Osip Mandelstam, “Cathedral, Empty”

Cathedral, Empty (from A Burning Boat)
Osip Mandelstam (tr. Christian Wiman)

When light, failing,
Falling

Through stained glass,
Liquefies

The long grass
At the feet of christ,

I crawl diabolical
To the foot of the cross

To sip the infinite
Tenderness

Distilled
From destroyed

Hearts:
An air of thriving

Hopelessness
Like a lone cypress

Holding on
To some airless

Annihilating height.

(1910)

Comment:

He crawls “diabolical” to the cross, wanting to “sip the infinite tenderness distilled from destroyed hearts.” What could this possibly mean? Let’s start with the ridiculous, the obviously wrong. Let’s say he’s an angry teenage nihilist, giving himself vampiric attributes. He comes to the cathedral at the empty close of day; he seems to thrive on the hopelessness of others; he crawls (snakelike?), seeing the cross as an empty, “annihilating height.” If we permit the poem to give us this portrait, then the speaker can be said to be an inverted Christ.

I think that’s a useful impression to begin a closer analysis of this poem. After all, who comes to an empty cathedral to dwell on others’ dashed hopes? Still, the details are the truth of the matter, not merely its presentation. The light of the end of the day, failing, falls on iconic grass at the foot of a crucifixion scene. I wonder about icons people pray at. Many times, there are lit candles beneath them, which fading light will merge with. Those lit candles are literally prayers, for the tradition is that as long as the candle is lit, a prayer of sorts is ongoing.

So I’m tempted to think of sunlight, long painted grass, and candlelight all being one, liquefying in the most beautiful way. Only someone thinking about when a cathedral is most beautiful, when it best opens itself up to spiritual realization, would be concerned about the light hanging in the air. Still, our narrator does not cast himself as pure of heart. In crawling diabolical to the foot of the cross, he wants something, just like all the rest of us. He’s attentive to how much wanting to get anything from God costs: “[I] sip the infinite tenderness distilled from destroyed hearts.” We all have immediate needs, a thirst for justice, a want of happiness – to ask for any of these is in a way unjust. Asking for anything can be considered a slight to anyone else’s request. People still ask, not because they’re unjust, but because our earthly needs do run deep. One can only be tender in thinking about how much pain visits that cathedral every day.

Our speaker fails to ask for anything. He’s realized something, a thought which could easily be thought as nihilist as it is religious:

An air of thriving

Hopelessness
Like a lone cypress

Holding on
To some airless

Annihilating height.

Surrounding him, “an air of thriving hopelessness.” The hopelessness thrives, of course, because hope itself thrives. He takes his cynical thought, pocketing it, quietly separating his final image from the light that he sipped from before. The “air of thriving hopelessness” is like the material component of Christ’s sacrifice, “a lone cypress holding on to some airless annihilating height.” The starkness of Christ’s death strikes one immediately, as it doesn’t feel redemptive. The cross reaches an “airless annihilating height.” Belief can be a terrible, frightening risk, much like living. We pray that God answers prayers, honoring the faith shown Him.

Annabel Banks, “Recognition”

Recognition (from Eunoia Review)
Annabel Banks

I’d told you that my brain can’t capture faces,
leaves me blank and reaching without context

clues, some shade of hair or hat, so you waved.
Thank you. It gives me a lift. Some cog connects

to give pleasure from looking at one who said I looked
a pleasure, and saw a glimmer of something else

underneath—but that’s for future walks and waves.
For now, I’m happy to be happy at the memory

of my brain’s happiness to see you, always-new man,
whatever you look like. However you’re made.

Comment:

What a wonderful love poem! “My brain can’t capture faces,” says the speaker. On the one hand, I remember times I liked someone and thought I saw them everywhere. I knew their face so well that I confused it with every other face. On the other hand, our speaker has depicted herself as having a very curious sensory problem. She seems a counterfactual in a philosophical experiment, one run by an extreme skeptic. “What if there were a person who couldn’t recognize faces?” feels very close to “What if we’re all just brains in vats, fed information by a supercomputer?” The latter counterfactual typically concerns how we can or cannot prove the existence of external reality; it ultimately focuses on how certain propositions may or may not establish facts. The former starts with the impossibility of establishing a set of facts, a set of facts that has a larger, philosophical relevance. Is not capturing faces the same as not being able to truly see beyond oneself?

