Poem of the Week | August 23, 2021
“Early Sunday Morning” Matt Morton
This week’s Poem of the Week is “Early Sunday Morning” by Matt Morton!
Matt Morton is the author of Improvisation Without Accompaniment (BOA Editions, 2020), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr. Poetry Prize, and a forthcoming chapbook, What Passes Here for Mountains (Carnegie Mellon, 2022). The recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Fulbright Program, he serves as associate editor for 32 Poems and teaches English to secondary school students in Slovakia. Find more at www.mattmortonpoetry.com.
Early Sunday Morning
after Edward Hopper
Immaculate, this morning scene of storefronts.
The green and red façade, the quiet street.
The sacred hour contains no witnesses—
no peddlers hawking trinkets, no noisy kids
with sidewalk chalk, no bored barber leaning
against his pole—except for you, the absent
viewer intruding on the emptiness.
You are here, the artist says, and you are not.
And isn’t this what you have always wanted?
To wake alone and wander deserted streets,
free of the others, apart from even yourself,
because the self has gone? Impossible
scene, precisely rendered: the half-drawn
shutters, blue and yellow awnings, stub
of a hydrant’s thin shadow—everything held
in perfect balance because it has been left
unblemished by the frenzy of stray dogs,
the ebbing whine of a passing ambulance,
because the horizontals seem to promise
to “extend well beyond the painting’s purview.”
What fortitude it must require to face
a dream of safety one cannot inhabit,
to see without blanking at the certain loss,
the only hint of which is the off-center
suggestion of a tower—hardly there
save for the way its dark asymmetry
tinges the hour—and the dawning sense
of a strange climate encroaching, filling up
the street across which no stray newsprint blows.
When I first encountered Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning, I was struck by my reaction to the painting, which seemed at once serene, mundane, uncanny, and a bit terrifying. A print of the painting now hangs in my living room, and I remain impressed by its ability to capture what feels like a brief glimpse of nonduality, exposing the arbitrary divisions between apparent opposites. Absence and presence; self and no-self; harmony and imbalance; the sense that some invisible divinity is immanent within the scene, and the competing suspicion that, as John Ashbery put it, “The surface is what’s there / And nothing can exist except what’s there.” This poem appears in my forthcoming chapbook, What Passes Here for Mountains, and the quoted text in couplet 10 is borrowed from Mark Strand’s book Hopper, which I highly recommend.
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