An Essay on "Homage to Paul Cézanne" by Bruce Bond
Metaphysics of the Image in Charles Wright and Paul Cézanne
All my poems seem to be an ongoing argument with myself
about the unlikelihood of salvation.
In search of the absolute, Charles Wright finds himself in a world of things, "the world of ten thousand things," as the title of his recent poetry collection would have it. In spite of their longing for transcendence, Charles Wright's poems remain forcefully visual, as if the image were both bridge and barrier to the unseen, the most immediate objects assuming a metaphysical inscrutability and allure. To quote Wright's notebook, "If you look at it long enough, you won't recognize it" (H, 30). Little wonder that Cézanne, with his ongoing struggle both to penetrate and submit to the world of appearances, would suggest a model for Wright's own conflicted sensibility. At the age of 67, Cézanne saw his art as ever unsatisfactory, the forms of nature still hopelessly out of reach. "Will I ever arrive at the goal, so intensely sought and so long pursued?" he asked. "I am still learning from nature, and it seems to me I am making slow progress" (in Merleau-Ponty, 9). His late paintings in particular, those watercolors of increasing gaps and disintegrations born paradoxically out of an impulse toward precision, inform much of Wright's poetry, as the poetry itself is occasionally quick to note, so it may come as small surprise that a pastoral scene from Cézanne's late period greets us on the cover of Wright's recent retrospective volume. The cover-painting, "Bend in the Road," conjuring as it does both the immanence of sensation and the seduction of the unseen, what lures us around the bend, provides an emblem for the sacramental desire which drives Wright's work. Likewise the book's opening poem "Homage to Paul Cézanne" in which all physical things take on a quality of depth and disquiet, dramatizes the kind of skepticism and metaphysical longing which reemerge throughout Wright's opus. Both vibrant and haunting, his poems yoke imaginatively what reason cannot reconcile--namely, a Platonic desire for access to wholly transcendent Forms and a late Aristotelean disbelief in their existence. Wright's work thus thrives on a deeply generative opposition between suspicion and wish. As he himself states, "I would love to believe the world is Platonic, but I think it's Aristotelean" (H, 130).
As further testament to their conflicted sensibilities, both Cézanne and Wright profess an elusive primitivism. "Primary force alone" writes Cézanne, "id est temperament, can bring a person to the end he must attain." The word "must" here leaves open the question of attainability, as does Wright's claim, "All great art tends toward the condition of the primitive" (H, 26). Just what constitutes "the primitive" remains vague, most often defined by what it is not, those mediating traces of culture which, even if they could disappear, would take with them our very language, let alone any so-called primitive art. Unlike the transcendent, the primitive is by definition a starting point rather than a point beyond. It comes first, either temporally or in the figurative sense as ground and condition--the way that sensation serves as a condition of consciousness. Unlike the transcendent, the primitive connotes an anchoring in concrete existence. But Wright's phrase, "tends toward the condition of the primitive," places primary conditions at an ever energizing, prospective distance. Since the primitive can never be clearly defined, we can never be too certain about the character of our aesthetic progress towards it. Even the efficacy of our spontaneity, like prayer, remains open to question.
Throughout Wright's "Homage to Paul Cézanne" the dead, as emissaries of the unseen, emerge incarnate in an archetypal, "Primitive" world, unnervingly tangible, if only to make us increasingly aware of their unbridgeable distance. They inhabit our most intimate objects--shirts, shoes, our very beds--cling like dirt to our hands, coming as close as possible without quite dissolving their identity and ours:
At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white
To stay warm, and litter the fields.
We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and
scraps of cloth.
Like us, they refract themselves. Like us,
They keep on saying the same thing, trying to get it right.
Like us, the water unsettles their names.
Sometimes they lie like leaves in their little arks, and curl up at
Sometimes they come inside, wearing our shoes, and walk
From mirror to mirror.
Or lie in our beds with the gloves off
And touch our bodies. Or talk
In a corner. Or wait like envelopes on a desk.
