On Rilke’s “Letters on Cézanne”

Rilke wrote “Letters on Cézanne” to his wife, Clara (she was a sculptor), and perhaps this book couldn’t have been written any other way.

There is so much he doesn’t feel the need to explain, to spell out.

The story unfolds against the backdrop of shared knowledge and mutual understanding. One can intuit the depth of this private connection, and even perceive its beauty, but not penetrate it fully. Just glimpses of it, if one really pays attention.

On October 2, 1907, Rilke describes van Gogh’s blooming trees by saying (in brackets): “as only Jacobsen could do them”.

Vincent van Gogh. The pink orchard. 1888. Click to zoom in (on van Gogh museum site)

One might have read Jens Peter Jacobsen, or if not, google and figure out that he was a Danish poet and novelist, and that Rilke loved his work and called him his “tutelary spirit”. But this is not enough, is it?

This information barely touches the surface of shared memories and insights encapsulated in these words, like a barely understandable note in a bottle brought to the shore by the ocean about a century too late.

And there is more to this brief remark: this implicit knowing that doing trees with words and doing them with paints are similar, if not identical, acts. Rilke knows this deep place where there is no difference between painting and poetry, this place from where my “Sonnets in Colour” come. He has been there.

This is why he can feel such affinity with Cézanne, and learn from him. This is why I keep rereading this book.

Just today, I saw an advice on the internet, attributed to a mature writer: he said to a student that one can only learn to write by reading and writing. A mature painter might just as well say that one can only learn to paint by looking and painting.

There is a lot of truth to it, but rereading Rilke still feels like coming home, to a place where one truly belongs, a place of synergy between painting and poetry, where words and colors can play and dance together, quite oblivious to the boundaries imposed by human beings.

I am starting a new program this Sunday, which combines Rilke’s letters with paintings he was looking at and learning from into a sequence of daily e-mails. The intention is to recreate Rilke’s more than century old experience of vision cleansed and transformed by paintings.

Please check it out and sign up if it resonates with you!

  

There is no need to judge

I dreamt of standing on a street, and a huge truck passing by. Something happened, like a bump on the road, and the truck’s rear doors flew open just in front of me. Behind them, the whole back of the truck’s load was covered with paintings. My paintings, specifically: some I recognised clearly, others seemed less familiar, but I knew they were all mine. Mostly landscapes (I include some of those I recall as illustrations).

Elena Maslova-Levin. Montara mountain. September afternoon. Oil on linen panel, 16″×20″. 2016.

As the doors opened, all these paintings — a couple dozens of them — fell onto the ground in a messy heap. The truck stopped, and two or three guys went round to see what happened. I asked them why these paintings were there, unpacked, not even fastened to anything. They explained that  the paintings used to be the packaging material for some precious musical instrument. They were not needed for that purpose anymore, but “these are kind of good, too”, he said (I remember this turn of phrase), so they didn’t want to throw them away. I know, I said, because they are mine.

And so I ask them to leave the paintings with me: after all, it can hardly be a random accident that this mishap happened right in front of me, can it? They hesitate, but then agree and leave. Standing there, wondering what to do with the paintings now, I woke up.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Mount Shasta. Oil linen canvas. 20″×10″. 2015.

I read recently that dreams show us “in the third person”, as something “out there”, things that we don’t want to acknowledge and accept “in the first person”, as a part of our own inner space. If so, then it is really me — not the cold world out there — who thinks of them as just some packing material for a musical instrument. And the musical instrument? Is it me, too? Or something precious in myself that I hide with paintings from the cold outer world? Do my paintings cover, conceal something (rather than reveal)? Is there a difference?

