March 2009

Clayton Eshleman


"Soutine at L’Orangerie": A Poem


This poem was originally drafted while wandering about in the Soutine room of L'Orangerie museum in Paris, June 2007. For many years I have carried small notebooks with me when visiting museums, so as to be able to get down spontaneously what goes on in my head when I look at certain paintings. Much of this material then gets transferred to word doc on my computer and reworked.

Over the years I have written a number of poems and prose pieces on Soutine and his work. In Indiana (1969), there is "Soutine." in The Gull Wall (1975), "Portrait of Soutine." The most extensive poem is "Soutine's Lapis" (From Scratch, 1998). There is also a short essay on Soutine "Soutine's Impact" in "Eight Fire Sources" collected in Archaic Design (2007), and a review of the book The Impact of Chaim Soutine in the Fall 2002 online edition of Rain Taxi magazine.

Readers of may find the following response to Soutine fascinating. In the National Gallery of Art catalog, Willem de Kooning Paintings, David Sylvester reports that when in 1977 de Kooning was requested to identify his key influences, he responded: "O I think I would choose Soutine... I've always been crazy about Soutine--all his paintings. Maybe it's the lushness of the paint. He builds up a surface that looks like a material, like a substance. There's a kind of transfiguration, a certain fleshiness, in his work... I remember when I first saw the Soutines in the Barnes Collection... The Matisses had a light of their own, but the Soutines had a glow that came from within the paintings--it was another kind of light."

My guess is that de Kooning responded most vividly to Soutine's work from his Ceret period, in the 1918-1919, when his exploding, collapsing landscapes and houses pushed very close to Abstract Expressionism. Soutine was in certain paintings inches away from some of de Kooning's best work of the 1950s and 1960s. After Ceret, Soutine became a more traditional painter. His portraits and still-lifes of the 1920s, however, represent the peak of his achievement. In these years, he turned against his Ceret breakthrough and destroyed as many of the paintings as he could find. When someone wanted to buy a new painting, in the 1930s, I have read, he insisted on them giving him a Ceret canvas to destroy in exchange.

In poetry, Soutine's Ceret period is very sympathetic with Cesar Vallejo's Trilce (most of which was written, in Peru, during the same years).

"Soutine at L’Orangerie"

Ravage red
blistered light of hell
     robe demeanor
timid and tender choirboy
          crosshatched beef of
the blockaded river Soutine felt facing
impacted with himself.
                                        Broken straps of clinging  
meat,   lap this, God,    nuzzle what you’ve riven. O-
hole of a rabbit’s mouth
pit sinister, next to a giggling
      rose bowl.

Soutine’s Great Wall:
tomatoes under squish!
I remember Sanjusangendo
— thunder-scrolled warriors with lightning spears
this waiter pulled askew in sanguine vest.

Turkey in a cloud burst of pus, pearls and wattle breakage,
legs mossed blue (its red-dotted breast evokes
the menstrual disks of Le Combel).

Hung as if garroted:
black matted feather choker, rack of stiffened claws.

Gladiolas, wind gusted flags at sea in bowl. 
Undulant buildings, Ku Klux Klan blank,
eye holes tarred with introspection’s lack.

Anselm Kiefer’s crumbled “Sarajevo library” a few blocks away
is tame compared to what hit through Soutine.
Are these trees dreaming in a hurricane
or are they the arteries of a giant having a stroke?

Landscape as immersion urge colliding with the abstract
inner machinery of its parts.

Is Soutine’s psyche still trapped in birth passage?
Glazed in uterine trance?
Do these upchucking knolls track forceptal yank? 
Whirr of fetal engulfment?

Never mined. Here’s some meat
grinning like Tige, Buster Brown’s dog.

And here is a Pheasant Queen plucked, recumbent on a urine-stained cloud.

Simultaneous creation / destruction, no correction, no renovation.
Combustible rumba of thatched reconnaissance
under Smilovitchi’s judgmental stare.

(And yet, we are watched over by a jaunty mouse-eared god
     in floppy tilted toque, a bit daft, half-asleep
with abattoir intentions even he does not grasp 
      as he grips
                       the red blob we are to him,
      purses his lips and wrings us out)

                                         [Paris, 2007]