Wednesday, July 01, 2020

'The Other Side Perhaps of Some Rare Gladness'

Almost daily I visit the journal of Charles Burchfield. For fifty-six years, until his death in 1967, the Ohio-born painter kept a journal of some 10,000 pages bound in seventy-two volumes. In 1993, the State University of New York published a selection edited by J. Benjamin Townsend, Charles Burchfield’s Journals: The Poetry of Place -- “with which,” Guy Davenport writes in Charles Burchfield’s Seasons (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1994), “he takes his place among American writers.”

The Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, N.Y., each day posts excerpts from the journal, calling the site “Charles E. Burchfield in his own words.” On this date, July 1, in 1948, Burchfield drove from his home in West Seneca, a suburb of Buffalo, to Java, a village about thirty-five miles to the southeast. As was his custom, he was looking for scenes to sketch and, potentially, to paint:

“For a time, I thought it was going to be one of those futile days, when no spot seems exactly right, and I drove endlessly on until complete frustration sets in and I must give up and go home. But then I took a road east from a ‘corners’ (unnamed) (But which was east of Sardinia according to the signs) which soon turned from macadam to a hard graveled road, I had not gone far until I came to some wide-spreading hay meadows, enclosed by deep mysterious woods on all fronts . . .”

“Mysterious woods” is characteristic of Burchfield. Seldom is he reluctant to anthropomorphize nature. He is not a scientist; rather, what used to be called a “nature lover,” with a powerful religious sense. For him, landscapes, especially those with trees and flowers, are dynamic and dramatic. He is a sort of intuitive pantheist who thinks like a painter. Donald Justice was a great admirer. Here is “On a Picture by Burchfield” (Collected Poems, 2004):

“Writhe no more, little flowers. Art keeps long hours.
Already your agony has outlasted ours.”

And in the fourth stanza of “Sadness” Justice writes:

“Burchfield describes the pinched white souls of violets
Frothing the mouth of a derelict old mine
Just as an evil August night comes down,
All umber, but for one smudge of dusky carmine.
It is the sky of a peculiar sadness —
The other side perhaps of some rare gladness.”

The painting described is “White Violets and Coal Mine” (1918), which I’ve seen in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Boris Dralyuk tells me he has been reading Justice. Like me, he is saddened by what David Sanders had said in my post on Sunday -- that Justice is among the poets who might “get lost soon to the ages.” How can a writer so good be lost to memory? It’s indecent, ungrateful of us. Boris cites a late Justice poem, “Ralph: A Love Story,” about which he writes: “[It] seems to me a distillation both of his own art (his flawlessly casual musicality; his Chekhovian gift for sketching in a narrative by means of a few choice details and prudent preterition) and of the era closing about him, the era out of which his art emerged.” Justice is our great poet of disciplined nostalgia, an emotion that customarily invites mawkishness. He is the laureate of nuanced understanding, subtle shadings of feeling. Boris says these things better than I. How could a poet so Chekhovian, so quietly empathetic, find a home in our time of noise and garish colors?

Four years before his death in 2004, Justice conducted a lengthy interview with the English writer and publisher Philip Hoy, and in 2001 the edited interview was published as a book by Between the Lines. Justice makes a curious observation, based on his 1982 return to Florida, the state where he was born. It reads like the germ of a Justice poem:

“I have a distinct memory of walking out onto the golf course behind our house late one night, walking our dog, and standing there looking up at the moon as it flooded the fairway with light. Very nice. I felt touched by an emotion I must have been inventing.”

As though to dispel the impression he is a poet only of twilit nostalgia, Justice assaults the literary theorists who helped destroy English departments, literacy and the love of literature:

“I disliked practically everything about them: their jargon and their grammar, their vast intellectual pretensions, their easy disdain for things they knew little or nothing about and had no interest in, their lousy taste in literature and the other arts, their nasty politicking, their hatred of the past and the tradition in favour of the fashionable and the perfectly silly . . . But please don’t get me wound up. It’s been years and I still tremble with passion.”

A quiet poet of passionate emotion. No wonder he may be forgotten. On that day in July in 1948, Burchfield writes:

“For a time I merely wandered about reveling in the beauty of the day, as a child might, reaching out to get handfuls of the cold wind, and examining each field flower – self-heal, black-eyed susan, pink and alsike clovers, buttercups, white daisies, yellow + white covert clovers – as if they were the rarest flowers on earth, as indeed they are! – the Timothy was just coming into hand, a soft silvery green, which the wind, and a strong burst of sunshine turned in to glistening white ripples that raced across the meadows with joyous abandon. Sometimes great cumulous clouds filled up into huge towering masses, overhead, blotting out the sun, and casting a deep shadow over the trees and fields that almost seemed as if it could be felt with the hands – To the north white round clouds, on a background of deep blue-black cumuli were startling + dramatic – a fine North feeling, especially above a low-lying woods.”

1 comment:

Faze said...

When I was younger, I liked Burchfield's realistic work better than his early and late mystical work. But as I got older, and moved back to the precincts where he painted, I understood how perfectly those late works captured not only the look, but the sound and soul of nature here. I'll bet his wallpaper was good, too.