I don’t know why, but this dream reminded me of a quote from Maria Mitchell’s “A life in journals and letters” I came across a couple of days ago on “Brain Pickings”:

“Who judges a work of art and sees only with his own eyes? Who listens to a lecture and hears only with his own ears? We turn aslant as we stand before the picture to see what good judges are looking. We open the guide book to see what we ought to admire…. Insensibly our judgment is inspired by that of those around us. It is not a weakness to be deplored. We were more than conceited did we rate ourselves so much above the rest of the world that we needed no outward aids to judgment. We were born dependent, our happiness is in the hands of others. Our character is molded by them and receives its coloring from them as much as our feeling relates the parental impress.”

I remember the time when I would have read this nodding my head in agreement. People who would proudly proclaim their independence of others’ judgements seemed to me simply unconscious of their own dependencies, while the most brilliant and independent people I knew were, just like Maria Mitchell, very much aware of them.

Elena Maslova-Levin. London. Oil on linen. 30″×20″. 2016.

It is indeed not a weakness to rely on “outward aids to judgement”, and especially for knowledge (as when we open a guide book in an unfamiliar city). But there is a weakness here, and it is in the very compulsion to judge. As we stand before a picture, there is no need to judge. So there is no need to look away from the picture, so that the only thing we see is not the picture itself, but the opinion of “good judges”.

And now that I have written this, I finally understand why this memory resonates with the dream. There was a judgement on my paintings in the dream: they are “kind of good”. And it is, quite evidently, my own judgement; and, for me, “kind of good” is not good enough.    

Painting in the realm of freedom

There is a narrative of “artist’s life” centred around the ideal of artistic freedom. In this ideal life, the inner experience of studio practice is completely free of any and all pressures of the world outside the studio, both subjective (other people’s thoughts, ideas, beliefs, opinions, judgements) and objective (the market value of artworks, the need for material sustenance of artist-as-human-animal, and the need for raw materials of the craft, etcetera).

When I started my “year in the realm of freedom” experiment in January 2017, my own life was already remarkably close to this ideal.

But it did not even remotely resemble a beginning artist’s dream of freedom, not at all — no sales, no shows, no fame. My work was seen and recognised by a few peers and faithful friends of art from all over the world (you know who you are — and I am grateful beyond words), but there was barely any recognition from the “art world”.

This was a conscious choice: I was following the path of an artist outlined in Boris Pasternak’s poem, one of the life-shaping poems of my life. He writes about sinking into obscurity, hiding one’s steps in it, like a field in thick fog, with nothing to be seen. The Russian word I translated as obscurity is неизвестность; it evokes both being unknown and not-knowing. As so often happens in poetry, this ambiguity is not supposed to be resolved, but to remain in the reader’s mind as an open question, an open space, a gap in the “normal” thinking process — un-knowing.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Unknownness (after Boris Pasternak). Oil on linen panel, 16″×20″. 2016.

He knew, and I accepted, that this state of unknownness is an essential ingredient of freedom. One cannot be bound to the world by the chains of fame and “market value”, and be free of it at the same time. But this is also the dark side of freedom, experienced as the state of not being needed — of your art practice being of no consequence in the world. By the end of 2016, I had recognised that this is the same dark dilemma that we are now facing collectively, as the growing productivity and automation is in the process liberating us from the necessity of labour. The “threat of automation” is often conceptualised in terms of money (“How are we to feed all these unneeded people?”), but that would be a purely technical problem if not for the deeper dread of being unneeded and useless, that is, our fear of freedom.

Even if it was my choice, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t have this fear. I got my wish, I was in the realm of freedom, but I hadn’t fully accepted its dark, shadowy side. I had been hiding from it behind a heap of self-designed and self-imposed deadlines, routines, structures, scaffoldings, and strictures. By design, they were supposed to keep my studio practice, and my life, together, but there was another, not-quite-conscious purpose to them: to sustain the illusion that it somehow matters whether my studio practice exists or not, that it makes any difference in the world whether I paint, or write, or read, or walk, or just while away my days and hours on Facebook (or whatever).

I am not really saying that it does not matter – I don’t know. All I am saying is that you cannot know if the sky is blue or not until you completely wash away the blue paint that covers your windows to convince you that it is, indeed, blue.

