Essay on the Sky


On Nature

Praia Brava, 2015. Photograph by Isaac Katz.

Billows and soft extensions, the cream lapping through there, between solid graymass and float down to sea, and above that gray, more light, and off to the left, white light, then ruffles, and above, more and more gray. In another direction, blue with acrobatic twists, spreadings. Is that the aither high above that the Greeks thought divine?

Mountains uplift, spray down to water, cream’s reddening, blocks it off to the right.

Bastions, mirth, huge extensions, structures of no hand, silver too is penetrant.

[Maricao, Puerto Rico, September 4, 2004]


At this time of day (the day has experienced enough and gone through transformations, travels even), a glow from the sky embraces the neighborhood, and as it goes from neighborhood to neighborhood, takes in the whole city in its look, and that glow is comforting. One realizes it is raining lightly, and the rain too takes part in the glow that several angled clouds have hooked into lower down.

[São Paulo, Brazil, February 24, 2005]


All day not really a cloud in sight—a still blue sky one could see and not feel threatened by. The day would not go very far, not splinter into challenges and excitement. Then, suddenly, they move in and begin to change the sky’s outlook. One large, potato-shaped cloud hovered over the tree line. Much later, at dusk, an out-of-focus cloud echoed the land’s bared curve.

 [Maricao, Puerto Rico, September 2, 2006]


A bit of sunlight touched the sky’s lining, and there was sun setting in the sky, but mainly it was a sky full of clouds. Their textures could be made out overhead and extending far into the distance, over the water and other islands’ darkening outlines. Much farther out, the sky lightened. Out there, white clouds instead of gray, and the mind’s imagination of a clearing for travelers by boat. The full moon half appeared through banks, a lemon sherbet over mountains along ocean edge. Then it disappeared from view. Later, while the moon itself remained hidden, its light could be seen projecting high into the sky against cloud shapes, stage-lighting a place known as heaven.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, Brazil, April 2, 2007]


There are so many things to see in the sky. There is the distant, silent, plane, almost invisible. There are the twin white moths that come circling one another. There are the buzzing propeller planes, with their reminders of gas and death. Mainly, there is the infinite blue, streaked with white cloud material. Our senses tell us it is infinite, and the feeling it gives us is of a moment that does not end and that connects to centuries before and possibly centuries ahead.

[Amagansett, New York, June 24, 2007]


A long, almost straight line veers gently upward, just above an indistinguishable band of cloud in the distance that hovers above the sea: their extensions seem endless to the left and right. A thin, dark blue band sits on top of sea’s horizon, separating it from the sky; the rest is gray at this hour, just past sunset. The sky would be deliriously light, were it not for the gathering clouds. The clouds had touched the mountain tops earlier, but even now, with the sky filling and lowering, there seems to be a light center, far out at sea; there always seems to be this light center somewhere. The receding grounds of landmasses, successively more defined against the sky, are classic shapes, remembered from other trips. The center’s color is an almost cream, just barely color, that confirms distance and a sense that there is another place there.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 18, 2008]


Today the clouds kept threatening to intervene; they did intervene, in fact, but no rain ever fell from them. In the morning, the sky was a sharp brightness, which effected the classic energy weariness known as the beach. Later, the sky accepted that today would be a mixed pattern, and it relaxed the tension between rain and sun. Both tendencies were allowed to coexist. The clouds flattened into languid strips, while a healthy swath of clear light once again dominated the central stage. I noticed the sky’s personality even at night: its great blankets of different grays, a seeming presence that dominates the lack of light.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 19, 2008]


In the morning, haze gives a comfortable feeling to the sky. It evens out texture, making the mountains that sit on top of the sea, the sea itself, and the few hovering clouds all feel made of one substance. The clouds in the morning are like hats. They hover just on top of the mountains; nowhere else in the sky are they visible. The sky’s color is an open, light blue. Yesterday, in the evening, the blue was like a memory of blues from childhood blankets or teacups, from someone else’s childhood.

