Rothko and Cassandra

“Give them dummy portable telephones,”
Rothko advised me late one evening;
“It would be more humane that way,” he said.
We were discussing those unfortunates
who talk to themselves walking through cities.
Rothko used the odd term, his own, “solo-
vocalizing peripatetics”: (here
his semantics are somewhat askew).
I admire his sensitivity.
Rothko is my gold and blue macaw.

Over three feet from crown to the tip of
his Prussian Blue tail–rich colors that will
break your heart, so lush, so luminescent–
he is; handsome, regal, smart–is he vain?
Faint venerablity lies within
the soft purple powder down when
Rothko puffs out magically; I pretend
not to notice; he ignores my pretense.
Often we discuss the oddments of life;
I respect his grave perspicuity.

Perhaps coincidence, perhaps fate left
the television remote near enough
Rothko’s white wire Victorian cage,
slim enough to fit through the interstice.
When I was working, Rothko watched talk shows,
CNN, The Discovery Channel,
Judge Judy, Biography and The Arts.
Also he voraciously reads–or so
he says–The New York Times, his carpeting,
so to speak. Rothko has been lonely since

Cassandra died last winter; Rothko says
television and the newspaper have
become a much needed palliative.
Cassandra, his wife of twenty-nine years,
shared with him the white cage, companionship,
a good, marvelously abiding love.
Rothko now talks much more to me since he
has lost his sweetheart, his soul-mate, his dear,
dear Cassandra. Rothko informs me that
macaw to macaw conversations are

very different than macaw to rimes
his (I think rather fanciful) word for
us. Macaws, so Rothko tells me, think in
terms of space, luminosity, passion,
sentiment, sky, oscillation, and depth.
Language, he says, becomes a vibrating
code of signs and self-referential flight.
Rothko says that he cannot explain this
with any more clarity, acumen
wit or insight–that’s just the way it is.

Rothko has very definite views on
the visual arts; his taste runs to the
abstract expressionists and field painters.
Confusion set in, however, when we
discussed his namesake. I had asked if he
were vain: apparently macaws do not
see themselves or other macaws as we
do. He does not think of himself as a
bright and colorful being; he is, though,
taken by what he describes as the fine

translucent quality of my skin and
what he calls the strikingly soft down of
my head. When we discuss painting–getting
back to that–we can only approach the
art works by way of reproductions. When
I attempted to bring Rothko into the
galleries of the Metropolitan,
we were summarily rebuffed, despite
our pleas, arguments and wry sophistries.
Yes, I wanted Rothko to see Rothko.

Rothko sometimes talks of his youth back in
Panama, although the memories, he
says, are dimming now. He remembers his
parents soaring like giants above the
vast castles of the jungle; he recalls
the majesty of cruise ships in the locks.
He remembers howling monkeys and the
chaffing of the nets. In the name of our
humanity, I have apologized
quite often, sincerely, for the brutal

means of his captivity. Now, of course,
he has the freedom of the house and yard.
With great trepidation, I had asked him
if he wanted to leave altogether;
you can imagine my relief when he
said, “We are friends now; I would very
much like to stay.” To see Rothko in flight,
sunlight surrounding the madness of color,
is far beyond the use of us faint rimes.
Last night I asked again about Cassandra.

Cassandra, he said, meant more to him than
the sea and the sky, the sun and the moon.
She was beautiful, he said, in ways that
I could only imagine. But what I
really wanted to know was the nature
of her vocalization; the means of
her expression–and Rothko was hurt, I
could tell, by the cold indifference of my
strange, to him, inquiry: Cassandra,
ah, Cassandra, what is it that you told?

–Copyright (c) 1999 Bill Wolf. Included by permission of the author. (First appeared in WordWrights! magazine.)

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