Wright's quiet directness, his declarative informality, as familiar as it is familiarizing, turns the poem itself into an intimate and inhabitable object for the dead. In spite of the implied auditor, the poem has the sparse, musing quality of interior speech. All the unmistakable strategies of heightening metaphysical tension--an elemental restlessness, the near ecstatic dissolution of identity, the transformative immersion into water--work by way of contrast with the ordinary thing and word: "shirts," "paper," "scraps of cloth."
These ordinary things, extraordinary in their suggestiveness, oneiric in their metamorphoses, quick to reflect an otherworldly light, provide Wright's landscape with white space, both literal and figurative, concrete and cryptic, and so resemble the patches of bare canvas so intriguing to Wright in Cézanne's later work:
I like layers of paint on the canvas. I also know after I'm tired of lots of layers on the canvas, I'm going to want just one layer of paint and some of the canvas showing through . . . I've been trying to write poems . . . the way a painter might paint a picture . . . using stanzas in the way a painter will build up blocks of color, each disparate and often discrete, to make an overall representation that, taken in its pieces and slashes and dabs, seems to have no coherence, but seen in its totality, when it's finished, turns out to be a very recognizable landscape, or whatever. Cézanne is someone who does this, in his later work, to an almost magical perfection. (H, 66, 85)
What we see in the occasional white space is the implication of a larger story, the larger story as Wright would have it. The understated canvas stands like a Platonic shadow this side of its source and subject, or like a sacrament, the body of what we cannot see. In Wright's thinking, blank spaces serve not merely as barriers to a fuller knowledge but also as windows of access into the invisible:
". . . he regarded the colors as numinous essences, beyond which he 'knew' nothing, and the 'diamond zones of God' remained white . . ." (Cézanne). Change "colors" to "words" and "white" to "blank" and you have something I believe . . . (H, 37)
As "the diamond zones of God' ' empty spaces encourage our interpretive approach, charge their subject with desire, and so invite all the pleasures of doubt and speculation. In so doing, they vitalize their subject, or, more precisely, they "keep it alive," maintaining the dimension of possibility by respecting a distance. "Art tends toward the certainty of making connections," Wright states. "The artist's job is to keep it apart, thus giving it tension and keeping it alive, letting the synapse spark" (H, 22).
The quality of vitality and remoteness in Cézanne's work stems not only from his blank spaces, but also from a prioritizing of color over outline to imply shape and movement. The foregrounding of chromatic relationships accounts for a simultaneous myopic distortion and sensuous intimacy. Blues recede; yellows come forward; complementary colors vibrate--all by way of how colors touch. Wright's literal near-sightedness provides him with a similar sense of distance and heightened color-sensitivity:
Their leaves lie in limes and tans
Flocking the grass, vaguely pre-Cubist to me,
And blurred, without my glasses, arranged
In an almost-pattern of colors across the yard,
The same colors Cézanne once used in the same way
. . . .
Still the colors and pure arrangements
Oozing out of the earth, dropping out of the sky
in memory of him each year.
("A Journal of English Days")
As if in a Platonic model of being, Wright's myopia makes the world of appearance seem incomplete, a teasing intimation of the real. But such distance becomes an end in itself, transmuted from failure into wonder. Light takes on a luxurious, animate quality, "oozing out of the earth," persuading in the terms of mere sensation. "Often 'light' becomes literary in poems," Wright states. "I like to think I think of light as light. When you are nearsighted as I am . . . light is where it's at, as they used to say" (H, 146).
To give words a similar concrete insistence, to layer them in "discrete blocks of color" as Wright claims he does, he needs a unit of color, some correlative to the brush stroke itself. According to Wright, these units are aural, created at the level of word, line, and stanza in harmonized patterns of balance and contrast:
My poems are put together in tonal blocks, in tonal units that work off one another. Vide Cézanne's use of color and form. I try to do that in sound patterns within the line, in the line within the stanza, and the stanza within the poem. (H, 20)
Although there is a lot of cacophonous and spondaic grit in Wright's music which argues for the word as discrete unit, the poem "Homage" is most conspicuous and convincing in asserting the line as its brush stroke, something big enough to contain in itself an imagistic as well as a musical force:
They reach up from the ice plant.
