“A Table Set for Sam” poem by Richard Speer

Richard Speer, author/curator at the Sam Francis Centennial celebrations, LACMA, 2023.

“A Table Set for Sam”
poem by Richard Speer
written June 15-16, 2023
901 Vine Street, Los Angeles
recited at Sam Francis’s 100th birthday celebration
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Saturday, June 24, 2023


Like confetti with abandon strewn aloft
into crystalline air
trickling down
catching light
your gestures like cherry-blossom petals on the breeze of a soft Kyoto night
like fireworks streaking
ruby reds, emeralds, and sapphires in the sky
sparkling, trailing trains and tracers
like angelic psychedelic jellyfish
Blue Balls in a blacklight aquarium
free-floating ultramarine outlined in canary yellow
your forms cocooned in marshmallow clouds
soft and sumptuous
swathed in the void that is not empty
cradled in negative space that is not negation
but charged kinetic pregnant power


You set about to build a footpath for the eye
built it like a mason would
a roadmap for the retina
to glide across the picture plane
and the road sign says, as Sazō did:
“Humanity enters here, come along, take my hand,
cross the bridge with me from West to East and back again.”
You built a boulevard for us to promenade
a stairway to eternity
a ladder to the gods
And on either side, your clustered bulbous globules
drips and spurts and splatters
so organic, nubby, visceral
yet so damned lyrical
so impossibly elegant
a glittergasm shot into the sun
by the child of the waxing moon


Mister Francis, Sir,
a table is set for you here
and on it a birthday cake aflame with one-hundred candles
spoons and forks fashioned from mother-of-pearl
party favors carved of gold and silver
and champagne flutes for a midnight toast
Your centenary celebration
a table set for Sam


After all these years your colors do not fade
but pop and punch
soothe and smooth like silk and velvet
voluptuary hedonic colors
in the mode of your Matisse’s orgiastic joie de vivre
Your colors that exult and resplend
in full peacock effulgence
Your forms buoyancy incarnate
the stuff of balloons and beach balls
fireflies and all things bright and beautiful
that glint and gleam and turn the anxious night to happy day
It’s okay to smile, you tell us
It’s all right to beam


But beach balls don’t stay aloft forever
and one day your colors decided to migrate
to slide on over to the edges
mosey over to the back of the bus
where the cool kids sit
where they could wear sunglasses
and be a little remote
the yawning centers vacated now
reserved for us, you told us
tinted gesso strata underneath
like the faintest pulse of blood
coursing beneath translucent skin


What happened to the psychedelic jellyfish
and all the confetti?
The party took a turn toward the austere
Somebody turned the radio dial to white noise
The honeyed light turned cold
and in walked a dragon lady
in imperial finery
magisterial, mandarin
white-frost filigree on her diamond tiara
bone-white hair without a molecule of melanin
A white-haired Lorelei
“Come on in,” she said, “the water’s fine!
deep and cold with riptides and fearsome fish with teeth and vacant eyes and bottomless hunger
But I shall sing you a lullaby
and rock you gently on the waves
until you go to sleep.”
You looked her up and down and asked: “Are you the white from eternity?”
“Well then, may I have this dance?”


And after the dance was done
because you could not dance any farther toward the edge
without falling off the rim of the earth
you brought the edges back in,
brought the color back
the floating forms
and arcing planks of bleeding watercolor seep and spread
on Photo-Flo with fingers reaching
tendrils across the gap extending
like Isozaki’s Dream Farm structures would have
would that you had stayed
You brought the beams back in
the beams of light on fire
and mandalas nested concentric
and in their middles a square left bare
You knitted a net of matrices
a mesh of myriad mini-ma
with points of entry multiplied
a democratic “ma,” eminently accessible
a hundred whites instead of one
clad in a twinkling checkerboard quilt
like chain mail glinting under Galahad’s armor
Trails and tracers, constellations conjured
sparkling again
once more aglitter
the Grail returned
You always knew how to put the razzle and the dazzle together


Where did you get all those images, Sam,
all those shapes and shadows to lay down on your giant continent
which you stalked like a predator
in your blue Speedo and your white socks
How many lifetimes did you cycle through
to amass all those pictures
to set down in pigments?


You lived so many lives even in this one:
Mister Francis the California bon vivant
scion of sunshine and sportscars
devotee of good food and good-looking women
gracious homes filled with friends visiting from the four corners
always fresh intrigues
and trappings to distract
from that good night impending
that turns all white to black


Mister Francis the American in Paris
the traveler in Tokyo
who, the story went, had had the temerity to hopscotch over New York
leapfrog right over the smoke-stinking slurring sloppy brawling Cedar Tavern
with its puffed-out chests and macho braggadocio
who skipped right over it—the impertinence!—
and landed yourself straight down into the bosom of gay Paris
the salon, café, bistro, pâtisserie
then flew by night into the softly yielding embrace of a sleeping horizontal city
Mister Francis the citizen of the world
leaf in the life-wind aflutter
seldom still
never stilled
until you left us
29 years ago this November
a lad of only 71
You strode into the white space
and did not come back out
Now you regard us from the inside of the canvas
looking out the half-silvered glass
You are far from alone in there
You found Katharine
your ma
and when you embraced her the first time
it was as if that awful break at twelve had never happened
You found Sam, Sr., in there, too, and Virginia
your brilliant Teruko, who joined you three years ago this October
your buddies Ting and Tōno
your Tako and Shimizu
your Iso, who joined you just last year
your Ebi, only two months ago
James Kirsch, who guided you through fields of Morpheus
past the gallery of ancient masks
Are you and Takiguchi taking in baseball games like old times?
Are you and Koyama sipping sake around a fire?
Have you met Confucius and talked philosophy until you were both blue in the face?
Are you flinging sumi ink with Sengai?
Are you and William Blake exchanging stanzas?
Have you met my Dorothy there
and our Leila
and Heike
and those treasured dozen-dozen others we carry around with us everywhere
in our pockets and purses with our keys and chewing gum and Chapstick?
What a party you must all be having
in the banquet halls of Elysium
where the clock never strikes midnight
and the goblets never run dry!


We have a party here too, Sam
with a table set for you
right here between Wilshire Boulevard and 6th Street
spitting distance from your show
Somebody turned the radio back on
and the beach balls began to float again
and those freaky jellyfish, too
And from a silken top hat
we have pulled a magic hundredth birthday cake lit up with Roman candles
Your daugher is here with your granddaughter, grandson, two great-grandchildren
Weekend before last your other granddaughter and three other great-grandchildren
Shingo will be here next week with your grandson
Augustus was here last month
Osamu is here in spirit with your grandson and granddaughter
So many of your friends and fans and colleagues are in the audience right now
and lots of very pretty ladies


Your place is set
your chair empty but filled
with emptiness overflowing with appreciation for you
for you are loved and beloved
and whether you reside in some halcyon unknown region
“where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow”
or are simply
but not merely
in the kingdom of our dreams and memories
you are in any event very much with us
in this modern-day temple of culture and shared knowledge
our dear Mister Francis
man of the hour
artist for the ages
This table is reserved for you.

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