The Things of Cezanne
The Things of Cezanne
We stood in Cezanne’s studio
and the guide spoke in French because
the English tour was at 5
and I preferred dinner more than
understanding any language.
It was magical and almost
sacred to stand there, even in French,
the way it had been sacred
and almost magical that morning
to take the bus from Aix in rain—
he died of pneumonia after
painting two hours in a rain—
and wind past farms, hamlets, and wet woods
to stare at the bottom of Mont
St. Victoire which he painted more
than fifty times, whose rocks slanted
fifty yards up to become fog
and cloud and then fog again
so we didn’t want to climb it.
At Cezanne's studio, some things
that were in his still lifes were on
his shelves lined around the big room.
You remember the blue pitcher?
Well, there was that old Blue Pitcher.
The ochre plate? The Ochre Plate.
But the biggest thing stationed there
was a huge stepladder, legs splayed,
ready for his larger canvases,
such a rustic piece of lumber
yet so necessary, climbing
up to work, climbing down to work,
maybe thinking This is getting
really old, though he was happy.
And when we left, the rain came down
again the way it might have rained
on him, I mean on every thing
but he was one of those things then
and we were two of those things now.
Once the first line, a simple statement of fact, came out at 8 syllables (the length of the standard English/American tetrameter line: “Whose woods these are I think I know” vs. “We stood in Cezanne’s studio”) I elected to try to keep that. It can be scanned as having 4 accents in each line with some variations but I prefer to be aware of the accents while using the syllable count as my rule.
This poem is an indication of one of the directions my work is taking these days (2013) which I’d characterize as a kind of playfulness over an echoing of depth.
The details presented of our trip to Aix-en-Provence a year or so ago are factual. My wife and I took a bus and got off at the foot of Mont St. Victoire, the subject of many of Cezanne’s paintings, in a combination of fog and rain that really prevented any climbing or hiking. We took refuge in the one building about a quarter mile away which, luckily, served coffee, and we waited the hour for the bus to come back around. Note that most of this narrative is not in the poem. That afternoon we went to Cezanne’s studio, taking the lecture-tour in French which meant only looking around while someone talked. What struck me, as in the poem, was that many of the objects of his still lifes were there, on tables and shelves, and what really struck me was the huge, rustic stepladder he used to get up to his larger canvases.
The title of the first working draft was “The Stepladder of Cezanne” which, although it didn’t stay as title indicates my approach, my mental attitude, which was based on fun. I thought that title, comparing a great name in art with a common object, was fun to write and to read. One could write “The Teacup of Oscar Wilde” or “The Shoelace of Van Gogh” with similar results. There are two other factors in writing this particular poem.
I have always been afraid of writing “travel” poems for fear they look like bragging (Here I am by the Fountain of Something in Venice last summer—aren’t I special to have been there?) and afraid of writing poems about “art” for some of the same reasons (I know this fact about a great painter and you probably don’t but isn’t art wonderful and aren’t I special?). If you have not read poems like this, consider yourself lucky. Add death to travel and art and you have the makings of a really pretentious poem, in my view.
So part of the humor and ‘messing around’ with the diction comes from trying to overcome those fears and frustrate those aren’t-I-special responses.
This is why, looking back at the composing which was not very conscious of itself at the time, I began with trivial details about the tour’s time and dinner and French rather than a more resounding and noble (pretentious?) tone.
“It was magical and almost sacred” is a very true statement but it has the tone of the aren’t-I-special enthusiasm I wanted to avoid. “Even in French” functions to bring-down the level of cliché as does the reversal coming next, “the way it had been sacred and almost magical that morning.” If you repeat a cliché immediately I think it shows the writer knows it’s a cliché.
The first draft ended with an unnecessarily long treatment of Cezanne catching pneumonia after painting two hours in the rain to get that important death in that important closing position but, for reasons above, that meant I really wanted to de-emphasize that. I needed to get that information in the poem because of the rain we felt that afternoon as we left but it felt forced with so much emphasis at the end so in revisions it got condensed and moved into the second stanza where it could just sit and wait for the poem’s end to become relevant.
There was something magical and almost sacred to see some of the actual objects of his still lifes in this studio but, again, I didn’t want to sound like an intellectual enthusiast so I purposely undercut the tone with “things” and bringing in the reader confidentially and in a colloquial tone (“You remember the blue pitcher? / Well, there was that old Blue Pitcher.”)
The fourth stanza brings in the huge stepladder, so crudely built and so massive that it demanded my attention the whole time in his studio. In the revisions I developed a whole stanza comparing his feelings at his age to my feelings at my age and really made a good comparison. This stanza, however, was eventually deleted, in part due to poet Ted Kooser, to whom I showed a draft, who advised me that the reader at that point was not really interested in Bob King’s feelings about his age or work. Or words to that effect. Ted is good at this and good for me because of this.
I take the last stanza very seriously although, again, the tone is purposely flat. The rain that day did remind me of the rain that proved to be his death
and I felt helpless outside and yet connected to the joy of art, of his art,
and I was standing outside his studio where he might have stood at one time and I was moved. Still I did not want to become artistic or grandiloquent and needed to “bring down” or “tone down” the thought. When I said it rained on “every thing” I realized the import and possibilities of the title and Cezanne became simply a thing (along with his pitchers and plates) and my wife and I had become things, simply objects to be rained upon.
There are higher or deeper “meanings” one could get out of this poem including something about art and its constancy when weighed against short human lives, about the nature of rain and the other elements of nature weighed against our human natures, about the painful or beautiful irony that among the existing great paintings he made are the existing subjects of those paintings, et cetera. But I am not as concerned with those as I am with the functions of that flat colloquial tone addressing huge noble subjects, that it deals with great art and, indeed, great death almost breezily and casually.