I have to say, this poem puts analytic philosophy to good use. I almost want to go back to writing on Wittgenstein. How is it that completely absurd questions end up clarifying language? In this case, if not being able to truly see beyond oneself is a problem, it isn’t a moral problem. Selfishness is not blindness; one can be blind, earnest, generous. Our speaker is grateful for anything that allows her a moment of recognition. “Some shade of hair or hat” might or might not help her acknowledge someone, but what definitely helps is activity, a sign directed at her: “so you waved.”

In this counterfactual, love emerges from putting the self somewhat together. She articulates the wholeness she’s experiencing by making some connection through her perception:

Some cog connects

to give pleasure from looking at one who said I looked
a pleasure, and saw a glimmer of something else

underneath—but that’s for future walks and waves.

It helps that there’s a lover involved, that the speaker is a beloved (“I looked a pleasure”), but it isn’t hard for us readers to detect the immense joy in just having a “cog” connect. Those of us going through severe health problems know how exhilarating the mere prospect of normalcy can be. Here, having a crush, being crushed on – it’s simply fun to know the brain is processing the moment. There’s a chance at a much greater depth, of getting that much more out of life.

The poem ends on an even more generous note:

For now, I’m happy to be happy at the memory

of my brain’s happiness to see you, always-new man,
whatever you look like. However you’re made.

The speaker takes the problem she has recognizing faces and turns it into a virtue for herself and her own love. She will always see the beloved as someone new. This means she could care less at the same time she cares the utmost about how he’s “made.” Maybe he can’t recognize faces, either. His faults don’t matter when there’s joy in simply thinking about him.

Seamus Heaney, “Field of Vision”

Field of Vision
Seamus Heaney

I remember this woman who sat for years
In a wheelchair, looking straight ahead
Out the window at sycamore trees unleafing
And leafing at the far end of the lane.

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Face to face with her was an education
Of the sort you got across a well-braced gate —
One of those lean, clean, iron, roadside ones
Between two whitewashed pillars, where you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

Comment:

Mark spoke earnestly about his recently deceased aunt. Fighting poverty and abandonment, she raised six children, endured the suicide of one child, overcame her own physical frailty to be present for others. Her grandchildren, her own children, other family, friends, and neighbors packed the funeral, telling story after story, reconstructing her life through now-hallowed memories. Mark attended the funeral, and I heard about it all while driving to a German restaurant in Arlington. In his words, “she made everyone feel special.”

Lots of people are fighters, but it’s still remarkable to hear about those who fight for others. The attraction, I feel, is not as simple as seeing the replacement of selfishness and cynicism with selflessness and hopefulness. Rather, the self is built from suffering, seeing further, uniquely truly. “Field of Vision,” the poem under consideration, confronts us with the wheelchair-bound, with the “steadfast” who never lamented once. We are left to wonder how she educates, what precise character her depth. They also serve who only stand and wait.

I

The narrator remembers “this woman who sat for years in a wheelchair.” In his way, he declares her remarkable (why else would he remember?), allowing the rest of the poem to speak of her as an object of wonder. She herself contemplates the dreadfully mundane and the cosmic, both at once. The sycamore trees at which she stares sit fixed for years. Their leafing and unleafing casts the whole world as a cynical clock, even as it demonstrates the cycle of birth and rebirth.

In her stillness, she witnesses this natural cycle. But what exactly does she know that we must learn? She sees straight out the window, past the TV, at a sameness persisting through the years:

Straight out past the TV in the corner,
The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,
The same small calves with their backs to wind and rain,
The same acre of ragwort, the same mountain.