On our afternoon walk on a long, hard beach, about two and a half kilometers each way, we saw the typical sharply rising mountains, surrounded by sky, clouds, and the flat plane of the sea stretching out toward mountainous islands and beyond. On the way back, an elaborate display of clouds was suddenly visible above the facing mountain. Against all we’ve been taught, it did appear to be a large figure, with arms outstretched, as though welcoming us to its bosom. It looked like a mother, like my mother, but when I looked more closely, of course it did not. I thought of the figure in the sky as welcoming us to death. That is, that death need not be so cold. It is cold, literally, and it is the end, but we could learn to welcome it, as it seemed here to be welcoming us.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 20, 2008]


Today, we went to a beach named Fortaleza to take the boys swimming. It was crowded, and there was that ancient sense that people come to the ocean in the summer for everything and nothing: for relaxation, for food, for exercise, for diversion, for sex, for comfort, to pass the time before dying. The swimming, and everything, was a little too crowded. But looking up, we could see a sky that was like an epic; it would need an epic poem to recount every incident, the scale from minute to sweeping, the diversity of textures. It was a canvas on which was written the whole of human life, from the beginning to the end, even though the end has not yet come. A mottled field seemed to cover the entire sky, and over that, or in addition, there were long striated stretches that seemed to serve as natural demarcations, as rivers, or cliffs in the sky. Then there were spirited puffs that seemed to stand up from the mountains, sharply, as if in emphasis of some rising natural force. Far above, one perceived an entire other layer of life, immobile in comparison with the rapidly moving present down below. All this played out like a movie, a detailed backdrop to the daily routines enacted on the beach, a changing commentary, easily read, if only one stopped long enough to look up, instead of habitually looking to the earth.

In the afternoon, I saw a cut of light against the turgid darkness of preparatory banks. It was the sun of the ocean, which seems to play every afternoon, no matter how cloudy the day. It breaks the sky somewhat, brakes it, causing it to open and let in a reminder that tomorrow starts all over again, the color gradations of the successive islands receding into the distance.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 21, 2008]


Today is much hazier. A uniform quality to the sky, occasionally broken by tumults of sun. A threatening gathering is taking place in afternoon, prepared to coexist with the mountains that run down to the sea, sail- and motorboats, the endless curling waves, and even the tiny people sprinkled at beach’s edge. As we woke this morning, we thought, Isn’t it great how every day begins brand new and fresh, with absolutely no baggage in terms of light and weather.

And now, above the receding grays of mountain islands, the sky has taken on a dramatic elaboration, directly in the center, with strands of light blue and jagged shards of bright white. As time passes, the sky changes, the first and most accurate clock.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 22, 2008]


I am almost becoming overwhelmed by the responsibility of responding to the sky. The more I pay attention to it, the more there is to notice. There is almost not enough time to write it all down, particularly as it constantly shifts. In fact, the sky is never not active. The myth that the sky becomes black at night is easy enough to disprove. Only look up at night and you will find it full of incident, albeit of a subtler nature than that with which it is colored during the day. There are infinite shades of gray and darkness, clouds are visible, and the lights continue to change, depending on the celestial bodies. Stars create elaborate punctuations and phrasing, causing some to postulate on their arrangements. Then there is the moon. We were walking on the long, hard beach one afternoon, when suddenly we spied, just next to a mountain, the enormous, evanescent full moon appearing in the blue sky. Sitting on the beach at night, with the full moon by now high in the dark sky, its light reflected on the ocean waters, one’s whole being was taken over by something that does not have a name.

I remember thinking that the most important thing for me, in order to write about the sky, was to have access to an open stretch of horizon line, where sky meets sea. A big, open sky is important, as one could have in the western United States. But the actual line of contact between elements is the trigger that enables these observations. Back in New York, I seldom even notice the sky and rarely feel it. When I do, it is as a bright color that is reassuring, as if to tell me there are other skies, and actual horizons, somewhere.

