Homage to Paul Cézanne

Helen Vendler: On "Homage to Paul Cezanne"

Throughout the volume Wright persistently imagines himself dead, dispersed, re-elemented into the natural order. ("And I am not talking about reincarnation at all. At all. At all.") In focusing on earth, in saying that "salvation doesn't exist except through the natural world," Wright approaches Cézanne's reverence for natural forms, geometrical and substantial ones alike. China Trace is meant to have "a journal-like, everyday quality," but its aphorisms resemble pensées more than diary jottings, just as its painters and poets (Morandi, Munch, Trakl, Nerval) represent the arrested, the composed, the final, rather than the provisional, the blurred, or the impressionistic. China Trace is in fact one long poem working its desolation by accretion; it suffers in excerpts. Its mourning echoes need to be heard like the complaint of doves--endless, reiterative, familiar, a twilight sound:


There is no light for us at the end of the light.

No one redeems the grass our shadows lie on.


Each night, in its handful of sleep, the mimosa blooms.

Each night the future forgives.

inside us, albino roots are starting to take hold.


. . .


If China Trace can be criticized for an unrelenting elegiac fixity, nonetheless its consistency gives it incremental power. its deliberateness, its care in motion, its slow placing of stone on stone, dictate our reading it as construction rather than as speech. It is not surprising that as a model Wright has chosen Cézanne, that most architectural of painters. . . .

Wright's eight-poem sequence "Homage to Cézanne" builds up, line by line, a sense of the omnipresent dead. Wright's unit here is the line rather than the stanza, and the resulting poem sounds rather like the antiphonal chanting of psalms: one can imagine faint opposing choruses singing the melismatic lines:


The dead fall around us like rain.


They come down from the last clouds in the late light for the last time


And slip through the sod.


They lean uphill and face north.


Like grass,


They bend toward the sea, they break toward the setting sun.


Wright does this poetry of the declarative sentence very well, but many poets have learned this studied simplicity, even this poetry of the common noun. What is unusual in Wright is his oddity of imagery within the almost too-familiar conventions of quiet, depth, and profundity. As he layers on his elemental squares and blocks of color, the surprising shadow or interrupting boulder emerge as they might in a Cézanne:


High in the night sky the mirror is hauled up and unsheeted.

In it we twist like stars.


To Wright, death is as often ascent as burial; we become stars, like Romeo, after death, as often as roses. . . .Everyone's dead are ubiquitous: we all "sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts." On the other hand, the oracular mode sacrifices the conversational, and Wright evanesces under the touch in his wish to be dead (or saved), to enlarge the one inch of snowy rectitude in his living heart into the infinite ice of the tomb. . . .

The hunger for the purity of the dead grows, in these poems, almost to a lust. . . .

Edward Hirsch: On "Homage to Paul Cezanne"

The Southern Cross is a complex gesture to the past bracketed by two complementary long poems, "Homage to Paul Cézanne," a hypnotic, highly figurative litany for the unnamed dead, and the title piece. . . .

"Homage to Paul Cézanne" is an attempt to amplify voices that have become too faint to hear. In eight unnumbered sections, each sixteen lines long and given a separate page, the poem postulates a wide range of things the dead do, refusing to individuate them. "At night, in the fish-light of the moon, the dead wear our white shirts / To stay warm, and litter the fields," it begins. "We pick them up in the mornings, dewy pieces of paper and scraps of cloth." In the elusive and cumulative imagery of this poem, the dead are always with us, an ancestral presence--refracted and transfigured, moving and unsettled, fading and returning, evasive, unrecoznizable, nudging "close to the surface of all things." They slip under our feet and twist like stars over our heads. They are mist on the mirror, a gap in the wind, a space we enter in dreams, what we will become. Until then, however, "We sit out on the earth and stretch our limbs, / Hoarding the little mounds of sorrow laid up in our hearts."

Wright's "Homage" is a nonlinear poem in an oracular mode, an attempt to bring a series of painterly techniques to the poetic sequence. Cézanne is the magnetizing presence and guiding example, especially the sixty paintings of Mont Sante-Victoire that he made between 1882 and 1906. Wright's idea is to treat words like pigment, to build the blocks, by layering lines and stanzas the way Cézanne used color and form. The fourth section recalls Cézanne's commitment to significant form, his determination to seek in nature the cylinder, the sphere, and the cone, to penetrate its masses and planes, to use the color blue as a way of defining space, an intercession between earth and heaven:

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,


Circle and smudge, cross-beak and buttonhook,

We layer them in. We squint hard and terrace them line by line.

For Cézanne technique was itself spiritual ("What we are given in dreams we write as blue paint") and there is an exaltation to his work that is sometimes linked to the pantheism of Chinese painting. That's one reason he becomes "The Black Chateau"--the title of one of his greatest paintings--at the end of Wright's fourth self-portrait.

From The Columbia History of American Poetry. Ed. Jay Parini. Copyright © 1993 by Columbia University Press.