“The stunted, agitated hawthorn bush,” “the same small calves,” “the same acre of ragwort, the same mountain:” the list of what she sees testifies to her struggle and strength. The list shows that Nature itself endures a variety of ways. Even if stunted or agitated or weedlike, something in Nature never fails to assert its relevance. Treating this as a lesson can make one mountain-like, in a way immovable. Still, human beings are not mountains. Our growth, our perseverance, is mirrored more by the small calves weathering the wind and rain.

II

One of the many problems with writing on short lyric poems is showing careful appreciation for the text. I don’t want to inflate the conclusions I draw, but at the same time, there has to be genuine excitement as we learn to see like the poet. The “how” is so important that it can artificially enlarge the significance of the “why.”

This poem presents no such problem: it is a thoughtful, tremendous tribute. Heaney renders this woman with allusions to Olympian judgment, as if she were Zeus or Athena:

She was steadfast as the big window itself.
Her brow was clear as the chrome bits of the chair.
She never lamented once and she never
Carried a spare ounce of emotional weight.

Her steadfastness, clear brow, spare emotions, and gleaming chair mark her rule. Her lack of lamentation makes her more than human.

Like a god, only mysteries attend her. She leads those with the willingness to read her face to a specific resolve, one grounded in seeing frailty as part of the natural. She can testify that endurance alone is a virtue. That, at least, is what I get out of the surface of the fourth stanza’s imagery. Facing her is facing a “well-braced gate,” “lean, clean, iron,” barring movement. The gate stands strong, pure. It is both her and the education she provides.

Her resolve is a paradox, as her strength ultimately comes from frailty. The purity to which Heaney alludes stems from principles cementing that resolve, ones which speak to us universally. Yet the bearer of those principles is very much an individual. The principles didn’t inform her, then make her better. She discovered them within herself, using them to build her life. The final stanza, in complicating and deepening the gate image of the fourth, speaks to this:

…you could see

Deeper into the country than you expected
And discovered that the field behind the hedge
Grew more distinctly strange as you kept standing
Focused and drawn in by what barred the way.

The gate itself, a restriction, leads one to wonder what lies beyond. The wonderment, the will to knowledge, grows. I don’t feel this the same as the cliche “obstacles make us stronger,” or the far less cliche and tragically true “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” The last stanza has a double quality. The speaker, face to face with the woman, tries to learn from what he perceives, finding her stranger, ever more interesting. But what he perceives is not a matter of solipsism, or being lost in his own subjectivity. He is trying to learn from the woman, who is also trying to see, and the image of her as a gate shows that she, as observer and knower, has changed access to everything else for him. To learn her strength means to see more, to see as she does, to find her oracular.

ACTC Conference Paper on Seamus Heaney

In Atlanta, thinking a lot about presentation, being clear, letting the depth of the things I read speak for itself. Not being in the way of the text is the most difficult thing, as it ironically requires one to step forth and be clear about what one understands and doesn’t understand.

Here’s the link to the paper I’m presenting: http://www.ashokkarra.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Karra-Paper-on-Seamus-Heaney.pdf

Your feedback is welcome. I hope I haven’t been too convoluted, and I certainly hope my remarks are not too much of a stretch. My hope is to add more poems to the framework, while sourcing more, letting this become a richer and richer tapestry. Right now I think of it less a tapestry and more like a shower mat.

Kay Ryan, “New Rooms”

New Rooms (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

The mind must
set itself up
wherever it goes
and it would be
most convenient
to impose its
old rooms — just
tack them up
like an interior
tent. Oh but
the new holes
aren’t where
the windows
went.

Comment:

I’d like to think myself open-minded. Not a mind that “must set itself up wherever it goes,” but one that receives the world, works for the truth, matches the universal and particular accordingly. To say “the mind must set itself up” already feels like one imposes on situations, one declares oneself because one can.

Contrary to my egoistic idealism, this poem goes a different direction. Again, the mind sets itself up “wherever it goes,” implying that it gets bounced around a bit more than it would like. Responding in the spirit of convenience at times, it imposes “its old rooms.” Going right up to the limits of wherever, the mind tacks those old rooms up “like an interior tent.” Ryan ends the poem with one simple detail, one lament, after the old rooms are imposed upon the new location: “Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went.”

