The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh's Late Paintings.
Visiting Home. By Paul J. Willis. San Antonio, TX: Pecan Grove Press, 2008. ISBN 978-1-931247-47-4. Pp. 83. $15.00.
Aside from the more obvious connection (that both authors are Professors of English at Westmont College), these two volumes are related in one very significant way: the compassion and light in their poetic vision. This is such a welcome thing to see in a time when so much of our literature is focused on--and even elaborates upon--the darkness in our world. By the end of each of these volumes, we are left with a hopeful energy and vibrancy, a sense that if we allow ourselves to see it, light is there, and it will cast away the darkness.
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre's The Color of Light: Poems on Van Gogh's Late Paintings is a beautiful hardcover book, small and square, with heavy, glossed pages, something you might see as a coffee table book. The collection includes an introduction by the author and twenty-one short poems. Each poem is matched with a full-color image of a painting by Van Gogh on the opposite page, and the title of the painting and the year of its production serve also as the title of each corresponding poem. Some of the paintings included are "Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat," "Bedroom," "The Sower," "The Starry Night," "Noon Rest," and "Wheatfield with Crows."
McEntyre is working within the ekphrastic tradition, which is nearly as old as literature itself and includes such diverse authors as Homer and Elizabeth Bishop, Milton and Rilke, Auden and Berryman. This is McEntyre's third volume of poems that focuses on the work of a single painter. The first volume was In Quiet Light: Poems on Vermeer's Women (Eerdmans, 2000), which looks at Vermeer's domestic pieces (including "Girl with the Pearl Earring" and "The Milkmaid") that are all cast in a distinctive, muted light that suggests, often, an electric silence. The second volume was Drawn to the Light: Poems on Rembrandt's Religious Paintings (Eerdmans, 2003), which examines Rembrandt's images painted in a soft light within intensely dark backdrops. As McEntyre says in her introduction, these poems are "meditations ... not scholarly comments, but simply thanks for a costly gift freely given that has afforded me, among so many other things, challenges and opportunities to look again and see in a new light" (11).
The paintings McEntyre has chosen for this newest collection are all from the last three years of Van Gogh's life (1887-1890), when he lived in France surrounded by impressionist and neoimpressionist work, which had a strong influence on him and helped bring about his very distinctive style. Pointillism, in particular, was influential, and you can see this in his quick, curved brush strokes and their cumulative effect. It was in these years, too, when Van Gogh suffered severe bouts of mental illness, eventually sending him into a field where he shot himself in the chest with a revolver, dying two days later.
It's difficult to view Van Gogh's work without also seeing this darkness and his jittery, nervous vision of the world, but McEntyre offers us an often unseen perspective. Her poems are surprisingly calm and soft, compassionate to his struggles, and help to ease some of the darkness and anxiety that is evident in the paintings. They offer a gentle view of his inner turmoil. It would be easy to say that her interpretations are too soft, that she ignores the often glaring intensity of his art and does not capture this intensity and emotional churning in her language. But light comes in many hues. McEntyre's eye catches brighter hues than most in Van Gogh's work, and we see beauty and moments of cheer and energy and elation. And always the light:
... the face-the face, where red-orange flickers defiant against what damps and dulls, draws to itself all available light. A long, slow burning keeps it alive like a vigil lamp, trimmed and watchful in the cavernous dark. (13)
This is not an omission but a choice. She allows us the "cavernous dark," but within that dark is the "vigil lamp" of hope, artistic diligence, strength, life.
In "Entrance to the Public Gardens in Arles" (1888), for example, McEntyre seems to view Van Gogh's endeavor as a way of tending his inner conflict:
We do what we can to domesticate the rioting color, sweep the walkways down to a uniform yellow and circle flower and foliage with iron wrought in their image. We make spaces for sitting, paths for solitude, gateways that mark what we leave, what we enter. We shape the wild that stirs us ... (19)
The careful placement of the characters in the painting appears to match her interpretation. It presents the question: Had Van Gogh used his painting to help control his inner demons?
Late in the book appears one of Van Gogh's gloomiest images, "Wheatfield with Crows," which was painted in the last month before his suicide, a time when his inner conflicts were drawing him to the edge of the abyss. The sky is dark blue and blustery with patches of pale light. Dozens of crows rise from a luminous, golden wheat field, a green road curving through its center and disappearing near the horizon. The hue of light is peculiar, as if a powerful storm were approaching or had recently passed. McEntyre captures well the competing presences of dark and light:
... After the birds, the horsemen come. Already the earth shakes. But the sun that poured itself, day after day into these stalks, shines. It shines. (51)
Again we see her insistence about the presence of light in his vision, even in such a dark time.