They shuttle their messengers through the oat grass.
Their answers rise like rust on the stalks and the spidery leaves.
We rub them off our hands.
Wright's lines characteristically favor a monosyllabic percussiveness and emphatic finish, contributing to a heightened physicality. As each line here cadences on a crisp image, the overall pattern moves around the color wheel from greens to yellows to the rising oranges, from recessed cool shades outward toward the intimacies of our hands. Like the colors they wear, the dead reach up" line by line, intent on perceptual resurrection.
The appeal of the transcendent in Wright's work lies largely in its power to disturb, to raise questions, invigorate an otherwise too certain world. Any imaginary reclaiming of the dead by way of sacramental union thus remains ephemeral. Unappeasable as the grief they inspire, they appear neither wholly dead nor alive but in a state of perpetual rising into our lives:
Each year the dead grow less dead, and nudge
Close to the surface of all things.
They start to remember the silence that brought them there.
They start to recount the gain in their soiled hands.
The dead, like us, "refract themselves," fragmenting into a picture of uncertainty and longing. They too are haunted by mere intimations and a prospective memory always just starting out toward the horizon of the past. They too approach "the surface of things" with anxiety and wonder, imagining the other side.
Through the dead's eyes, we are the transcendent. The project of the poem--or of all Wright's poems for that matter--is to see ourselves this way as well, made expansive and unfamiliar in the world mirror:
High in the night sky the mirror is hauled up and unsheeted.
in it we twist like stars.
Wright's poetry typically blurs and merges irreconcilable points of view, or plays them off one another like complementary colors. It testifies to his negative capability: how poem after poem, the dead see as the living, the living as the dead, the skeptic sees as the metaphysician, and so on--all in an effort to enlarge our range of feeling, to contain and be vitalized by contradiction.
Given his skepticism, Wrights nostalgia for an older metaphysics often expresses itself through acts of ventriloquism, by speaking through the sensibility of the dead, including such visionaries as Dante, Plato, and Cézanne. "Whose unction can intercede for the dead?" Wright's speaker asks in the final section of his "Homage." "Whose tongue is toothless enough to speak their piece?" (123-124). Clearly no ones, in spite of the fact that Wright has attempted just that and, if only momentarily, enjoyed the illusion of having succeeded:
And thus we become what we've longed for,
past tense and otherwise,
A BB, a disc of light,
song without words.
And refer to ourselves
In the third person, seeing that other arm
Still raised from the bed, fingers like licks and flames in the
Only to hear that it's not time.
The desire to pay homage to the dead, to speak their at best fragmentary piece, implies a longing not only to enlarge the self but also to redeem time, to become, by way of a multiplication of egos, "past tense and otherwise."
Though Wright's poem is deeply persuasive in creating a model of the object and character of Cézannes obsessions, it likewise calls into question the final success of any such effort. Wright's instruments for redeeming time are the images of a riddling world in flux. In resisting the explicitly narrative conventions of the homage, Wright's "Homage to Paul Cézanne" focuses instead on what inspires and frustrates the narrative impulse. "Remember me," the dead chant, "speak my name." And yet the only proper name here appears in the poem's title. The absence of identifiable people in the body of the poem not only encourages objects to bear the full burden of aesthetic affect, but also accentuates a simultaneous privacy and archetypal breadth, the sense of an introspective look into collective being, full of blank spaces, partial stories.
Though historical narrative appeals to the dead as a means of resurrection, Wright's poem turns on the irony that to bear up the dead is to bear up an absence. As the dead "take in" the meanings of favorite words, language appears as one more puzzling and intimate object:
They point to their favorite words
Growing around them, revealed as themselves for the first time:
They stand close to the meanings and take them in.