I’ve got a million questions at this point. I want to learn more about what sort of inquiry we’re talking about, where we tack up an old interior inside a new one, where mind feels bounded no matter what. I want to understand the idea of nature hinted at in this poem. “Windows” prioritizes a link to the outside, even though there is so much interior talk.

But mainly, I need to know who is speaking. The poem does not shy away from conceptual metaphors, ones which seem far too abstract, potentially denying coherence. Still, each metaphor taken by itself sheds light on the central problem. “The mind must set itself up wherever it goes” gives us the image of a wandering nomad. In the name of freedom, of not being bound to a specific piece of land, she has to embrace necessity. This is at times more a burden than a willed way of life.

The next metaphor, “it would be most convenient to impose its old rooms — just tack them up like an interior tent,” contains some consistency with the previous one. I can’t help but think of yurts, those portable tents used by Mongols. Still, these verses taken on their own constitute a decisive break with what has come before. The mind must impose “old rooms” like an “interior tent” because in some sense, mind cannot possibly be completely open. It has a structure, it has limits, it is an interior itself. Those limits can be relative to the situation, of course, and that’s what we’re talking about in this poem. Whatever situation our speaker/wanderer/nomad faces, it’s forcing her mind to be different, to see differently, confusing her completely. So why not put up the old rooms, use the conceptual framework previous? The limits of the new situation, the rules that must be mastered, can simply be covered up. Just tack up those walls already.

“Oh but the new holes aren’t where the windows went,” cries the speaker in an all too personal way. It’s really funny how the mind is an interior, yet one can’t just shape it however one likes. You can’t just graft old rooms onto the new, because then you block the outside. You block the possibility of enlightenment, of seeing nature. It’s strange how that possibility is entirely contingent on an internal arrangement, as if rationality were a moral endeavor or a miracle. As if you had to believe you can know.

Who is our speaker? Probably not someone as overtly concerned with rationality or enlightenment. I know the times I use the old rooms to cover the new. I didn’t want to face being wrong then, I certainly don’t want to face it now. Those friendships and relationships broke apart for every reason other than me; I changed where I live to simply be me elsewhere. It only takes a few moments to realize how deep the delusion goes. I can’t see out the window, indeed.

Annabel Banks, “Literature to Kill Wasps”

Literature to Kill Wasps (from Yes, Poetry)
Annabel Banks

is all I shall carry from now on
chapters to crush unthorned
antlers searching for a sting
I use my fist, pounding pages
as characters look up to say
“come in” at wrong moments
wasp jam to stain the page
where finally we learn the voice
unreliable as pound-shop repellent
and consider all that’s gone before
in new colours, black words
across hi-vis yellow vests
with danger and authority

Comment:

Reading is dangerous, especially if you’re a wasp. According to the poem, we wasps have to worry about frustrated literati using books to crush us. A record of kills is even maintained through splattered yellow upon the pages.

Maybe reading is dangerous for more than wasps, though. What is reading, anyway? The poem begins by declaring “Literature to kill wasps is all I shall carry from now on.” Our speaker doesn’t say she plans to do any reading. Her resolution makes me wonder if there is such a thing as reading in some pure sense, whether it is possible to do anything with literature other than kill wasps. To be clear, I think many of us have an idealized image of a reader, one who sits for hours in dialogue with the author of a work, carefully teasing out her logic, appreciating her art, bringing as much knowledge as we can to her work. We have that image, and then we have real life: a million and one distractions attend us, distractions like wasps.

If we follow this line of thought, what exactly is dangerous about reading? The image of the ideal reader? Wasps and wasp-like distractions? Something else entirely? The wasps have their “unthorned antlers searching for a sting,” but chapters in conjunction with fists crush them. Killing wasps, who are not presented to us as terribly dangerous, distorts the text of the book at the very moment the book comes alive. Characters say “come in,” inviting the reader, inviting the wasp, only to have wasp jam smeared all over their speeches and doings. You can see why I’m playing with the idea that wasps are distractions. They literally are, and they are invaluable to reading. It’s like there is no such thing as focus. There’s only being distracted in a way that you’re aware you’re distracted, or being completely unaware that you’re not even remotely on task.

