Seeing It Better: A Review of 'After Cézanne' by MaitreyabandhuOn Thu, 21 April, 2022 - 17:26
Review by Vishvapani
Maitreyabandhu’s most recent poetry collection reflects on Cézanne’s paintings and is a subtle meditation on the possibilities of art and perception
The epigraph of Maitreyabandhu’s most recent collection After Cézanne is a quote from a letter the artist sent to Emile Bernard in 1904: ‘Talking about art is virtually useless.’ That challenges the fifty-plus poems in the collection, which all relate directly or indirectly to Cézanne’s painting and are generously illustrated by many of the paintings themselves. If you have a painting on the left side of a spread that says exactly what it wants in the language of colour and form, why attempt to illuminate it with a poem on the right in words that are ‘virtually useless’ for this purpose?
One answer is that these poems are like a museum audio guide, filled with references to Cézanne’s life, letters and friendships – Pissaro, Zola and Rilke among many others – and augmented by eight pages of detailed notes and references. This is elegantly done, but you could get it from any introduction to Cézanne. The distinctive element here is the poems’ guidance in how to look at the paintings.
This orange, if it is an orange, finding
its necessary weight. This lemon turned
towards the orange, which is so empathically
full face. This propped up apple almost erotic
in curvaceousness and stem-end. This distance –
intimate, standoffish – between the apple
and a second lemon. This fellowship of fruit,
these colours conversing separately and apart.
‘The Apple’s Progress’
In Maitreyabandhu’s gaze, Cézanne’s still life is a menage held in the ‘swaying balance’ of form, colour and light, and inseparable from its connotations in the poet’s mind. He excels at translating visual images into words, as if their incommensurability is a challenge to his eloquence. Here he is on the late painting ‘Self Portrait with Palette’:
There might be a word for a canvas left bare
here in the shadowing, here at his throat –
a granular light, frost showing weave
stippling the beard and salting his gaze …
A further purpose is the more personal project of exploring Maitreyabandhu’s relationship to Cézanne and, as Maitreyabandhu trained as a painter long before he turned to poetry, the descriptions of Cézanne’s work are, in a sense, accounts of his own thwarted ambitions:
Once I tried, like you, to sweat it out
mark by happy mark – I had a mountain
all my own and more grief and stupid rage
than I could shake a stick at. I stretched paper,
took my brush in hand and said to myself,
No romancing now, no cut and dash,
just this line here, no this, this emptied blue,
this grey. But the mountain was beyond me
and the pine trees creaked and lumbered off,
folding up the road behind them as they went.
‘Self Portrait of the Artist Wearing a Hat’
There are some false notes (‘shake a stick”?), but also an accomplished personal voice that Maitreyabandu developed in his previous collections – The Crumb Road (2013) and Yarn (2015). Moments of aesthetic excitement and meditative depth abound, but Maitreyabandhu typically offers them with a candid, wryly amused recognition of his limitations. That is often a strength, but the poems sometimes falter in embarrassment when they approach the notion that Maitreyabandhu’s experience might contain something of lasting worth, and he clearly aspires to more than charming self-deprecation. Making Cézanne his subject offers a way to escape himself and the collection includes narrative alongside description and first-person exposition from the perspective of Cézanne, one of his associates and even a character in one of the paintings.
But as this is poetry rather than art criticism the subjective element of Matreyabandhu’s response to Cézanne is part of his concern. What’s more, Cézanne’s art itself explores the relation between the inner and outer dimensions of experience and their intersection in the pleasures and uncertainties of perception. This is to say, in Cézanne’s depiction of Mont Saint-Victoire we have the painter, the mountain, and the painter’s perception of the mountain; and in After Cézanne we also have the poet with his perception of the painting and all his reflections on mountains, paintings, poems and perceptions. Finally, Maitreyabandhu is especially interested in the possibility of a mode of perception, or perhaps a mode of being, in which these distinctions cease to matter.
