Wednesday, January 20, 2016

`A Still Life that Could be Painted or Described'

Guy Davenport refers to the four essays that make up his book-length study of still-life painting Objects on a Table: Harmonious Disarray in Art and Literature (Counterpoint, 1998) as a “disarray of perceptions and conjunctions in which the unlikelihood of harmony vies with the promise of coherence.” That, incidentally, nicely describes Davenport’s customary artistic strategy (in essays, stories, poems and paintings). We might call his a unifying imagination. He doesn’t fall for the modern temptation to see chaos everywhere. Davenport juxtaposes disparate objects, words and images, and finds in them a humble, reassuring, sometimes poignant balance. Sensibilities like Davenport’s don’t settle for lazy, passive nihilism, nor does the Quebec francophone poet Robert Melançon (b. 1947). Here is his poem thirty-nine in For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013):

“File folder, open books, a notebook,
some pencils, a floppy disk, an eraser,
a notepad, an ashtray, a pencil sharpener,

“a paper knife, a computer, a ballpoint pen,
a packet of cigarettes, a ruler, a cup;
the sun splashes this jumbled arrangement

“with patches of light, and its movement from right
to left marks the passage of happy hours.
Any table covered with objects randomly assembled

“is a still life that could be painted or described.
Towards ten o’clock, a line of shadows will pass
Across the dictionary, which contains all poems.”

Often, a catalog is an implicit celebration of the world’s bounty. The most commonplace object can be cause for gratitude. The first five lines of Melançon’s poem could share a title with Davenport’s book, Objects on a Table. But the poet gives us more than a list.
His poem suggests with Davenport that “the unlikelihood of harmony vies with the promise of coherence.” The light moving across his table marks not tedium but “happy hours” (presumably without that phrase’s colloquial American implication). We are surrounded by potential still-life paintings, if only we have the sense to see them. The dictionary, too, is more than a list of words arranged alphabetically but otherwise unrelated. It is a Borgesian anthology, waiting for the right reader. In the second-to-last paragraph of “Ernst Machs Max Ernst” (and of The Geography of the Imagination, 1981), Davenport writes:

“If I have a sensibility distinct from that of my neighbors, it is simply a taste, wholly artificial and imaginary, for distant plangencies and different harmonies in which I can recognize as a stranger a sympathy I could not appreciate at my elbow: songs of the Fulani, a ntumpan, male and female, of ceremonial elephant drums of the Asantehene, dressed in silk, under a more generous sun and crowding closer upon the symbolled and archaic embroidery of the skirts of God, the conversations of Ernst Mach and William James, Basho on the road to the red forests of the North, Sir Walter Scott at dinner with Mr. Hinze, his cat, sitting by his plate.”

[I have previously written about Robert Melançon’s poems here and here. Also, see Theodore Dalrymple on the joys of still-life painting, among other things.]

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