To say the dead are "revealed as themselves" is to imply the revelation of both their presence and their nature, which is to say their absence. Like the dead, language becomes something half-there, its meanings withdrawn into an otherworld of deferral and loss. The force of desire that drives words drives the ocean as it "explains itself, backing and filling/ What spaces it can't avoid" (1.37-38). While, as Helen Vendler argues, the conservation of matter in Wright's work may offer its small consolations for a failure of faith, it is likewise the mirror of such failings, consigned to redundancy--the waves, like the dead, "saying the same thing, trying to get it right." In a world where language never gets to the bottom of anything, what we know of eternity is an eternal desire to know.
The mystique of the inexplicable allows for Wright's characteristic transmutation of despondency into wonder. In light of his frequent praise for inaccessibility and near-completedness in art, an aesthetic failure to fill the spaces of nature appears not merely inevitable but also desirable, encouraging the assertions of a reconstructive imagination. But this desire is met in Wright and Cézanne by a contrary one, intent on an unlikely mimesis. Both artists see themselves as simultaneously resisting and aspiring toward something larger than the individual imagination. "All great art is Neoplatonic" Wright claims, "you're always trying to make something that's the best replica of what it really is" (H, 35). For Cézanne, the mere fact that nature so often figures as the commanding starting point in his discussions of the aesthetic process complicates any notion of his work as freely subordinating natural form to individual expression:
One cannot be too scrupulous, too sincere, too submissive to nature, but one is more or less master of one's model, and above all one's means. Penetrate that which is before you, and persevere to express it as logically as possible. (Bernard, 43)
Though there is a Platonic ring to Cézanne's metaphor of penetrating "that which is before" us, his emphasis on perceptual exactitude works against any metaphysical devaluation of appearances. It is as though the world of appearance itself, as ever elusive and humbling, took on a metaphysical dimension of depth.
In Wright's tribute, the omnipresent dead provide this dimension, charging natural forms with not only all the pathos attendant on human loss, but also the power of our need to participate more fully in being. In response to the question of who can intercede for the dead, Wright's speaker states:
What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint,
Or messages to the clouds.
At evening we wait for the rain to fall and the sky to clear.
Our words are words for the clay, uttered in undertones,
Our gestures salve for the wind.
Cézanne's parallel urge toward participation is key, for it sheds a possible light on the paradox of his later work, that paradox being, as Wright describes it, Cézanne's simultaneous disintegration of and attachment to natural form:
The move toward a disintegration of the object in some of the most memorable works of a painter so passionately attached to objects is the attraction and riddle of Cézanne's last phase. (H, 21)
One perspective on the riddle is to see the disintegration of the object, those refractions and gaps which beg our interpretive approach, as Cézanne's very expression for his attachment to it--or more precisely, for his ongoing desire to access it fully. As Merleau-Ponty claims,
[Cézanne] did not want to separate the stable things which we see and the shifting way in which they appear; he wanted to depict matter as it takes on form, the birth of order through spontaneous organization. ("Cézanne's Doubt" 13)
According to Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne's objects are charged by the artist's longing to become involved ever more actively and intimately in the "primary force" of their existent being, their spontaneous coming into form.
Given his phenomenological orientation, Merleau-Ponty does not qualify the birth of order as the birth of perceptual order, since he will not go on to make claims as to a distinguishing form of order preceding perception. In a phenomenological model, attempting as it does to "bracket" phenomena off from transcendent conditions, the otherness of imagined objects stems from their intentional status--that is, the fact that they appear as the contents of consciousness without being identical to consciousness itself. When we say we are conscious of something, the barrier and bridge of the "of," which is to say the intentionality of consciousness, implies a distancing. According to Merleau-Ponty, sensation, as an absolute, an irreducible, primary condition of thought, precedes and resists the intentionality of consciousness. Cézanne's professed desire to realize sensation as art thus becomes for Merleau-Ponty a project of getting out of the way, of letting be, releasing meaning from objects rather than distancing them with the stylizations of imposed affect:
The meaning Cézanne gave to objects and faces in his painting presented itself to him in the world as it appeared to him. Cézanne simply released this meaning. (CD, 21)
Through Merleau-Ponty's lens, Cézanne's representational liberties attempt not to abstract the physical but to resist abstraction, to wear thin the membrane between consciousness and its intentional object and so allow things to relinquish their delicate ontological light.
