W. S. Di Piero, “On a Picture by Cézanne”

With many thanks to Adam Cooper

On a Picture by Cézanne (from Poetry)
W. S. Di Piero

There’s no description in the braided stone,
the pear, the stone in the pear, the birchbark,
bread hills on the snowfall tablecloth.
The dog of work gnaws the day’s short bone,
snarls a mountainside into lavender and green.
In the mind where objects vanish, almost is all.
Element of pitcher, sky, rockface, blank canvas
plastic and vast in one off-center patch.
To copy what’s invisible, to improvise
a soul of things and remake solid life
into fresh anxious unlifelike form.


Adam noted many neat things about this poem. But his comment about “There’s no description” is what I am most jealous of:

Cezanne’s painting doesn’t “describe” the things of the world at all–it does something else with them/to them.

Adam rightly saw that the quiet beginning is not so quiet, after all. What does it mean to move beyond description, beyond the details we see and draw out?

I missed that beginning, I confess. Got drawn into the list, which holds a most Platonic thought. When you craft something, you do not create an object. You create at least two: “braided stone, the pear, the stone in the pear, the birchbark, bread hills on the snowfall tablecloth.” The Platonic thought, via Jacob Klein, is that there isn’t “Nothing,” but rather “Being” and “Image.” Every being has an image (h/t Nathaniel Cochran). Images aren’t just like one being – they’re also like other beings. Beings are like other beings, implying others. The stone/pear pairing mixes inorganic and organic; “birchbark” reminds of the part/whole distinction; then there’s “bread hills on the snowfall tablecloth.” No description – we simply see where we are.

This focus on being and crafting makes one wonder about the artist himself and what exactly he is doing. Adam again made the crucial observation: “dog of work” could very well be Cézanne. As he chews something that will not easily cease to be (“bone”), his hunger’s sound turns an object into something fantastic (“snarls a mountainside into lavender and green”). When you create one object, you’re creating a host of them and possibilities of still yet others. You’re recreating elements (“lavender and green;” “In the mind where objects vanish, almost is all”).

What sense does any of this make? “Almost is all” – we’ve been dealing with images this whole time. Not quite beings, things-in-the-world. What recurs in the poem is stone, rock (“stone,” “rockface”). Some elements are foundational to our very sight; everything else is blank, empty. “Rockface” is not quite as “plastic” or “vast” as the canvas. And yet, in its own way, it’s “invisible,” it’s the element underlying the mutability and various forms of things and is a soul, of sorts. The “solid life” of the world is made “fresh” by the artist. Precisely because it is unlifelike, we see the anxiety. Why would you make a pear look like a stone?

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