Appropriately, the book is framed by two of his self portraits. The first, "Self-Portrait with Gray Felt Hat," is a front-facing bust portrait, the image dim and gray as if he were standing in a rainstorm at dusk. In "Self-Portrait with Straw Hat," the final painting of the book, he is angled to his left, his eyes turned to look directly at the viewer. The painting consists primarily of yellow and cream colors, much brighter than the first. The shift in light between the two paintings is dramatic, and it parallels the shift in vision of Van Gogh's work that McEntyre guides us toward with her eye for light: "It is not self he sees splayed / on the mirror's surface-only light gathered into flesh for one / kaleidoscopic hour under the sun." (53)
In Paul Willis's Visiting Home, we are taken on a very different life journey, although one in which compassion and light are as apparent, if not more so, than in McEntyre's. The individual poems have been published in an impressive array of periodicals, chapbooks, and anthologies, including Ascent, Christianity & Literature, Christian Living, Open Spaces, Petroglyph, Poetry, Sierra Heritage, Weber Studies, and The Best American Poetry 1996. The book is a large paperback with a full-color glossy cover and is divided into four sections: "Come as You Please," "Sierra Says," "Housewarming" and "San Rafael Mountains."
This volume is clearly more autobiographical than The Color of Light, more in the confessional vein of many contemporary poets. It takes us on a journey from Willis's youth, full of memories in Oregon, to his adulthood and fatherhood in California. As Van Gogh's paintings were the trigger for McEntyre's work, landscape and memory are the triggers for Willis. And as with McEntyre's, this book is a celebration of life:
Late and dark, after rain, downbasin in rags of moonlight, the unread sweep is charged by the eye of a single fire. I see it by chance, a living presence there in the vast, a logos among all these words. (30)
We get the pleasure of joining Willis on a journey throughout the mountains and coasts of the far West: Sea Lion Caves, John Muir Wilderness, Yosemite Valley, San Rafael Mountain. In the early years, in Oregon, we are in a world of sea storms and sea lions, "gray-green lichen ... and Douglas fir" (6), poison oak and pine cones and Hells Canyon. In California, the landscape has evolved to "a sunbaked field" (21), "Shasta fir ... and sugar pine" (23). And the light: "Lodgepole, white pine / shine as if a sun / were setting inside each one" (27). Where would we be without this kind of hope, the ever-present light?
The poems are sometimes confessional but always very personal, with consistent attention to the natural world and our complicated "postmodern" relationship with it. His work clearly echoes the nature-focused poetry of Robinson Jeffers, John Haines, William Stafford, and Gary Snyder, although his voice and presence are more modest, the situations he renders usually quieter, which seems to hint at a more humble personal character of the author. There are also nods to classic works, such as Beowulf in "Letter to Beowulf": "'Here I lie, I can do no other,' and took up my abode / for the night. How stupid we were, Beowulf, / how oafishly arrogant to wait on our backs / for the monster" (31)--and William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" in "Manifesto": "Nothing depends / on a gray golf cart" (50).
Willis offers a view of the world that is one of transience, both temporally and physically:
My job, however ... was to journey on, and not to yield. (9) And it is hard to know ... if it was not worth it after all, those fiery blotches, those marks that showed where I had been and where it was I wanted to go. (10) ... the trees are the ones that live here. We come and go ... (12) When I stood here last I saw a girl approach as wife. Now I see my son swimming up through the chimney. (25)
It is clear that we are visitors here on this Earth, and we try to "rearrange / what God and earth have joined together" (48). The natural world is a force beyond our control that will, eventually, reclaim anything we have taken. In "Eco-Terrorism" for example, after we have lain paved roads, "[w]hite mushrooms / muscle up through the edges / ... [b]lackness crumbles / like the crust of tender lava / ... So long, asphalt! / You are not much, after all" (51).
Still deeper in the collection, more subtly placed, are hints that the poetic persona not only feels transient but abandoned, unmoored. The subdued voice is a mask that conceals inner conflicts. Perhaps this persona has even done something for which he can't forgive himself. In "Rainbow Canyon," which talks about John Muir walking the Sierra, "pondering his angry father, / Disciple of Christ, who bent / his force to sacrifice his oldest son" (35), Willis turns nature into a place of sanctuary:
The wounds bled here, stigmata trailing across the slabs and meadows. Nature drank what she could, but still, nothing stanched the flow. Forsaken in the name of God, where could he turn? Here, at last, a mother's heart, purple drops of streamside lupine. (35)
With this move, Willis shifts our view of the meaning of this landscape, and we see the collection in a different light. The explorations of remote places become a journey to find peace in a world where things aren't quite right.
But his journey, ultimately, is marked by acceptance--both from God and from nature. In the title poem, "Visiting Home," which begins the final section of the book, the unsettledness of the earlier sections is eased. Willis's vision clears, and he narrates what might be the most poignant realization of this book:
"... Off and on you talk to the moon Above all the places you have been, about your faults, Your loneliness, the way you have not valued your life. Mercifully, it puts you to sleep. You wake at dawn, The small creek filling your ears with news That you have belonged here all this time." (65)
The readers of Christianity & Literature can look to these two volumes for their clear-eyed, articulate, and compassionate views of our life and communal world. They are uplifting to read, hopeful, while still accurate to the situations they render. Whether it is McEntyre's description of the way that Van Gogh draws out light within darkness, or the modest hero of Willis, "a perfect / Boy Scout, much less a Nordic warrior" (31), trekking the high slopes of the Sierras, we are offered two vivid mosaics of the world, full of many clear brush strokes, two human landscapes we recognize as places we may have once been, two voices to stay the confusion of our hectic, often shadowed, lives.
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|Title Annotation:||'Visiting Home' by Paul J. Willis|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2009|
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