The other day, one small cloud made one small shadow on the top of one small mountain.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 23, 2008]


I never thought I’d be able to notice the sky in New York, but lately I have been. I was very sick with flu last week, and in the midst of my torment, I was able to look out the window and see the patterns there. Now that I’m better, I go every morning to Twentieth or Twenty-First Street to look at the morning action. This morning, on Twenty-First, I looked up. The sky this week has been the crystal blue of a Frank O’Hara poem, but today it had the special detail of fantastic cloud illumination, seemingly uttered, or stuttered, across the entire sky in repeating pattern. Then, a grander pattern revealed itself: quadrants of the sky, visible up between building towers, had different overall effects: some more wispy, others precisely outlined. A plane appeared, flying through this background decor, making a statement, as did the straining, decorated building tops, which were suddenly given meaning by the fantastic delicacy of the sky.

[New York, April 18, 2008]


Always in the distance, there is action, a strip of horizon visible between islands and promontory edge, and there we see the day’s performance, which, at the end, is always something full of light. Looking up, one can see, quite close, the indistinct shapes of fluff, while farther out, over the horizon, there are extended shapes that stay, as if solid, for long periods of time, although, of course, after a few minutes, they have changed, weakened, blended into other forms. Then there is the light play, sun’s dynamism hitting solid form, that gives meaning, if there is any, to the day’s entire occurrence. We can look out and imagine a drama that has some unexplained connection with activities that have haunted us during the dailiness we have lived through, not realizing that now it is ending. And even now, looking out, there is the aftermath, or conclusion, of the statement, a blending together of earlier statements, a new arrangement and fusion, which does not quite take the place of what came before, being weaker, but which, being more subtle, has its importance at the dinner table, after dark has fallen.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, December 29, 2008]


In the morning, a huge cloud hovers over the island. The light comes through, everywhere filtered, the sun not yet. The morning comes up, and it is light. The ocean reflects the light; at the horizon (blessed horizon!) there is hardly a difference, but it is there: that place, that strip, where sky and sea meet that offers an actual escape, whether it be by heart or by oar. Blue is a gash, coming through white feathers; the clump still resting on top of humped island. Behind, the scenario is repeated; another cloud sitting, barely touching a more distant landmass. Amazingly, there are those who never see the sky, even though it is right there, above and around them their entire lives. The sky is the deepest thing we can see into. It provides all answers, if there are any, and escapes. It is the present, the future, and also the end, into which we all can escape, when the desire is there.

There is a story in the sky today. It is a complete narrative, an Iliad perhaps. Had one the time and ability, one could look at the variations, striations, larger themes, subcategories, embellishments, epithets, the appropriateness of detail; one could read the whole story. But one can also read the whole story simply by taking it in, can catch all the subtleties in one long glance.

Now the grayness is an infinity of color. On this, the last day of the year, one can yet see the sky breaking through out there, at horizon distance, and higher, above the landmass. There is Tiepolo’s fantasy of shades of lightest blue, palest pink, bright white, highlighted by darker grays in pattern upon pattern. Sky now is clearly a darker color than sky. Horizon there always welcoming, always light in tendency, extension, and the possibility of a new life, or imagination.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, December 31, 2008]


This sky is one I’ve never seen before: completely black. But black of day, not night. It cannot be anything but ominous, though someone I love thinks it beautiful. Its darkness scares me; only a thin crack of light showing above distant mountains, the ocean still invisible. How can anything break through that blackness? Won’t it remain black all day? Won’t it remain black forever? On a morning before dawn—waking up with doubts, loss symbolized, sleep punished, everything impossible and mistaken, the comma an obstacle, separating each thought from the next—can this thick, murky black ever lighten, ever show again a day of possibility, in which reason and intuition and human caring can once again rise? After a few minutes’ difficult meditation, a slight break in the black. How beautiful, my companion murmurs. A slight glimpse of ocean’s moving (its sound always present in the black). And now, thank God, the sky has begun its ascent. The day will rise. Pale shell colors showing, illuminating familiar emerging shapes of islands, creams, merging through strips—shapes now natural, not evil—to blues, alleviating, rising, turning into normality of day, with bird sounds, shapes of trees and plants near sand.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, January 3, 2009]