Elena Maslova-Levin. Sonnet 102: As Philomel in summer’s front doth sing… 20″x20″. Oil on linen. June-August 2017

As I was reading back my journal for 2016, I saw very clearly, time and again and again, how I kept getting in my own way, turning myself into my own stumbling block with these structures and strictures and habits. All these contraptions looked rather like a dam: designed to generate electricity, but, in the process, wasting the intrinsic, natural energy of the river.

And those were all so called “good habits” (there is a fair number of online programs and courses which would teach you how to introduce this kind of habits into your life, some of them very pricey). To be fair, if I hadn’t have the habit of journaling, I might have never noticed what was going on… But once I did notice it, there was only one possible path forward: I had to accept that I was, indeed, in the realm of freedom, and it made no sense to channel even a single joule of my energy into maintaining the illusion of necessity.

It took me a while to dismantle my scaffoldings, built so carefully and deliberately over the years, and, to be honest, I don’t think the process over yet. Old habits don’t die easily. And there is, indeed, something frightening for a human being in the cold, rarefied air of freedom, its formless, boundless essence, the absence of any landmarks and signposts. Eight months into this experiment, and I am still occasionally tempted to fall back to familiar routines or to design new, better ones. In fact, this blog post started as a journal entry where I contemplated a new, more “effective” design for studio practice scaffoldings. It was in the process of writing it that I witnessed this need to be needed, the fear of freedom, arising within me again, and dropped this idea.

Because in these eight months of freedom, my studio practice has transformed into a purely inner experience, detached not only from the outer world, but also from its own material manifestations (that is, from paintings themselves).

The process of painting is often called “art-making“, “creating“, “self-expression”. I could never quite fit my own experience into these result-oriented constructs, but it is only in the realm of freedom that I saw clearly that, for me, this process is rather about knowing than about making. Not in the sense of factual, rational knowledge, and not even in the sense of meaning-making, but rather in the sense of paying attention, seeing, experiencing the unity of life directly. It is not about self-expression, but rather about reception, about the self opening itself to reality, dissolving the boundaries of its identity.

And what about paintings? Is there any difference in them?

Well, I don’t really know yet. And for now, it really, truly doesn’t matter to me — but I have included a couple of in-progress photos here as reference points…

 

Elena Maslova-Levin. Still life with sunflowers, a lemon and a pebble. Oil on linen canvas. 20″×16″. July 2017.

 

       

      

     

Painting sonnet 95: Art in the light of conscience

Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O! in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose.

That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.

O! what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 95

This sonnet was hard to connect with at first, but then it happened with uncommon ease.

I had to engage with, and then reject — not for the first time — the conventional “unfaithful lover” meaning, which makes the sonnet so incredibly shallow. Incredibly, if one assumes (as I do) that the author of the sonnets and the author of the plays are one and the same man. Telling someone you supposedly love how really evil and sinful they are, their vices barely covered with beauty’s veil — it isn’t really love, is it? This is about as common, shallow, mediocre pastime as it gets — and it’s just not what one would expect from Shakespeare the playwright, with his boundless-as-the-sea bounty of universal humanity and compassion.

So, if not an unfaithful lover, who is it he is talking to?

He gives an answer, right here in the sonnet — by first repeating name thrice, and then actually naming the addressee: dear heart. So, is his own heart the addressee of this sonnet? Of course, “dear heart” can be addressed to a person, too. This is not common in Shakespeare (this address occurs only five times in all his works, and only twice in the sonnets), but this possibility is there, on the surface of the sonnet, even though no single person is ever named in the whole sequence…

There is more: it is not just any name, it is thy budding name. What does it mean? Here is my wild guess: can it be art budding within heart? Can it be Art itself the poet is talking to?

