Edouard Manet, The Railway (1873)
Francine would be wearing her diamonds,
I thought. She would glide into
the room, giraffe-like, speaking
volubly. Everyone would form cliques
whispering, and she would’ve forgotten
Elena. Elena, with her big blue bow,
looking at the noisy train.
I’m just sitting here, in a blue dress,
white lacy cuffs, reading a book,
the dog asleep on my lap. Elena,
I smell thick smoke. Oh look, across
the street those gargoyles, and those
saints, and all those people walking
through a tunnel below a bridge.
Outside the Gare Saint-Lazare,
feeling the optimism of the morning
and the world coming and going.
No one giving me the runaround,
not Francine! Away from hysteria,
just baby-sitting you, Elena,
and watching the gargoyles.
Prompt: Hey guys do you realise the inner monologue that’s going on inside you? Those are basically your thoughts, right? You think about another person and this monologue’s going on, about how she is offending you and how you feel offended and how you’re not showing it but you’re thinking it. Nothing and no one is innocent. So look at this painting (or another one if you wish) and write a poem based on an inner monologue. You want to know what I’m thinking right now? Actually I’m just thinking how I am going to make stuff up for the poems I’ll be writing in July. Guess I’ll be winging it.
Paul Cézanne, Madame Cézanne in a Red Dress, 1888 – 1890
Spectral presences lived in the room.
He pondered his wife in the abstract.
Observing surfaces, light that produced
tones, depth, richness.
All was geometry.
In the courtyard, the windows by
cascading moonlight. We leaned close.
The cobbled stones slicked by rain,
foliage orbed by lights.
In one of them she sat.
The shawl-collared red dress against
floral drapery. Hortense’s peculiar,
asymmetric, egg-shaped face. Plain
pulled back hair, center parted.
Yellow damask back of chair, oddly
angled with wainscot band, a mirror’s
sharp corner, part of a mantelpiece
with long tongs. What might we gather?
Abstraction being a condition, a paradox
describing human complexity.
Prompt: The world is full of colors. Paul Cézanne said that everything in nature is colored. And that “shadow is a colour as light is, but less brilliant; light and shadow are only the relation of two tones.” Interestingly, he painted an abstract portrait of his wife above based on a fragmented visual world. He has been called the father of modern art. Picasso made his first cubist paintings based on Cézanne’s idea that all depiction of nature can be reduced to three solids: cube, sphere and cone. Your prompt is to write about an abstract painting. Alternatively you could write an abstract poem.
Edgar Degas, Cafe Concert: The Song Of The Dog
He liked to catch his subject unawares.
Like nudes bent on washing themselves
and ballerinas in the waiting room
and cafe singers after dark. As
unromanticised a portrayal as one
would come across. An artist, he set
the bar pretty high.
The cafe singer in a yellow dress
and black choker was a satire. Just look
at the title–Song Of The Dog–hands
like paws! Uncompromising, into the world
he poured a kind of disdain. First restrained
in colors then heightening palette to
Imagine this was anti-religious Russia
so the singer Sylvia could not sing of
God or Lord or Christ or Jesus.
What would ooze out in song?
She sang, “Rise and shine, and give
Dog the glory! Glory! Rise and shine!
Give Dog the glory!”
What? Have you taken a liking to paws,
Sylvia? Has Degas degraded you?
She wiped ber brow, that honorable woman,
saying, I’m not sore either. What is
d-o-g but God spelled backward?
That said, poured herself some vodka
like one who’s landed on all paws.
Prompt: So I’ve watched a Youtube documentary on French Impressionist artist, Edgar Degas. And I was reading Langston Hughes’s biography, I Wonder As I Wander, and he’s wandered to Russia to work on a movie about Blacks in America and this subject came up about a Black spiritual singer called Sylvia and she was the singer in the movie singing spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Anyhow in stanza three above, this was what she came up with, when she was faced with an actual Russian conundrum. I thought I’d like to link that to Edgar’s painting by virtue of the painting’s title, and so I did. So the prompt is to think about a strange pairing in a poem.