So it seems what’s dangerous about reading is that it kills us wasps. We’re only as good as our distractions, our efforts to read. We started with our fists, crushing wasps between pages, then noticed that we were throwing splattered bugs upon defined, innocent characters. Reading should be dangerous. This, for lack of a better word, “process” brings us to a voice we learn, “unreliable as pound-shop repellent,” yet necessary for life. That voice is part of our considering “all that’s gone before in new colors.” Reading is distracted, fragmented, perspectival. The black words of literature still show through the yellow – there’s a basis for a more common understanding – but the “danger and authority” of those words lies in our bug smashing escapade. We overcome our distractions and upon reflection find them weirdly defining.

Wislawa Szymborska, “Example”

for Monika

Example (from The Drugstore Notebook)
Wislawa Szymborska (tr. Clare Cavanagh & Stanislaw Baranczak)

A gale
stripped all the leaves from the trees last night
except for one leaf
left
to sway solo on a naked branch.

With this example
Violence demonstrates
that yes of course –
it likes its little joke from time to time.

Comment:

– Ridiculous! How uncharmingly oversentimental. I fail to shudder at the gale which left one leaf swinging solo on a branch. What kind of person finds herself transfixed by a lonely leaf? –

It’s my loss if I fail to shudder. Overstatement weaves together with understatement all throughout the poem, but especially in the first stanza, the stanza introducing the gale. Szymborska explicitly states the wind’s destruction of the trees, as it “stripped all the leaves from the trees last night / except for one leaf.” She leaves the rest to our imagination. We’re forced to ask what the gale did to the rest of the landscape, what it did to the speaker’s own house, whether it horrified her, giving her a restless, sleepless night. The state of the “one leaf” provides the answer. “Left to sway solo on a naked branch,” it stands for the speaker herself, alone, tormented by violence, and the difficulty of communicating the effects of that violence.

That difficulty lies in the seeming. One’s pain can always seem ridiculous and trivial to others, no matter how deeply it cuts. The second stanza elaborates this, again with a mixture of overstatement and understatement. First, the overstatement: the gale wrecking the trees is no less than an “example,” perhaps the example of a godlike Violence. He uses leaves and people and whatever else to chuckle to himself. Violence is alone, too, and this nearly marks him a superior being, as he stands immune to his own power.

The overstatement undoes itself. Violence, depicted as a cruel, laughing god who uses the world to demonstrate his power, might breed in some a cynical attitude toward the speaker. How dare she take her private, quiet pains and compare them with the savagery of natural disasters or war? Ah, but the moment one asks that question, the speaker’s point is proved. Hiding in our repulsion at the carnage of battle or thousands left homeless after a storm can be a bit of a nasty sentiment. Pains matter more if they concern us, as we overvalue the public perception of pain. That public perception has embedded itself deeply in our expectations, our more informed opinions, our traditions.

Which brings us to why this poem was written at all. To recap: alone, despairing, justifiably scared, she identifies with a lonely leaf on a branch after a storm. It seems ridiculous to us to dwell on being torn apart by some random action of the universe. After all, bravery depends on the reasonable expectation that one can continue as oneself for some time. The poem does not deny any of this. It quietly asserts that it is at least as ridiculous to fail to see how many lives are neglected, cast aside, isolated, as if Violence was the only government.

Alison Croggon, “I will stop writing”

for Nadia

I will stop writing (from Lost Poems of Croggon)
Alison Croggon

I will stop writing and walk out, and in the clamour of commerce I will consider the value of truth.

When I return, the evening light will be yellow and the bird that whistled all day will have fallen silent.

Once again I will discover that I have nothing to say. Perhaps a bright instrument may flash then, in my empty hands.