But Merleau-Ponty's statement is complicated by his mixed-metaphors of meaning as both "presented to" and "given by" the artist. The immediacy of sensation appears not merely "realized," as Cézanne had hoped, but consciously endowed. Wright's "Homage" is far more explicit in asserting the role of artists as masters of their means:
The dead are a cadmium blue.
We spread them with palette knives in broad blocks and planes.
We layer them stroke by stroke
In steps and ascending mass, in verticals raised from the earth.
We choose, and layer them in,
Blue and a blue and a breath.
Here the artist's powers of creative volition rival God's, raising the dead, supplying breath. Aesthetic form likewise rivals natural form, each giving shape to the ubiquitous dead. The mutual penetration of artist and nature blurs any clear distinction between the aesthetic and the natural. "Aren't nature and art different?" Emile Bernard once asked, to which Cézanne replied, "I want to make them the same" (Merleau-Ponty, 13). Of course art and nature, however similar, cannot be the same, any more than the speaker in "Homage" can intercede unequivocally for the dead. Even to see the natural as seamlessly continuous with human nature is to tame the inscrutable power and demand of nature's otherness. In short, Cézanne's and Wright's sensibilities thrive on the prospect of ever deferred unions.
The fact that natural form emerges as a new horizon of inaccessibility and command, as unrealizable and animating in consciousness as any divine ideal, testifies to the tenacity of metaphysical desire, its yearning to break the silence of things, to slip through the ontological white space. Even Merleau-Ponty's metaphor of meaning as "released from" objects invokes a stubbornly metaphysical model of secret and conditioning interiors. The notion of such interiors eroticizes being, encourages our intimacy, leads us on. Any aesthetic which professes a revolutionary commitment to mere immanence or surface, as sufficient to itself, free from the shadow of the ideal, faces a problem--that is, sufficiency breeds complacency. To adapt a claim from Merleau-Ponty, Cézanne and Wright are reluctant to separate stable things from our desiring perspectives through which they appear. The dead in Wright's "Homage" charge the visible world with not merely absence but lack, an impelling sense of inadequacy, of eros and grief. Much of the distinguishing power and immensity of Cézanne's and Wright's art lies in the way lack is transmuted into sacramental abundance, the way all things gesture toward a conditioning otherness--be it God or nature or being itself--which must be concealed to be revealed, inseparable as we know it from the way we long to know it, an otherness realized as other in the bold refractions of a loving eye.
Bernard, Emile. "Paul Cézanne." Cézanne in Perspective. Ed. Judith Wechsler. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1975.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. "Cézanne's Doubt." Sense and Non-Sense. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964.
Rewald, John. Cézanne. New York: Abrams, 1986.
Vendler, Helen. The Music of What Happens. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.
Wright, Charles. Halflife. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988.
Wright, Charles. The World of The Ten Thousand Things: Poems 1980-1990. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990.
Biographical Note: Bruce Bonds collections fo poetry include three full-length booksRadiography (Natalie Ornish Award, BOA Editions, 1997), The Anteroom of Paradise (Colladay Award, Quarterly Review of Literature, Vol. XXX, 1991), Independence Days (R. Gross Award, Woodley Press/currently out of print) and four chapbooks. His poetry has appeared in The Yale Review, The Paris Review, The New Republic, The Threepenny Review, The Ohio Review, Volt, and other journals, and he has received fellowships from Texas Commission on the Arts, Breadloaf Writers Conference, Wesleyan Writers Conference, MacDowell, Yaddo, Sewanee Writers Conference, and other organizations. Presently, he is Director of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas and Poetry Editor for American LiteraryReview.
From The Point Where All Things Meet: Essays on Charles Wright. Ed. Tom Andrews. Oberline College Press, 1995. Reprinted with the permission of the author. Copyright © 1995 by Bruce Bond.
Return to Charles Wright