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The Surrealist’s Storm

Jayne English

Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, October 1963

Photographed by Irving Penn, Vogue, October 1963

"I come into the peace of wild things."
     —Wendell Berry

Have you ever listened to an instrumental version of a song that’s familiar to you and realized, while you’re humming along, singing the words in your head, that a younger person, hearing the same version, would have no idea that there are words to it? You would be experiencing the same song, but at different levels.

This is how artists encourage us to enter the world. Not just by hearing the music, but by listening for the words. Artists nudge us to explore life’s deeper realms. In René Magritte’s painting “Song of the Storm,” the dark clouds have fallen to the ground, the rain is falling upwards, and the title tells us something else that is surprising about a storm. It has a song. We wouldn’t know this on a superficial experience of a storm. We’d be familiar with its music — the wind, the rain, the thunder. But Magritte tells us we’ll find something deeper if we listen.

Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” begins with this line: “When despair for the world grows in me.” Then the speaker reveals something weightier, how he discovered something beneath the layers of his fear:

I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things

The poem puts into words a profound understanding of the world, that for all the worries that keep the speaker up at night, there’s a place where ducks and herons “do not tax their lives with forethought/of grief,” and where he can bask in “the presence of still water.” Maybe he doesn’t even actually leave his room to find this, like another poet who lies on his couch and sees again “a host, of golden daffodils” upon his “inward eye.”

In Ray McKinnon’s drama series, Rectify, McKinnon invites us to see beneath the surface. In the show, Daniel Holden is unexpectedly released from prison after 19 years on death row. Trapped between the clashing realities of his years in prison and life outside, he describes for his therapist a time when he was gang raped in the shower by five inmates. Pressed against the shower tiles, he notices a slowly leaking faucet. Daniel is transfixed by the drops. He tells the therapist, “They catch the light just -- just so. They almost look like diamonds falling from the sky.” He moves his head an inch until the drops fall into his eye. He calls them “blessed drops” as if washing his physical eye gives him new vision. Like when the speaker in Berry’s poem lets the lake wash over his fears, “For a time/I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”

The psychologist didn’t mention it, but I suppose he might have told Daniel he had experienced a coping mechanism, a way of distancing himself from the trauma of the rape. But what if seeing water drops as diamonds was something different? What if it was the song of the storm, and Daniel knew the lyrics?