Comment:

1. Nadia kindly asked me about techniques for staying focused. She meant well, as not so long ago, I was reading, note-taking, and writing regularly. Sure, much of the writing may have been worse than useless, but the immediate result isn’t always terribly important.

That seems counterintuitive, I grant. What good is production if nothing important, beautiful, or thoughtful emerges? There’s plenty of incoherence, messiness, and narcissistic ranting in this world. Shouldn’t art in general afford a bit of clarity? Shouldn’t a writer, at the least, force herself to be clear, if only to understand her own thoughts?

My one technique for staying focused, for making organization in anything one does a priority, follows from this advice Rilke gave a young writer:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

Regarding writing, Rilke says to ask yourself nothing less than “Must I write?” If you answer “yes,” then you build your life, your whole life, “in accordance with this necessity.” This may initially feel overwrought and far too dramatic to be serious advice. I do encourage reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, though, where the above quote comes from. Rilke does a masterful job of instructing the young poet – I wish I could be a hundredth of the teacher Rilke is – and the poem the young poet eventually produces speaks for itself.

Ultimately, I do think focus is pretty much a matter of priority. The things we consider most important we work at relentlessly, finding how we can be efficient at them. I should be clear that I am not trying to make some obnoxious grand pronouncement of the “no one needs techniques to be focused” sort. On the contrary, I need post-it notes, a calendar, to-do lists, e-mails, texts, phone calls, and people reminding me verbally and with violent, angry gestures what I need to do any given day. My best days at work I come in with a game plan, where I write down the larger goals I want to achieve (i.e. “keep things positive, keep people motivated, show generosity works”) and break them down into smaller goals before I’ve even entered the building.

There are worthwhile techniques for staying focused. The reason why I’m saying “staying focused is a matter of priority” is because it’s the truth. Like all truths, it involves deep ironies and contradictory consequences. Alison Croggon’s meditation on not writing, on leaving pen and paper behind for a time to experience the world, introduces those problems.

2. “I will stop writing and walk out, and in the clamour of commerce I will consider the value of truth.” A writer can be frustrated in many ways, but one of the worst involves wondering whether one does any justice to the truth, whether one’s own words meet the measure of their intrinsic worth. Walking away, into the world, moves one from the realm of words and ideals into something prior, messy, and real. The “clamour of commerce” begs to be articulate, creating a space for one to feel, think, consider.

Still, “the value of truth” continues to place a high burden on the writer. The struggle is to find the nerve to find focus again, to write again. Of necessity, our narrator returns home. The “clamour of commerce” has withdrawn, and her observations concern the natural: “When I return, the evening light will be yellow and the bird that whistled all day will have fallen silent.” There’s a brightness, mellowness, and quiet marking the end of the day which might tempt us into thinking it a panacea for all times we confront frustration. I think it worth noting that this had to follow the “clamour of commerce:” nothing has been written yet.

3. In fact, it is unclear if anything can be written. “Once again I will discover that I have nothing to say,” the poem announces. Frustration and losing focus aren’t simply obstacles to be overcome. There is nothing easy about truth; the link between knowledge and utility deceives at least as much as it enables. To be clear, the narrator has stepped away from writing in order to see the world again. She’s paid attention to nature and described it as welcoming of her voice. Yet despite both these things, saying something is still difficult. The very fact that our focus requires having a sense of priority points to the objects of art being beyond us. Heck, something about our own selves is beyond us.

Importance lies in the preparation. One stops writing in order to cast a spell, in order to invoke a power nearly magical: “Perhaps a bright instrument may flash then, in my empty hands.” It sounds ludicrous, like a facile, cynical conclusion. But it speaks most directly to the importance of writing, as well as the irony of focusing on anything. The things that must be done well are also worth not doing, ironically enough. The drive that pushes one to pay close attention and produce something also pushes away from production. Lacking nerve and hesitating come from knowledge as much as they do from cowardice. It’s strange knowledge can put one in situations where one might not be able to know more, but that’s what it means for most of us to live in this world. The only appropriate response: one’s writing is a form of magic. One embraces the frustration, taking ordinary, incongruous elements, mixing them together, testing whether one has any power or not.