Art would certainly “fill the bill”. It does all those things the sonnet laments, far better than any human, enclosing sins in sweetness and covering vices with beauty’s veil. In fact, this sonnet reminded me of an essay by Marina Tsvetayeva’s, “Art in the light of conscience” — another great poet writing about Art’s maddening and utter indifference to human morality. Art has no shame, it knows no sins (Art didn’t eat that apple in the Garden of Eden, Tsvetayeva says at one point, Adam did). Art is a mansion where sins and vices can reside with impunity, veiled by its beauty and seductive power.

People tend to think about Art either as something good and useful (occasionally, even as therapy), or as something irrelevant and useless — not as something utterly unconcerned with us at all. That is because they believe it is something humans make. But that’s not how great artists — those who know Art most intimately — experience it. They don’t make art. It’s more like a force of nature expressing itself than a product designed by humans for human consumption. Tsvetaeva calls it one of the elements: the Russian words for “the elements” and “poem”, стихии and стихи, sound even more alike than heart and art do.

For an artist, this interaction with art as an objective force is a matter of subjective experience. But there is a science to it, too.  Richard Dawkins, in “The Selfish Gene”, introduced the concept of “meme” — a gene-like unit of another layer of evolution, which uses our brains and our nervous systems as its building materials, its vehicles for survival.

We live side by side with a whole population of such memetic “life forms”. Languages and arts are certainly among them. We are essential for their continued existence (just like soil, air,  water, and all the life forms we eat are essential for ours), but they are as “selfish” as genes are — and as unconcerned with our individual needs and desires. They live and evolve according to their own laws, which have little (if anything) to do with our morality, our vices, and our desires. Humans have lamented language change from the very beginning of recorded time, but this has never prevented languages from changing (and, occasionally, dying).

Art, poetry, language — the survival and procreation of these life forms depends on their ability to “plant” themselves in as many humans as they can muster. But what happens in the inner world of a human in whom their evolution makes a major leap forward — in a poet as great as Shakespeare? For all I know, it must have been an intense and dangerous relationship — it can even be called a love affair.   

My reading of the sonnet has been vacillating between it being about Art and its ability to veil every vice with beauty — Art in the light of conscience, and it being about a human heart — and its ability to enclose in sweetness and loveliness all kinds of things which the mind (and the conscience) would hurry to label as sinful. These interpretations, however, are closer to one another than it might seem. After all, its our hearts — not our minds or our consciences that Art enchants for survival and procreation. It is in our hearts that it hides itself from the light of conscience.

In my painting translation, there are close-up fragments of a rose in the foreground, which transform themselves into (almost completely abstract) glimpses of a mansion, and of beauty’s veil — its lines and images as utterly unable to contain the flow of colour as the human mind is unable to control the flow of art.

Painting sonnet 94: lilies as they are to themselves (October 10-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 95: To itself, it only live and die. 2016.

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 94

What struck me in this sonnet is this little insight, this line hidden within, almost as an aside — seemingly almost unconnected to the sonnet’s “message”: though to itself, it only live and die 

This tension, the contrast between what a thing is to itself, within itself, and what it is to others, to the world — to the summer. There is a first approach to this tension in the opening quatrain, in that do not do the thing they most do show. But here, while the sonnet stays in the realm of human affairs — the inner world remains impenetrable, unperceived. Unmoved, as stone — this is not a view from within, this is said by an outside observer.

It’s only when the sonnet goes into the realm of flowers — so beautiful, so fragile, so fleeting even on the human time scale — that this trembling, living line, to itself, it only live and die happens. And then, the sonnet closes with proverb-like, objective-sounding generalities.

Thus the structure of the sonnet really enacts its insight: it has a stone-like, unmoved, “objective” outer shell, in its opening and closing lines. But hidden within, there is this living, subjective thing-to-itself. A sudden penetration into the inner world of a flower, as though the poet momentarily becomes the flower’s subjective consciousness.

And so I got myself a bunch of lilies, and tried to feel them from the inside, as they are to themselves, in the painting process. As they are to themselves —without a care in the world about how they appear (or smell) to us. And I enclosed them into this inner frame of flatter, stone-like outer areas of the pictorial space.