Lie on your back. Look straight up. When you are free from working, free from helping others, free from all obligation, that is all you need to do to be entirely happy: lie down on your back on the earth, the grass, the sand, and look up at the sky.

[Praia Brava, Brazil, March 18, 2009]


There is always that possibility of escape. It is there—look!—at the horizon, and there too in the deep space straight overhead. Why is it that we cannot really look at the sky in the city? We see it, of course, but it is like a pasted backdrop to our dreams and worries. Outside the city, we are free to really look at the sky. (One of the only places this can occur in the city is on a rooftop, where we are closer to the sky, and fewer impediments obstruct our view). On the beach, or in a field, we look up, and that’s when we are able to travel. It can even happen under a tree, for a tree is no impediment to seeing the sky—rather, it provides an appropriate decorative scrim, through which particular sections of blue each equal the unlimited expanse.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, March 20, 2009]


I feel I should give up on this project—how can someone think anyone will be interested in reading about the sky, without any reference, no underpinning? If I were to write about paintings of clouds, or descriptions in literature, then that would be considered significant. I could fill a book with examinations of other people’s ideas. But this is exactly what I do not want to do. I want to be free from underpinning.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, December 28, 2009]


Light rain and the singing of cicadas—various tonalities, screeches, raisings of volume. It could be raining for real, but the sky above and far out over the water is not only open, opening, but fresh with the openness of day’s end. The pinkness stains sky’s midsection, amid blotches of light gray with bluish tints. It is the openness that impresses most, allowing the cicadas’ and waves’ constant crash, flatness of water stretching under sky’s late play, and the way trees hug the land, moving down mountains to reach the water; they stand out there, visible at edges, against sky. There is a certain heat, but the breeze lifts and dispenses with it, and the mind too dispenses with whatever has been weighing on it.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, December 24, 2011]


I should think it time to stop this piece. I realize I won’t ever get anywhere, just as the sky, too, never gets anywhere. It changes, and the changes can have effects, but the sky itself is a canvas, or screen, on which spectators map their expectations and fears. I am trying to live without fears, or memories—where memories mean anguish or remorse. But still I want to study the sky: that is, look at it and think the thoughts I am free to think when looking at the sky. So I will not stop. I will keep going, looking up, trying to find it above trees, between buildings. Great light breaks through cloud layers at day’s end. Blues seen though gray massings remind one of paintings. The shift across the sky, from left to right or up to down, seems architectonic, though in fact it is completely random. Light from a solitary opening has expanded to become the salient theme of this moment, as the ocean surface picks it up, refracting it in myriad shifting reflections of that theme, amplifying, seconding, quietly adding to its easy statement in time.

[Praia Brava, Ubatuba, December 31, 2012]


I can remember what I saw. A tumbling, sexy, mass, topped by a launched fruition. Entirely different in texture, outlook, and presentation. They were working in concert—great, bubbling bundles ensured the gigantic spray above them. To the left, another massive bundle, this one with a topping-off, almost glass-ceiling-like, but not. Irregularities in the form of fluff, like locks and strands escaping from a by and large uniform coif.

[Captiva, Florida, August 8, 2015]


I love the last-minute gestures. Just when you thought it was all over, settled down peacefully for the night, no, another drama emerges, asserts itself. There is a slate backdrop, and above that a dark tumult. It rained heavily earlier, has stopped now for the most part, and now there is this gigantic looming cloud just overhead. Most of the sky is like a monochromatic expressionist painting. It stretches lavishly the whole extent of the sky, from left to right, as though we are at a theater, facing an enormous stage.

