Between Dog and Wolf: A Reading of Jennifer Grotz's "Boulevard Slick with Rain"

The poem "Boulevard Slick with Rain" by Jennifer Grotz appeared in her first collection Cusp (2003) which won the Bread Loaf Bakeless Prize, and is one of the few poems that wasn't originally published in a literary journal first but it was my favorite. She is also the author of a collection called The Needle (2011) and has translated the collection Psalms of All My Days by french author Patrice de La Tour du Pin.

Boulevard Slick with Rain

In the blue light, each of us looks
        For a place we belong.
We don't know how far
        We'll have to walk to catch the metro.

Our shoes scrape against the sidewalk,
        Jan's hand squeezing mine. We fight
Over who carries the suitcase, my black dress
        Stuffed inside for her father's funeral.

Jan wants the weight in her hand.
        Like the painter who carried his portrait under his arm,
As if he might revise it anywhere. Not his fresco
        Fixed in a monastery, where a woman

In a surgical mask studies the palimpsest of dust
        And candle smoke, tries to undo
The damage of hundreds of years.
        It is twilight, all boundary, and the boulevard

Is ribbon winding slowly lighter—entre chien et loup.
        Pigeons strut at the iron gate, restless,
And the boulevard is slick with rain.
        Jan searches her coin purse for francs.

The street funnels the headlights
        From cars, holds them, arranges them in long lines,
Red and white and yellow, our shoes
        Extinguishing the light beneath the sfumato air.

The sidewalk glows metallic—I could go on:
        It silvers, reflects sky. And the artist
With his rolled-up canvas, his brush and egg yolk,
        Perhaps he wanted to preserve this light

Our shoes press into or
        The way we watch a man
Walk to his car, unlock the door,
        Light in his hair as he climbs in,

Gesture of stretching seatbelt, door slam.
        How can we preserve any of this?
Coughing of engine, white reverse lights,
        His head twists backwards as

My lips try to brighten Jan's face with a kiss.
        A woman restores the fresco, one square
Inch per month, and we see the entrance to the metro
        As the boulevard unravels beneath our feet.


Grotz uses the scene to illustrate the concept of uncertainty which is embodied by the French phrase "entre chien et loup" which is literally translated as "between dog and wolf" but has multiple meanings, as the phrase even in English implies. It is mainly used to describe twilight, or that time when it is difficult to tell a dog from a wolf (gloaming is a British term that fits that definition well). Also, not being able to tell a dog from a wolf brings to mind the potential danger that that situation implies. If it's just a dog that you see a few houses down, maybe you'll pet him as you walk by, but it it's a wolf you might be mauled. This is fitting at night for humans as well—never knowing this dimly lit person's intentions. Grotz ties this term to another that has a similar meaning "sfumato" which is an art term that refers to a technique that refers to a style of shading/painting without lines or borders (essentially, I'm no art history expert by any means and would love to update my concept of the term if anyone who is). It literally means "gone up in smoke" and Leonardo described it as "without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the picture plane." Grotz pairs sfumato with entre chien et loup very deliberately in this poem which drips with uncertainty, a lack of exact lines. Let's go back quick and look at the instances of uncertainty.

Even the first sentence bears some weight of uncertainty "each of us looks / For a place to belong." Soon the poem will isolate itself a little to being either the narrator and Jan walking to the metro station and what they see, the woman restoring the fresco, or (briefly) the artist with his portrait—though you could argue the restoration and the painter are tied together as closely as the narrator and Jan—but for the moment, in the first sentence, we are all uncertain of where we belong. This ambiguity introduces us subtly to the theme of the poem.

Line three brings us, without exact 'lines' from the general we to the personal pronoun of we who are not sure "how far / We'll have to walk to catch the metro." This segue melds the universal into the personal deftly, and preps the reader for the situation at hand. By using the ambiguity of the dual use of "we" Grotz inconspicuously brings the idea of sfumato into the poem before the term itself appears.

Line six brings about the uncertainty of who should be carrying the suitcase. Even though it appears to be the narrator's bag, as it contains her dress, Jan needs even the slightest of distraction to take her away from father's recent passing. This is where, in the poem, we are given a fuller picture of the scenario that will be the frame for the poem: the night walk of two women to catch a train to a funeral.

Line eleven brings in the uncertainty of the artist carrying around his portrait who "might revise it anywhere" which reminds the reader that we, as humans, are constantly changing through our experiences. The artist's ever-changing portrait is both in contrast with the 'fixed' fresco, as well as similar to it, as we are informed of in line thirteen where the art conservationist is working to restore the fresco to its original state.

Line sixteen finally introduces the french term that we've been waiting for, specifically referencing the twilight meaning. The last line of the stanza introduces the uncertainty of Jan trying to find their fare in her purse. This is a subtle moment, but it fits well with the immediately previous image of the pigeons pacing.

The following stanza paints the picture that the title evokes. The addition of the artistic term sfumato adds a painterly touch to the poem, which is preserved in the following lines which bring back the painter and his portrait, his egg tempera paint, and more explicitly than before, the idea of intemperance.

Line twenty seven addresses the reader with that eternal question of art "How can we preserve any of this?" The poem's final stanza returns to the painstaking work of the conservationist juxtaposed against the tender image of the narrator consoling Jan with a kiss that the man in the car turns to witness—a play on the voyeuristic aspect of the poem which shows us this intimate walk between the two women in a turbulent time.

The poem finishes with the narrator and Jan finally arriving at the entrance of the metro, the destination, which in itself is merely the beginning of another journey, a sfumato moment in its own right.