Roses in the storm

Lena Levin. November 9, 2016.
Lena Levin. November 9, 2016.

I woke up very early today, just after four in the morning.

I journaled a bit, and then meditated — one hour instead the usual half-an-hour: although I thought I was calm, the inner turmoil was too powerful.

Looked around the internet, and through my inbox — filled with a confusing cocktail of fear, anger, blame, disappointment, and hope, and compassion. Made an effort to listen to both speeches…

And then decided to paint a bit, with no other intention than to experience the unity of life that emerges in the painting process. And something unexpected happened…

I had this little, 12”x12”, study I started on Monday — as a preparatory study for the ninety fifth sonnet, and the bouquet of roses I painted from was still there in the studio. I abandoned it at a rather disharmonious and very abstract stage — not because it felt complete, but because I was ready to begin the sonnet painting itself.

So the idea was to return to it, and — to just let everything that wanted to express itself do so, without intervening too much in the process.

I expected some darkness to merge, some suggestion of a gaping hole in the fabric of reality — but instead, this happened: the blossoming of roses, the movement of light around them… So this is, I guess, my contribution to peace and courage on this stormy day.

On being an artist

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.

Why don’t I “put myself out there”? The usual accessories of an “art career” — gallery representations, art competitions, solo shows: I neither seek nor want any of this. Why?

And, more interestingly perhaps, why this question bothers me at all — enough to be writing this?

An easy answer to the second question is that there is a social pressure to “put yourself out there”, to do all these things. That’s what professional artists do, that’s what gives you the “title”. In fact, there is a belief system in which it’s only recognition by the “Art World” that transforms what you are doing into “Art”.

But not only is this answer easy, it is also “lazy”, because, in the final analysis, I “generate” this social pressure myself — through books I read, mail lists I subscribe to, websites I visit, and so on. Nobody else can put this pressure on me if I don’t cooperate.

It won’t be too hard not to feel it (which will make it, for all intents and purposes, non-existent). Even if I don’t want to withdraw from all these networks of information completely (because there are other reasons not to), it should not, in theory, be a problem to tune myself out of this pressure — just like I am tuned out of loads of other things that neither interest nor “trigger” me in any way.

But it doesn’t work this way: although I am genuinely not interested in all these career opportunities, but I still do put all this pseudo-social pressure on myself, and, what’s more, I am as genuinely curious about why it is I am not interested.

I see it as a contradiction, a tension — something to explore and to live through, if only to know myself better. But it is also possible that this — relatively superficial and personal question — covers a deeper and more general one hiding behind it, just out of mind’s reach.

So why does this question bother me?

The usual suspect is fear: it’s often our fears that make us avoid something we really want.

So maybe I really do want something of a “successful art career”, complete with solo exhibitions in prestigious spaces, but I am scared of it, too. Scared, perhaps, of being somehow hurt in the process — if not me as a whole, then my ego at least. This suspicion is not something to be cast aside lightly, even if I don’t seem to feel this fear, because fears have a way of camouflaging themselves. It’s way too easy to rationalise a fear as something more respectable. So I’ll leave this possibility open for the time being — it may be that what bothers me here is the fear of fear, the suspicion that I am succumbing to a fear without realising it.

The other usual suspect is contribution: if an artist is supposed to make a contribution to the world, and to art, then the work needs to be seen, right? If nobody sees it, then it might as well have never existed at all. If I believe my paintings can contribute something, then I should really care about shows and “exposure” — so why don’t I?

Well, that’s not quite the case — because I do show my stuff on the internet. It’s not exactly the same thing (or rather, absolutely not the same thing) as seeing paintings “in person”, but there is an option of visiting my studio, or getting paintings sent over to your home to live with. Letters I receive from people who live with my paintings on their walls are often filled with such depth of emotion and vulnerability as to leave me in no doubt that the paintings do their work — that some sort of contribution does happen.