Kay Ryan, “All You Did”

All You Did (from Poetry)
Kay Ryan

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.
All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

Comment:

Ambition, guilt, and perspective combine in this poem’s fatalism. It casts us in the role of a panicked mountain climber, to begin:

There doesn’t seem
to be a crack. A
higher pin cannot
be set. Nor can
you go back. You
hadn’t even known
the face was vertical.

The effect of these simple observations dizzies. Climbing, assuming the summit within reach, one fails to find a crack. Panic emerges in quiet, too-reasonable propositions. “A higher pin cannot be set:” am I stuck on a sheer vertical face? “Nor can you go back:” what Ryan has left unstated is best left unstated.

Before I comment on “You hadn’t even known the face was vertical,” we should contemplate the concreteness of this poem. Often, we create no-win situations, striving, reaching a point of exhaustion and failure, like nothing has been planned or thought through. I think it safe to say this poem focuses on the largest objects: relationships, healing broken families, fighting for one’s health, raising children, creating, even getting a degree – things, in short, that take years of one’s life. The very ambition and drive pushing us to the top makes the guilt that much harder to bear. How could we have been so stupid, planned so badly?

The collapse of ambition into guilt, that terrible numbness, invites the question of perspective. Ryan does not let the emotional effect fade. The poem’s brevity makes me feel like I’m suspended on a cliff-face, wondering what in hell brought me here, watching my life flash before my eyes. That, I think, is the import of “You hadn’t even known the face was vertical.”

It is interesting, then, that the question of perspective presents itself in a flashback:

All you did was
walk into a room.
The tipping up
from flat was
gradual, you
must assume.

The flashback attempts to absolve guilt even as it makes it worse. I wasn’t really ambitious, I tell myself, I just made a simple choice of walking into a room. At once, I think I could have walked away earlier, or I was “lured” by the fact I live life. Guilt, in the end, is a pretty useless concept, as it is the equivalent of being stranded on a cliff-face.

Perspective itself offers a bit more clarity. Instead of looking at ourselves as world-beating wall-climbers or victims of fate, maybe we should just admit that we were doing what we loved all along. It was just as easy for us to climb a cliff as it was to walk into a room. That was the trap, and it was impossible to avoid, because the world presented itself to us gradually through it. We know now what it means to know. The cost is terrible. There is nothing more to say.

“Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye,” at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth TX

Gustave Caillebotte: The Painter’s Eye
an exhibition at the Kimbell Museum of Art, Fort Worth, TX. November 8, 2015 – February 14, 2016
Exhibition website

I

It is somewhat unsettling that a painter as accomplished as Caillebotte critiques two artistic virtues: the desire for order and one’s intensity of focus. Both are considered emblematic of human reason. I don’t think rationality necessarily underlies serious painting, as, say, throwing away Expressionism and the Fauves in favor of realizing Platonic forms makes no sense. Insisting on a strict correspondence between art and rationality leads to the worst sort of conservatism, one that can’t help but be self-parody. But I do think an artist wants to see his audience engage a work as intelligently as possible, and that it is possible to create a dark cynicism which discourages a fully engaged audience. If we desire to better our minds, we could adopt an air of arrogance while striving for order, training a more serious gaze. However, not all of us will look like this guy:

Gustave Caillebotte, "L'Homme au balcon, Boulevard Haussmann" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “L’Homme au balcon, Boulevard Haussmann” (1880)

Dressed in the finery of his top hat and tailored jacket, our protagonist stands regally, impatiently upon his wrought-iron balustrade, overlooking the boulevard in Paris on a bright, lush day. He’s waiting not so much to see others as to be seen. The modern, reformed Paris of Napoleon III into which he stares is really his hope and expectation. I’d like to laugh a bit at his pomposity, but then again, I’ve gone to an art museum to get digits, and we’re staring out the doorway at him. That glass door on the right reflects both of us.

