Sunday, February 17, 2008

Poem by Mark Rudman


"The only possible history is contemporary history."


Peasant life, Jura mountains, revolution.
Success, ruin.

Courbet’s three sisters among the rocks of the field: pied clouds.
Thistles even now exploding from the foreground.

Foam at the edge of the cave’s mouth, rippling over stones,
a man poling a raft toward the dark core,

undaunted, vertical as a post.
Terror of the horizontal, a human terror.

Let’s look at this from the truer, inhuman point of view:
rocks and fields and lakes, splayed raggedly,

not a square or a circle, not even a round hole,
they torment the mind, these surfaces, being so close….

Nature, in its casual perfection, offers no respite,
no matter how far we stray by day from the village bell

its tintinnabulation echoes and reverberates,
seeks out the wanderer in the woods,

plucks him from thickets and groves of beech trees
where the tinkling of cowbells, flat and toneless

in the mountain air, and the pastoral
music of a sunken time from parish churches

set him to dreaming about the tavern:
night and wine.


The Stonebreakers—destroyed when Dresden was bombed.
Photograph of a photograph, close-up of a close-up:

Courbet and labor: Chink of the pick.
The men with their backs to us.

The old man, on his knees,
crouched by the roadside

in the dust and summer heat,
straw hat, patched trousers, striped vest,

and through the chinks in his cracked shoes
faded blue socks revealing his heels.

The young man standing beside him as if the two
were one person at different stages of life.

Looked at like this, the universe is a cramped place.
What is will remain unforgiven.

And in The Winnowers the woman
on her knees with her back to us,

sifting the wheat through the basket,
looks as if she’s about to pray.

This is not what the two women
in Young Women on the Banks of the Seine

are doing, facing us with closed eyes,
forcing our eyes to meet theirs in reverie,

the women daydreaming the spectators
dreaming the women….

3 The Artist’s Studio

Courbet, brush in hand, at his easel, more at ease
than we will ever see him again, reaching out
to dab some more black-green into the "trees,"

some gray-black into the "rocks,"
flanked by the naked model, the "muse,"
buxom, motherly, alluring, within sight, possibly within reach,

her nipples in line with his fingertips,
and the curious urchin, whose eyes we don’t see…;
the fair-haired rustic who looks as if he had stepped out

of the canvas to stare back at the painter’s hand;
the child whose response we are not given,
(possibly the artist as a child, possibly the artist’s child),

whose innocence and wonder we must draw from the angle
of his head gazing at whatever "detail" Courbet is about to lay
onto the canvas,
as if the source of original light were the source of the Loue

whose waters rush through his arm as he holds fast
to the pulse and throb of the first impulse.
The Origins of the World.


The "real" Gustave Courbet…:

Courbet the wanderer, dressed in white, his beard aimed
at his patron Bruyas’ chin, on the road to Sête near Montpellier.

"To be in a position to interpret the customs, the ideas, the
various aspects of the age as I see them, to be not only a
painter, but also a man, to make living art, that is my aim."

To apply the same eye to fops and laborers.
Equality a dangerous truth.

To capture the avid surface.

Courbet and seeing:

The paint, laid down with a palette knife, crusting,
the eye stilled, arrested,
banishing illusion,
sending the dream into exile, no longer
to dream any dream but the dream of the real—

"There is only one other, "he said, "who understands the sky."


Courbet and the unpeopled landscape and seascape:
the earth as it is without us.

Boats and masts on the shore, broken horizons, thickness
of waves, graininess of sand, the rocks breakdown of particles.

Courbet broken, not enough sinew in the trees, snow
too white, the crows not black enough.

Uneven ground the snow reveals, the snow conceals,
and above it all, blue shadows.


Alone now, in a prison courtyard in Sainte-Pélangie,
he stands at his ease, in his earth-

colored beret, smoking his pipe,
his foulard red as a torch geranium,

and finds three scrawny trees
beyond the unlatched window and the bars

searching for a glimmer of sunlight.
There are men who are consumed by the pressure

of seeing, all their senses directed to one end.
And something inhuman about them.


So many matters left untended:
Courbet and Fourier, Courbet and Jean Journet….
The judgment day sky
in The Valley of the Loue
and in the Burial at Ornan,

a sky that sucks its charcoal
out of caves and wells,
and tiers of white rocks flocking diagonally
across the gray sky,
and the other darkness, unseen but still

present, of night, waiting
for gravediggers to fill up that hole;
a night that is not night
but comes disguised as water as
it ripples over rocks or gathers

in bold storm clouds over the valley.
And a light, a light that is the light
of the Jura flooding Courbet’s studio
in far away Paris.
Light that breaks off his raised

knife. And though we find ourselves
in open air the road is not open:
No one walks unburdened down these narrow lanes.
No one strolls.
Something stands in the way.

And the rocks’ expression, they are almost
thoughtful, as if from long gazing.
And the sky. What happened to the sky?
Let’s pass over the lists
of his imperfections,

remnants strewn over his decline
by those who would malign him
for not being who he wasn’t;
for too much laughter,
for guzzling beer

with the air of a jeering peasant;
for not knowing more than the earth he knew,
the deep green valleys,
waters, and rocks of the Jura
where it is still possible to go.

“Courbet,” from Mark Rudman's book The Nowhere Steps, was commissioned by Linda Nochlin for 'Courbet Revisted' at the Brooklyn Museum. There is a huge Gustave Courbet (1819-1877) exhibition opening at The Met on February 27.

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