But still — shouldn’t I make more of an effort to “be seen”, to make it easier for people to see my work? And aren’t shows, and other conventional kinds of exposure, the only way to do so?

The problem is, there are just too many shows. Too many people trying to be make a contribution by being seen (and not enough people trying to see). Collectively, we create a visual equivalent of a room in which everyone is shouting in an attempt to be make easier for others to hear them — and this noise all but drowns any real potential for contribution.

To my own surprise, this metaphor — the image of a room filled with shouting people — revealed, for me, the real question; the real, general tension hiding behind my personal turmoil.

This is a tension between two concepts of art, two stories.

In the familiar, old story, few people are artists — those who can show something for others to see; there are artists, on the one hand, and audiences, on the other. This is the concept embodied in nearly all existing frameworks and social structures known as “Art World”.

The alternative concept is that being an artist is the only way to being fully human. I would call this a “new story”, except it was created in Ancient Greece. This is how Gottfried Richter describes this insight in “Art and Human Consciousness”:

“<…> the human being who simply gives himself up to the workings of the forces of life remains dull, passionate, immoderate and akin to the animal. Whoever simply shoves these forces aside in favour of the spirit may gain clarity and a measure of morality, but he also becomes a withered intellectual and can never be sure that they will not come back to him some day and exact a terrible revenge. The man who really overcomes them and attains his freedom is the “muse-filled” or artistic human being who stands in the middle between the other two like Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, who sat over the pit out of which the dragon’s vapours rose and at the same time received inspiration from the divine forces coming down to her from above. This is man between the animal and God, where the breath of freedom blows that becomes one with a higher necessity.”    

However old, this insight has never been more relevant and urgent than now, when the rise of productivity and automation is rapidly freeing human beings from the necessities of labor. But it doesn’t really “fit” the established social structures — if we try, the result is the room where everyone is shouting, and no conversation is possible. The ideal world, a world in which everyone is fully human, needs another, new way of being an artist, neither attached to nor defined by result-oriented things like showing work to audiences and being accepted by the art world.

And for this new way of being an artist to emerge, it needs to be found and explored — and that is, I guess, what I am doing, and a conventional “art career” just doesn’t fit the bill.

Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara)

Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.
Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.

Frank O’Hara: Why I am not a painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Frank O’Hara

What makes us what we are?

Why am I a poet and not a painter? — asks Frank O’Hara in this poem. I’d rather be a painter… 

But what kind of answer is possible here? It’s obviously not about some deliberate, conscious decision — free will or not, one doesn’t really get to choose what they are. The only marginally answerable re-wording of this question would be something like “What is it in my inner make-up, in the way my perception and cognition work, that makes me a poet, and not a painter?”

And that’s the question O’Hara seems to have had in mind. At least his answer — if it is an answer — comes in the form of two short stories, one about the process of painting, the other about the process of writing a poem. And there seems to be a clear difference in underlying cognitive processes:

  • The painting starts with a thing (“It needed something there”— says the painter; something = some thing) and transforms into an abstraction, because the thing was “too much”.
  • The poem starts with an abstraction — a thought about colour — and transforms into pages of words (in prose), much more descriptive than the painting. Here is the beginning of these poems, “Oranges”:

Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot on a white linen field.”

Quite a lot of things — which are, in some mysterious ways, generated by the thought of “orange”. Perhaps as mysterious a transformation as the transformation of sardines into a flurry of colours in Goldberg’s painting:

The painter starts with the image of a thing and transforms it into colour because the thing “was too much”; the poet starts with the idea of colour and transforms into words, because “there should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life”. Orange is never enough for a poet, sardines are too much for a painter.

Is this the answer to the initial question? In a sense, yes, but not quite. The poem is more complex than that, and the complexity resides in how these two little stories fit together.