II

Pretensions to higher class claim a superior grasp of rationality, the status of natural aristocracy. Whether Social Darwinism promoting Carnegie and Rockefeller as more evolved, or the ancien régime concluding any alternative to it irrational, we arrive at the same place. Yet there’s something honest, refreshing, and strangely modest about a well-dressed guy trying to show off his outfit.

Gustave Caillbotte, "Portrait of Eugene Daufresne" (1878)

Gustave Caillbotte, “Portrait of Eugene Daufresne” (1878)

The Portrait of Eugene Daufresne (1878) features its subject tense in a chair, intent on the pages he has put directly in front of himself. The scene screams wealth. Lush fabrics abound: his suit, the red upholstery, the matching curtains. The tall, marble fireplace with some sort of golden ornament upon the mantel. His gold chain. I felt, looking at this in person, that the angle was thrusting me into his orbit. Do people who appropriate, who put everyone else in order, actually read?

Gustave Caillebotte, "Portrait of a Man" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Portrait of a Man” (1880)

Portrait of a Man (1880) conveys a very different feeling, despite strong parallels with the Portrait of Eugene Daufresne. The subject, suited in a red chair, sits by a wall with gold trim and a lace curtain. However, he gazes out the bright window almost in profile. If there is any doubt to what he’s thinking, then note the green of his vest complementing the verdure outside, the flower-like tie, and his tensing hands. He looks about to get up and go. Attention to order, our focus, brought us to his movement.

III

Gustave Caillebotte, "Game of Bezique" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Game of Bezique” (1880)

Still, the criticism of focus, directed to both artist and audience, is razor sharp. To be clear, consider Game of Bezique (1880). Each figure in the painting pays attention in his own way, culminating in satire. I remember being drawn in by the bearded player seated at the left of the table, holding cards. He stares at the cards with the intensity of one doing heart surgery. Standing tall beside him is a well-dressed, intrigued man. The two smoking pipes seated opposite wear their experience, but that doesn’t mean the gentleman in a brown jacket has any less focus. Only the guy on the couch, bored out of his skull, gives away the whole game. He’s not paying attention to any of this: he’s not paying attention in a study of people paying attention. Attentiveness is something we as observers read into others’ expressions. It’s a construct of the artist. Game of Bezique may be a trivial example, but can we imagine the same expressions in a scene from a laboratory, a hospital, or a battlefield?

Gustave Caillebotte, "Luncheon" (1876)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Luncheon” (1876)

Order, I feel, gets similar treatment in Luncheon (1876). The narrative that painting holds, the loss of a father, makes one wonder what would have happened if he simply painted a whole canvas black. The finery and rituals of the household mean nothing compared to the ghostly reflections of the crystal. Not order, but the weight of things, carries the grief. How necessary is order, anyway? Nude on a Couch (1880) has a potent sexuality emerge from its unusually frank earthiness. Her feet are badly bruised and swollen; her garments and shoes look burdensome, relentless, even thrown aside. Exhausted, her whole figure says “no” as the painting pulsates with tenderness.

Gustave Caillebotte, "Nude on a Couch" (1880)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Nude on a Couch” (1880)

IV

Gustave Caillebotte, "Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilliers" (1885)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilliers” (1885)

It’s strange to conclude that order and focus are, in a way, tricks we play on ourselves. To know how one knows is a much taller order than to simply know, but why should the consequences of this proposition feel so radical? Caillebotte’s command of scope might be his greatest asset. Everything is meant to frame the liveliness of just one object. In Sunflowers in the Garden at Petit Gennevilles (1885), how the geometric buildings collapse into sinuous, twisted vines, all to display a mess of sunflowers. Within that mess, Caillebotte captures how some petals cast shadows on the flower itself. In Prairie at Yerres (1875), how the placement of trees and bushes creates a sense of depth, a never ending field of green.

Gustave Caillebotte, "Prairie at Yerres" (1875)

Gustave Caillebotte, “Prairie at Yerres” (1875)