After Cézanne centres on ‘Einstein’s Watch’, one of the longer and most ambitious of its poems. It starts as Maitreyabandhu finds a place where he can ‘sit and think it out’, only to discover that he ‘can’t decide what thinking’s for / Or what the “it” might be.’ He is ordinary – ‘like you I am always busy’ – but allows that something else happens in the moments when his chattering mind momentarily quietens and he sits, in Shakespearean mode, ‘where lapping waters / meet a grassy bank’. He muses that the world he observes ‘is but the workings of our mind’ and ponders the relationship between this subjectivism and the concrete specificity – ‘this such-and-such, this now-and-then’ – that is before him. That contemplation highlights the unsatisfactoriness of our normal states of mind driven, as they are, by ‘usefulness and want’. But the poem is most concerned with a sense of a dimension that becomes visible to Maitreyabandhu when ‘[I] look myself out of looking’, and it is ‘something that can’t be got at, can’t be accounted for on April mornings’. Characteristically hedging his intimations of sublimity with self-deprecation, he turns from his own experience to that of Cézanne, for whose accomplishment he need make no apologies.
And what I say is that he saw it better,
was there better with his haversack and brush,
Finding his way, making a little progress
In some great matter he couldn’t abide to preach
As if the meaning – while the ducks return
and the water troubles itself with ripples,
out and further out (one of those minor
skirmishes we’re prone to) – as if the meaning,
if only we’d look long and hard enough,
were in the non infinito of the eye.
Cézanne, is to some degree a proxy for Maitreyabandhu in these poems, at least Maitreyabandhu as he would like to be, and we wonder whether it is really the taciturn poet or the prolific but discomfited Buddhist teacher who can’t abide to preach. Nonetheless, a kind of preaching persists, though it is usually indirect and often ironic. Non infinito is used in sculpture to mean ‘unfinished’, so the last line of this stanza says that the meaning of what we see inheres in the incompleteness of our gaze.
Perhaps it is inevitable that a meditation on Cézanne should become a reflection on perception. In Cézanne’s paintings of Sainte-Victoire we observe the concrete dissolving into light and colour – the elements that are available to the viewer’s perception – and Maitreyabandhu attempts to articulate this aesthetic, and its superiority over a more literal representation, in ‘The Disfluency of Cézanne’:
So wave away the cameramen
And call the painter to set the picture straight.
Let him find in imprecision a stratagem
Of correction the lens cannot placate.
Make the real realer with every touch,
Unfocused and drifting — have it vacillate —
cast doubt on everything we know, help us
Disavow what carries too much weight.
When Maitreyabandhu reflects on Cézanne in this way he enters territory that is already inhabited by a massive poetic presence: that of Wallace Stevens, who pondered Cézanne’s art and the aesthetic and ontological questions it raises in some of the most eloquent and searching poems written in the Twentieth Century. Lines from Stevens echo in the poems – the April morning of ‘Einstein’s Watch’ recalls Stevens’ ‘Sunday Morning’, and there is surely an affinity between the injunction ‘have it vacilate’ and the section of Stevens’ ‘Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction’entitled ‘It Must Change’.
It is bad enough to be after Cézanne, but to come after Stevens as well is a considerable challenge for one retaining an ambition to say something fresh. Maitreyabandhu’s strategy in in the brilliant poem ‘A Worm Composing on a Straw’ is not only to recognise Stevens explicitly, but to ventriloquise him. Maitreyabandhu’s poem reworks ‘Earthly Anecdote’ from Stevens’ first collection, Harmonium, but imagines that Stevens, on his deathbed, enters a synaesthetic reverie of a ‘bluish wind / which is whispering something large’. This invokes both ‘The Man with a Blue Guitar’, Stevens long reflection on art from which the poems title is drawn, and Shelley’s wild west wind which, for Stevens, was an image of the poet’s inspiration. His body failing, Stevens is a frail and limited being – a worm, who composes on a straw; but this deathbed opening in his consciousness transforms Stevens perception. The world now ‘is peppermint and cloves’. Stevens’ surroundings merge with those of Cézanne, and the painter enters Stevens’ thoughts ‘muttering about sensation / and a more than sensual blue’. Cézanne’s world exists ‘in summer’s grip / the reddest earth, a savage too-much green’: something that cannot be reduced to a meaning or elevated to an ideal. Yet it is a form of completion that challenges any idea that something more is required from art or ourselves, and Cézanne ironically asks: ‘Is art a priesthood that requires / the pure of heart to belong to it completely?’ After a lifetime of striving ‘towards a better world / beyond the Father and his foes’ the dying Stevens at last finds a form of resolution that can only be expressed in the terms of his own imagined landscapes:
Better this wrongheadedness, under
this linden Tree, than all the bristling nos
like firecats in the snows of Oklahoma.