Both stories — the one about the painter, and the one about the poet — are written (mostly) in the characteristic, and overly simplistic, “I do this, I do that” style, in a mixture of simple present and continuous present tenses. This makes it seem as though the second story followed the first in the real-life unfolding of the events.  

But this is not really the case: the poem, “Oranges”, was written in 1949, and the painting, “Sardines”, was painted in 1955. But there is a connection —  beyond the mere contrast of cognitive processes; it might be invisible in the poem, but it’s obvious once you see the painting. This painting’s colour harmony is orange-y: mix all its colours together, and you’ll end up with orange. It is this colour that connects the first story to the second, as though it’s Goldberg’s painting that inspired O’Hara’s thinking about orange. Not in the realm of real time-space (where it might well have been the other way round), but in the internal logic of the poem itself: after all, O’Hara could have chosen any of his poems to compare the processes. I believe it’s the colour: orange that led him to recall this particular one (or rather a series of twelve, as it happens).

And this creates a kind of semantic circle, which belies the overt simplicity of this poem’s structure: the painting follows the poem in “real life”, but invokes it within the logic of this poem.

And there is another circular movement which replaces the logical, narrative one. This is not mentioned in the poem, but the second story, the story of “Oranges” has a real-life painting-related sequel: in 1952, another painter friend of O’Hara’s, Grace Hartigan, painted a corresponding series, also entitled “Oranges”, incorporating O’Hara’s words into the paintings. So there was a painting process directly inspired by the poem.

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But the poem ends quite differently, with O’Hara seeing Goldberg’s painting in a gallery. It is entitled “Sardines”, even though there are no more sardines in it, just like the poem is called “Oranges”, in spite of having no oranges in it. Both the poet and the painter retained the original “source” of the work in the title, even though it had as well as disappeared in the process. The poem circles back to where it started — to disappearing sardines, and concludes itself with a similarity between two processes, not with the contrast which might explain why the poet is not a painter. Instead, the two processes emerge almost as two sides of the same one, two different views of the same phenomenon.

Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O'Hara). 2016
Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara). 2016

Since my fun in this life is (mostly) in painting poems, how could I resist the temptation of responding to this poem “in kind” — by a painting entitled “Why I am not a poet?”. I honestly believe the answer given by this painting is about as clear as the answer given by the poem. At least to me it is…

    

Painting Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low”

Lena Levin. Half-sheathed in ice, after Joseph Massey’s “Polar low”. 12″x12″. 2016.

Half-sheathed in ice
a yellow double-wide trailer

mirrors the inarticulate morning.
The amnesiac sun.

And nothing else
to contrast these variations of white

and thicket
choked by thicket

in thin piles that dim the perimeter.

Every other noun
frozen over.

Joseph Massey, “Polar Low”

The poem starts as a landscape — a vast expanse of ice, or snow in morning light, with a single concrete, human-made object, the yellow double-wide trailer. It is described with some precision, but it is half-sheathed in ice.

This half-sheathed is, I believe, the first key to the poem, the first glimpse of it being not only an image, not just a landscape. There is an inner tension in sheathed — a sheath covers a weapon (thus protecting its owner and others from it), but sheathed in the modern usage also invokes the idea of protective covering. It’s also the thing itself that requires protection, rather than others needing protection from it.

Primed by the idea of sheathing, double-wide invokes double-edged (sword). But the trailer is not a sword, is it: it is not only sheathed, but it is also inherently unpowered; it needs another one to move it. Alone, it is truly stuck there in ice, truly forgotten (preparing us for the amnesia of the sun).

But it does something — it mirrors the inarticulate morning, a morning that cannot express itself. By the way, it is the only agency in the poem, filled as it is with passive verbs. And it is the dubious agency of a mirror, which can only reflect — not act.

Why is the morning inarticulate? Perhaps because everything is so white, there is not enough contrast to create a clear picture? This inability of the morning to express itself prepares us for the coming: And nothing else // to contrast these variations of white. Nothing but yellow.

