On Wednesday of this week, I had the rather strange sensation of realizing that several years ago I wrote a poem that describes a painting I saw for the first time only yesterday.
Thanks to a gift of the membership to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from Eli and Maya, I was able to attend an exhibit yesterday called “Visions of Arcadia” that centered around the works of Cezanne, Matisse and Gauguin. The main idea of the exhibit was to trace elements of pastoralism and the bucolic life as an idyll or ideal from the Greeks and Romans (especially Virgil’s “Eclogues”) in the movements of 19th and 20th century French art.
In addition to the big three painters that everyone knows, however, were a number whose work was unfamiliar to me. One painting that especially struck me was Robert Delauney’s massive “City of Paris.” http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/robert-delaunay/the-city-of-paris. Like the work of Picasso and Braque, whose paintings flanked it, it was an experiment in cubism, having a fragmented Eiffel Tower on the right and a scene of the bridge and river on the left, but in the middle, in keeping with the theme of Arcadia, were the Three Graces from classical painting.
For some reason Delauney’s painting stuck in my head, perhaps because it was at once still representational enough that my conservative mind could recognize elements of it but experimental in a way that even I could follow. Of course, I also liked the idea of pulling an ancient theme into a contemporary venue. I was driving through Philadelphia, on route to bringing my grandson Andrew’s birthday gifts out to him with the idea in mind that Delauney painting was ripe for some kind of ekphrastic poem when I realized that I’d written a poem years ago that actually came close to accomplishing what I wanted to do.
The occasion had been Maya’s wedding. Judi had flown in and, one at a time, Dawn, Amber and Brandi also arrived. I don’t think that Judi even know that all of them were coming. I had not seen them in a number of years and their presence in Philadelphia, a city that prides itself on its tough image, was just such a total “breath of fresh air” that it caused me to rescind my cynicism for a while. Here are the first two stanzas. (I’ll spare everyone the saccharine third stanza which I have never been happy with):
Philadelphia embraces its hard edges.
From the phallic thrust of skyscrapers
To the corner pretzel sellers caw
To the plosive me-me-me of horns in traffic
To the hip hop slam of words and dance
Disparities pile on like a Raushenberg collage
Or an overstuffed deli sandwich too large to bite.
Into this summer clamor you unfurl
Three summer julian breezes, muses of the south
translating through guileless grace
the city’s ersatz hardness into tunes
unbound by fevered beats and gattled raps
seeing through unembittered eyes
Homophony in all the newness that you meet.
True, this is about Philly, but it struck me that considered visually it is virtually a translation of “City of Paris.” Though I had never really had occasion to think about it, phrases like “muses of the south” and “guileless grace” clearly juxtapose my nieces to the fragmented barrage of Philadelphia that they have stepped into in the same way that Delauney’s Three Graces (which, I believe, were originally a separate painting in themselves) both intrude upon yet at the same time become part of the fabric of Paris.
Whether I will actually ever finish the poem, now that I’ve seen Delauney’s mural is subject to question, but having this kind of a head start, I don’t know that I have a whole lot of excuses.