Saturday, January 21, 2017

`In Certain Old Paintings'

Fairfield Porter (Rizzoli, 2016) comes with essays by John Wilmerding and Karen Wilkin. The latter writes: “Fairfield Porter made wonderful, memorable paintings about nothing in particular—or, more accurately, he could make nothing in particular seem as if it were of great significance, simply by making a painting about it.” Also included in the volume is a forgettable poem, “A Landscape after Fairfield Porter,” by J.D. McClatchy, which is printed with a detail from a painting titled Untitled [Landscape, Southampton Yard], 1957. Porter and his family lived in Southampton on Long Island. No reproduction of the painting seems to be available online.

In the foreground of the detail is a wooden railing, probably part of the porch at the rear of the house. In the distance is a patch of blue, a pond. Closer, under a tree, is a small white circular table, the sort you might see in a sidewalk café, and two chairs. A dark green shrub on the left may be a bay laurel. Shades of brown and gold dominate the rest of the painting – chestnut, burnt umber, goldenrod, butterscotch. McClatchy refers to “the maple’s melancholy gold,” but I prefer to think of Donald Justice’s final published poem, “There is a gold light in certain old paintings,” which takes its title from the first line of the poem’s first stanza:

“There is a gold light in certain old paintings
That represents a diffusion of sunlight.
It is like happiness, when we are happy.
It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,
And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross
Share in its charity equally with the cross.”

Given the reference to the Passion, we might think of the “charity” of the gold light, shining even on the Roman soldiers, as a sort of grace – intangible but real, like happiness “when we are happy.” In the next stanza, Justice turns from the Christian to the classical world:

“Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.
With so much to look forward to he looked back.
We think he sang then, but the song is lost.
At least he had seen once more the beloved back.
I say the song went this way: O prolong
Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.”

Orpheus turns for a final glimpse of the doomed Eurydice. The poet sings of loss and grief or of nothing. Porter’s painting is empty of people though their traces are everywhere in the gold light. Now the third and final stanza:

“The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.
One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.
The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.
Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.
And all that we suffered through having existed
Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.”

Sonya Alexandrovna Serebryakov is speaking to the title character in the final scene of Uncle Vanya. Chekhov published the play in 1899, basing it heavily on another play he had published a decade earlier, The Wood Demon. Sonya describes a vision of the afterlife. Suffering is real but will be forgotten “as though it had never existed.” On Dec. 3, 1898, Chekhov (already ill with the tuberculosis that would kill him in 1904) wrote in a letter to Gorky that he had never seen a production of Uncle Vanya:

“In the past few years it has had a good many performances in the provinces, possibly because I published it in a complete edition of my plays. In general I am not now particularly warmly disposed towards my plays; I lost interest in the theatre some time ago and no longer have any desire to write for it.”

Chekhov lived long enough after renouncing the theater to write Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, not to mention “Gooseberries,” “The Lady with the Dog,” “In the Ravine” and “The Bishop.” 

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