnish Academy of Science and Letters in December 1980 and published by the Academia Scientiarum Fennica in 1981.
The proverb I’ve locked my eyes onto presents a particularly unhandsome man with his hands close to his face. Half hidden in shadows, he sits just inside a window of a tall house. His face is lean, his arms and hands equally lean; he appears undernourished and ready for the knife, as a knife does hang outside the window. For Dundes and Stibbe, the image “connotes overlooking something on purpose. One is willing to let a fault go unpunished.” There’s additional commentary that concludes, “Since Bruegel’s figure seems to be looking through his fingers, he presumably can take adversity in stride.” These observations may not convince the average reader, but the erudite arguments of these two scholars march onward with observations that convince; trust me, they are treating proverb number three with seriousness, not unlike forensic specialists in a crime lab. The scholars are not flimsy. They even add that the hand near the face—no, near the nose—may indicate the figure thumbing his nose at the world. I will not argue against this interpretation, for fear I will really upset the scholarly folklorists who have added their two cents in numbering the proverbs in this artwork. But I put my foot down when Dundes and Stibbe refer to another scholar who suggests that the nose—a long, pointed snout—is a symbolic phallus. This scholar loses me there. In my comings and goings in locker rooms, I have never seen a penis resemble a nose. The penis, like sexuality, swings this way and that way. However, like the nose, it does occasionally poke into other people’s business. Is that what this scholar means?
How I enjoy this card from Professor Mieder. How I wish I could sit before an Amsterdam canal, beer in hand, the shadows like a sundial raking across those ancient buildings. I could assemble, in my mind and in poetry, my own scene similar to Pieter Bruegel the Elder. This I will do. Here I describe my volunteer work as the chief—and only—volunteer gardener at the Richmond Museum of History. This Richmond is in California and located in the ominously named Iron Triangle, a locale known for murder, drugs, rap of the most sordid kind, cars that race maniacally, and a tsunami of sofas and refrigerators on the curb. But also kindness that surprises. I’m always greeted politely and have never felt in danger, even when balloons, deflated as used condoms, hung on a nearby fence where a youth was gunned down. The candles at this street memorial are nearly spent; the small, amber-colored whiskey bottle is empty.
On the west side of the museum is a recycling center. While I do my gardening, I will look up to see recyclers pushing shopping carts and makeshift carts, pulling up in cars and trucks, or riding on bicycles, toting plastic bags as big as bears. I’m thinking of how the Dutch ships must have filled the harbors, how they came and went hauling cargo. The poor of Richmond, the down and out, the humanly complicated, have their own cargo and are worth a close study. The crushing of cans and the breaking of bottles is constant. Their cargo amounts to pennies.
One recycler arrives, then leaves, another arrives, and in every instance there is brief banter or at least a greeting for the person they pass. If all the recyclers for a moment could gather into one pictorial herd, they would resemble the people in Netherlandish Proverbs, each with a proverb marking the story of their lives. Do I speak harshly? No. We could assemble university academics at a roundtable discussion and assume that they, too, possess telltale proverbs, each with his or her own folly, each with a long or short nose that casts shadows over their open books.
I bring up these recyclers because I see them twice a week; plus, as a poet, I recognize lives worth turning over in my mind. My time at the museum has involved me in chance meetings, such as helping to push cars that won’t start up. Here are two poems that will add dimension to my encounters, poems that would have not happened if I had not started volunteering there. One regards a watch found outside the museum; the other regards mistaken identity:
The watch was on the sidewalk,
A stolen thing, a lost thing, a broken thing,
Unstrapped and thrown away just because?
I stood over it, me with my length of thin shadow,
Like a sundial, and recognized it as a little girl’s watch—
The band was pink, the band was plastic.
Inside the crystal, mist of playground tears?
I picked up the watch and brought it to my ear,
The minutes skipping down a recently waxed hallway.
I thought of my own childhood watch,
A Christmas gift, 1963,
Big as an alarm clock on my skinny wrist.
Waterproof, the box said, shark resistant,
Headed to space in the coming year!
Time was never so exciting, so up-to-date!
But when I wore this commando watch in the bathtub
It sent up a long, single bubble and drowned,
Not one surviving minute among its gears.
Now this girl’s watch.
What was she, nerdy nine or loudmouth twelve?
Maybe she was fleeing a classroom bully,
Or was she late to piano lessons?
In her hurry, the watch had become unbuckled.
While she skipped ahead with her life, her given minutes,
A stick of a child I imagined,
The watch smacked the sidewalk,
The wet crystal like a child’s sobbing face.
Her time was not my time.
With the tip of my shoe,
I nudged it into the gutter,
Just because, just because.
I give back by pulling weeds
At a museum dead center
In Richmond’s Iron Triangle,
The recycling center across the street—
Television and a sofa,
Three-legged tables, a mini fridge,
Clothes the color of bankrupt countries,
A shoe with its laces gone,
Bird cage, plastic bags that ghost in the wind,
A tsunami free for the taking.
It’s a place to be, yet not be,
With winos more civil
Than the local government.
A brother with a shopping cart
Rattles up to me and shouts, “Sam! Sam!”
When I turn, he eyes me,
Head tilting, confused,
A hand coming up to stroke his beard.
He wears two coats—
One for funk, one for cold.
His face says only one thing:
I’m gripping the handles of a wheelbarrow.
I’m wearing only one coat
For funk and cold.
I’m pushing an invisible shopping cart,
My own self-made property.
The difference between us?
Several inches, for his Afro is tall.
He shakes his head.
He hollers, “You dark
But not dark like Sam.
You have a good one!”
He pushes off to the recycling center
Where glass bottles are weighed,
And plastic bottles,
Like my ten-second friend,
Stomped flat by a machine.
Not far from the recycling center is the Mission Rescue Center, a lifeline for those truly in need. Often, I see people walking down the street with loaves of day-old bread or pink boxes of stale pastry. More than once, a Chinese immigrant woman has offered me some of her food. I’ll see her coming. I’ll put my shovel aside and take off my gloves. She knows no English, but she knows the shovel in my hand. Proverbs must undoubtedly live inside her. In her heart, she must think, This is a worker, this is someone with dirt under his fingernails, this is what I can do. She’ll offer me a loaf, or open a box and show me the donuts. This, Pieter Bruegel the Elder would call the bread of life.