KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 6: Fall 2016
Tanka Prose: 664 words

John Constable’s Branch Hill Pond,
Hampstead Heath

by Charles D. Tarlton

Painting by John Constable: Branch Hill Pond, Hampstead Heath

He brushed away the thunder, then the clouds,
Then the colossal illusion of heaven. Yet still
The sky was blue. He wanted imperceptible air.
He wanted to see....

—Wallace Stevens


You see the stormy sky at once, and then gradually the rocky hills in partial sunlight with a house (portrayed with a curious lack of perspective), then the trees, and, finally, the valley. The eye runs over these things quickly, and settles on the human scene in foreground right—an unhitched white horse and a black one still hitched up to a large wheeled wagon, and two human figures.

We stop and wonder what they’re doing; some kind of digging, perhaps, or eating a meal al fresco. But, then we notice in the middle ground another human figure on a horse wading out into the pond, and still another horse pulling what looks like a plow. There are two more dark animal figures just beyond, but I can’t tell if they’re horses or cows.

The human figures suggest story—some dramatic meaning missing from all the scenery—and that story draws our attention away from the much larger but inanimate landscape. Put here perhaps only to humanize the panorama, these human figures steal the scene.

in some medieval
paintings they made perspective
reflect social class— 
the higher the rank, the larger
the figure. Serfs were tiny.

in southwest England
the gorse grows wild from hedges
spreads across the fields
gold and beautiful, but its leaves
turn to thorns as they mature

you can feel just how
he strained to reach the sublime
the underlying
menace of the natural world
but it boils down to a storm


He came back to the same landscape, but he dressed it differently each time—horses and donkeys, boys in red waistcoats and laborers digging at the sand, white skies, gray and black skies, and rainbows. Where an elegant house eventually stood, there had in other sketches been rocks and peasants walking on the ridge, more donkeys and horses and, finally, a windmill. In one version a man in a red waistcoat unloads manure or dirt or maybe sand; horses and plows and wagons everywhere, horses stand in water to their fetlocks, and there’s a small black and white dog. I found seven paintings of the pond, all from this general vantage, and every one had a different sky (although I wonder, did he ever paint a blue sky without clouds?).

horses run so fast
because they are on their toes
but sometimes they just
stand around whisking the flies
away with Shiva’s tail

people painted in
and painted out, from picture
to picture. Captain
Midnight’s flip-it movies 
here and gone like dream figures

water in the pond
he painted as reflections
of the sky. Mirrors
turn everything back on itself
there’s no way of looking through


Just over the immediate ridge of hills, a wide valley reaches to the horizon where it is capped with another ridge. Not far from London (he could receive messages from the city in less than an hour), yet he was away from it, in another place entirely. He was given to ignoring the urban spill of poor out into Hampstead, the encampments of Gypsies, the shantytowns filled with workmen driven off the land by machinery and the Enclosure Acts. The railroad “branch” was there, but not portrayed.

peaceful, idyllic
you would have to say he painted
what was his own dream
world, the vanishing peasants
and the easy simple life

take a taxi now
through Highgate and Kentish Town
or the A-401
the heath’s crisscrossed with walking paths
his house now at “40 Well Walk”

busses, trains and cars
the thick noises of London
the heath now a park
for weekends or walking dogs
in the right light you can’t tell



Publisher’s Notes:

1. The epigraph is from the poem “Landscape with Boat” by Wallace Stevens.

2. The painting by John Constable is in the public domain, and the reproduction was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

Charles D. Tarlton
Issue 6, Fall 2016

is a retired university professor now living in Northampton, Massachusetts, and writing poetry and flash fiction since 2006. His poems have appeared in: Jack Magazine, Shampoo, Review Americana, Tipton, Barnwood, Abramelin, Simply Haiku, Haibun Today, Atlas Poetica, Blue and Yellow Dog, Shot Glass, Sketchbook, Skylark, Six Minute Magazine, Cricket Online Review, Red Booth Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Inner Art Journal, Prune Juice, Rattle, Blackbox Manifold, and Ink, Sweat, and Tears.

He has also published a poetry e-chapbook in the 2River series, entitled La Vida de Piedra y de Palabra (a free translation of Neruda); a tragic historical western in poetry and prose, “Five Episodes in the Navajo Degradation,” in Lacuna; and “The Turn of Art,” a short poetical drama pitting Picasso against Matisse, composed in verse and prose, which appeared in Fiction International.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Simple Tanka Prose for the Seasons, a quartet by Tarlton in Rattle (Issue 47: Tribute to Japanese Forms, Spring 2015)

La Vida de Piedra y de Palabra: Improvisations on Pablo Neruda’s Macchu Picchu, Tarlton’s e-chapbook of a dozen poems, with the author reading several aloud; chapbook is also available in PDF, with cover art by Ann S. Knickerbocker

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