Now, the entire darkness does not extinguish: a sudden cream display, and even more, more red; in addition to that last dance on the left, a sudden new blast of activity, dead center, stops the heart with its passionate plunge. In the second it takes to register, it is already fading, leaving that more substantial play of red, stretched on the left, to continue fading, slowly, gradually, as a day fades, and eventually leaves.

[Captiva, August 8, 2015]


There it is, so wide open, the sea a gaping mouth, while above is almost entirely clear, straggling graffiti of no discernible meaning, an emerging billow attacking from the right. As for the rest, it is pure. The only fact of import is straight ahead. There, etched as delicately as an afterthought in the background of a French Rococo masterpiece, dazzling uplift—turbulent support, seemingly cavalier spreadings, yet bumped in the center. A mountainous background suddenly achieves foreground status, while the main figure, notable for its hieratic lift, after feigning resistance, acquiesces, giving itself another triumphant highlight, as the background once again dissolves.

[Captiva, August 9, 2015]


Sometimes it is reflected in the water—lighting effects the grandest stage designer would be incapable of mimicking. Only in painting, perhaps, is there to be found a technique, or techniques, capable of such subtlety of differentiation, of texture, of mass—and also of the drama inherent in effects of lighting. There are long, epic sweeps—covering the dimensions of a civil war—that extend into uproarious billows of cultural information (the histories of ball gowns, or uniforms, or varieties of cuisine, depending on class and social education). While straight ahead, in the deep distance, on the thinnest strip of landmass imaginable, the darkness indicates heavy rainfall. Other strips, fabulations, spread out toward the edges.

[Fish House, Captiva, August 10, 2015]


Again there is this thing of compressed, activated forms backgrounded by diffuse, flowing dispersions into space that feel Turneresque but with a simpler, more contemporary philosophy of color. This is plain, nothing could be simpler, yet within this scope, the variation is endless. A giant puff illuminates space, its purpose to sit there on high and be a light-collecting object. Suddenly, there are hundreds, an army on the horizon, massing, growing, evolving, while their dedicated spray, above, extends, twisting, conjuring vast manifestations of galactic thrust. Dancers huddle at edges, hunched in doglike posture, seated, awaiting a signal. Slate blues against whites at farthest margin. Mirror vastness in concert connection.

[Fish House, Captiva, August 11, 2015]


It is as if the apotheosis has finally been achieved—a gigantic, robust, complete, yet infinitely delicate curvature in the sky, a heralding, an announcing, and yet simply itself, refraction interlocking with other depths occurring at increasingly rapid rates, threatening to bring one to the brink, yet simultaneously an overarching, extending placidity, while to the right, massive dynamics indicate offstage drama, all as if for eternity, and maybe it really is eternity, to experience it now, the gentle plashings, voices, and two dark sentinels, stark silhouettes against the effulgence, to whom all of this is of no significance whatsoever.

[Fish House, Captiva, August 21, 2015]


Timpani highlight that insane effulgence: a sexual merging of two pinkish forms at center, and leading to the right a lengthy strip of incident, exploding into a mountain of purple and pink. Layers and stories going higher and higher, topped by a palace or mesa, this crashing of strings and brass, and as if that weren’t enough, highlighted by timpani, a sudden exploding inside all that wet, pink, lush form.

[Fish House, Captiva, August 24, 2015]


Great migration from right to left above and beyond in ripples, individual masses, while below a fiery center ore is surrounded by spreads of darkness, and suddenly, above, a pale crescent, muffled by soft, pinked brushes, enveloping and enveloped by a distant, gray, immutable landmass.

[Solebury, Pennsylvania, May 27, 2020]


Vincent Katz is a poet and translator. He is the author of the poetry collections Broadway for Paul, Southness, and Swimming Home, as well as The Complete Elegies of Sextus Propertius, which received the National Translation Award.