But the question arises: are mornings even supposed to be articulate? The first hint of anthropomorphism in the poem, immediately followed by the amnesiac sun — we don’t usually think of the sun as something having memory. And if you cannot have memory, how can you be amnesiac? Here is the rub, isn’t it — mornings aren’t supposed to be articulate, and this one is not; the sun isn’t supposed to have memory, and it doesn’t. But by stating these truisms in these anthropomorphic and negative terms, the poem implies that they should (or might) have these abilities: to express themselves, to remember.

How does the trailer mirror the morning? Is it because there are reflections in its surface, or in the ice sheathing it? Or is it because its yellow on the surface of the earth is the counterpart of the amnesiac sun in the sky? The trailer is forgotten, the sun is amnesiac.

And there is nothing else.

Wait, but there is: thicket chocked by thicket — the image of bare branches struggling with one another, obstructing one another’s breathing and (possibly) movement. Another meaning of choke: “overwhelm and make someone speechless with a strong and typically negative feeling or emotion”. Are thickets inarticulate too, unable to express themselves because of one another?

But if there are thickets, then it isn’t just (variations of) white and yellow — there is also the black of the branches. Perhaps the branches are also covered with ice and snow, but they are visible, they dim the perimeter — so there are some dark lines in the landscape. But the perimeter of what? Of the trailer? Of the field of the poet’s vision? Of the morning itself? Of the poem? Dim: Do they make the morning and ice less bright? Or less distinct? Less intense?

And the thickets are piled? Are the branches cut, or are they also just frozen? Thickets in thin piles — there is both thickness and thinness in the same thing.

And with this linguistic conundrum between thickness and thinness, the poem finally reveals itself as not-a-landscape: every other noun frozen over.

Are nouns frozen because it’s so cold, so it’s difficult even to utter them — and when they are uttered, they get frozen in the air? Or is it about “freezing” of words, their becoming less warm, less alive, less connected to their relatives and their underlying metaphors.  Thicket might signify anything thick, but now it is frozen in one specific meaning.

So in the end, it seems as though it is language itself — rather than the double-wide trailer with which the poem started — that emerges as being half-sheathed in ice, half-frozen. But it still mirrors things that are, in themselves, inarticulate and amnesiac.

Isn’t this what poetry is for?

Sonnet 92: What is so blessed fair that fears no blot?

Painting sonnet 92 (September 12-16, 2016)
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20"x20". 2016
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20″x20″. 2016

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.

Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:

Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!

But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 92

There is this traditional, commonly received, reading of the sonnets sequence  as a story of the poet’s infatuation with a “fair youth”, almost a romantic diary.

But the longer I stayed with the sonnets, the more I felt how utterly incomplete, how almost absurdly shallow this interpretation really is. Again and again, I had to reach out to much deeper — and much less “romantic” — layers of their meaning, because there was just no other way for me to paint them. With this sonnet, this “infatuation with fair youth” interpretation broke down completely.

This poem is so definitely not about an untrustworthy lover and planning a suicide (or anticipating dying from broken heart) if they abandon you. It’s about the unity — identity even — between love and life: by the end of the sonnet, these words are just two phonetic variants pointing to the same thing.   

What is this thing?

Well, what is so blessed-fair that fears no blot? Thou may be false, and yet I know it not.

Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628.
Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628. Click to read more about this painting.

There is no answer — only the question. When I first started to contemplate this sonnet, Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” floated to my mind — a figure which might be there, or it might be not. I know it not. I wanted the painting to be a structural and coloristic equivalent of the poem’s love/life music, possibly with a glimpse of a figure that might not be there.

To my mind, the ninety second painting — finally! — embodies this idea I’ve been dreaming about, and visualising, for so long: the pure movement of colour, barely restrained by geometry and lines. There was something in this sonnet that finally let this vision manifest itself in a painting: something liberating in its way of communicating the idea that life and love is one and the same thing, that they are both in constant flux of revolving inconstancy.