The firecats of ‘Earthy Anecdote’ block the path of the careering imagination, and Cézanne’s ‘wrongheadedness’, enables Stevens to evade them at last. Meanwhile, in reanimating these struggles Maitreyabandhu makes Stevens another of his alter egos, and this act of imagination is another escape from his limitations and all the ‘bristling nos’ of his own life.
More obliquely, the very fine ‘This Painting of a Mountain’ is filled with both the themes and imagery of ‘The Man With The Blue Guitar’ and subtly plays with its forms. Maitreyabandhu replaces Stevens’ rhyming couplets with couplets that do not rhyme but, you might say, desire to do so, until they at last become heroic in the final lines. The poem’s images, Maitreyabandhu explains, are:
Just my doting way to say Cézanne
Has seen it better, the sacred and profane
In this painting of a mountain and a lane.
That could be a motto for the whole of this very fine collection, though it is important to add that Cézanne sees it better precisely because of understands incompleteness, imprecision and wrongheadedness. Maitreyabandhu’s poems know they will never catch up with Cézanne, but reflect that Cézanne is triumphant precisely because he isn’t trying to get anywhere. The collection ends:
If we could linger long enough to look
at this bone idle smoker or that woman turning round,
We’d see you’ve left everything exactly as you found it.
‘A Horde of Destructions’
Poems from ‘After Cézanne’
A Worm Composing on a Straw
Wallace Stevens on his deathbed is calling
for the priest. The priest bends somewhat closer,
holding out a cross or he becomes a firecat
where the swerving bucks go clattering.
Stevens tries to breathe. A bluish wind
which is whispering something large – it may be
winter or summer, there are leaves or they
have fallen – is quarrelling the trees. He shuts
his eyes. The world is peppermint and cloves.
Snowflakes fall that soon are falling fast
over Hartford, Connecticut, its law courts,
offices and schools; falling now as rain
on the mountain, a laundry cart clattering
over the hill, Cézanne muttering about
sensation and a more than sensual blue,
rain in his eyes, the apples spiked and bruised
and sent off to the cider-apple heap.
The poet strives towards a better world
beyond the Father and his foes, a yes
beyond the usual yes and no, some provocation,
while the painter takes his place in summer’s grip,
the reddest earth, a savage too-much green
and asks ‘Is art really a priesthood that requires
the pure in heart to belong to it completely?’
Better this wrongheadedness, under
the linden tree, than all those bristling nos
like firecats in the snows of Oklahoma.
This Painting of a Mountain
This painting of a mountain and a lane,
a thirsty spruce blowing up a curve,
the mountain falling on its knees, the sky
above a yellow earth made morning-cool,
made evening-warm, a lane that winds below
a house in summer’s painted wind, a wind
that stops in green and greener trees, all this –
a sensual sky and summer not yet done –
is not to say adieu to yellow roads
and gusty trees, this hulking up beyond,
but just the longest doting way to say
bonjour bonjour to summer’s massive house.
To say bonjour to summer’s massive house,
to call it red and yellow, blue for shade,
to say this blueness is the breadth of sky,
this yellow but the dustiness of lanes –
a tree that shakes itself in summer wind,
a wind that blows us mortal, out and in –
to know we pass our days in summer’s house,
our home below the beaten sky of gold
that Moses saw above Mount Horeb’s height,
is just another way to say Cézanne
has seen it better, the sacred and profane
in this painting of a mountain and a lane.