We’d gone out on a limb camping
in the wild. Out of everyday life
so as to sit below the water,
cross-legged, me fingering beads
in my bracelet, you chanting like
an oracle, barely audible.
Where we find our true selves,
we said. Looking down at fishes,
vivacious, open-mouthed. Centered
in our head space–grand rat-a-
tat-tat documentary end.
Jauntily we held hands.
Prompt: So I was wondering, would you rather be promptless? So I can commute to a cubicle to do some real work? So I can go up a mountain and sit by a waterfall? So I can chow down a bowl of clam chowder with crusty bread? Well, I’m just kidding. Don’t look at me with that steely gaze. It’s creepy. The prompt’s coming right up. It is to write about something that is out of everyday life. What? You mean, write about everyday life? No, I mean, something that’s out of … so you know, that isn’t everyday life, like you know, out in a cabin somewhere kind of life.
I’ll be honest with you guys–
what she said, it’s all true like
you know it, and wouldn’t say it
and when someone’s said it you’d
laugh in a mad stream. Sure is
funny when you’re dead serious.
Something called dark humor.
What? You, with bee-hive hair and
a wristful of designer glass bangles,
interjected peering out of horn-rimmed
glasses. I said, clothes make the man–
did you not know in Haiti the whites
wore coats no matter the heat, and shoes.
Race and class. Serious, are they not?
So in a sweep language erupts to paint
a shadow, a shimmering fury, a ripple.
A boil will fester. That’s how it goes.
Some words swarmed. Others–you said no.
So much depends on time, and space
and other things. But no matter what
the sun shall rise to meet the crow.
Prompt: I don’t know who said it first–clothes make a man–Shakespeare or Mark Twain, or someone else? No matter. You are to find a quote and then write a poem around that quote. Here’re a couple if you’re too lazy to find a quote yourself.
“My formula for living is quite simple. I get up in the morning and I go to bed at night. In between, I occupy myself as best I can.”– Cary Grant
“I think everybody’s nuts.”– Johnny Depp
“As you think, so shall you become.”– Bruce Lee
Henri Rousseau, The Dream
There’s a native woman in the jungle
whose very character was jumbled
with animals. She turned mesmerized
toward a black man, a snake charmer
who had beguiled even the wide-eyed
lions nesting in nearness.
There’s nothing tepid here even as
she reclined naked as nature, one arm
resting on the curvature of a sofa.
Surrounded by rambunctious ferns,
tropical flowers, and low hanging fruit,
being the emissary on a lazy afternoon.
Prompt: Wiki says, “Post-Impressionists extended Impressionism while rejecting its limitations: they continued using vivid colours, often thick application of paint, and real-life subject matter, but were more inclined to emphasize geometric forms, distort form for expressive effect, and use unnatural or arbitrary colour.” So it goes further afield into the unconscious, one might say, as this painting from Rousseau does. Write a poem that is inspired by this piece of art.
Edgar Degas, Breakfast after the Bath II
I’m no ascetic. The sun pouring in
as she stepped out of the bath
and the servant girl brought coffee
in a cup. She towelled her hair
vigorously, one thigh leaning against
the edge of the tub.
She cut a mythic figure like a nude
lass a painter would’ve painted.
Bent awkwardly now. Towel having
been flung to floor, covering rug.
Stepped on to dry her soles,
a perfect state of undress.
Prompt: Impressionism is “a style or movement in painting originating in France in the 1860s, characterized by a concern with depicting the visual impression of the moment, especially in terms of the shifting effect of light and colour.” In terms of literary style, it “seeks to capture a feeling or experience rather than to achieve accurate depiction.” So would you like to have a go at doing an impressionistic poem? You can do one of this painting or any other you like.
I have no tolerance for lies, she said.
Appropos that at the moment I felt
the ink squirt as the slimy ooze
wriggled away in a black storm. What?
I lie all the time, including this
one time I met Hemingway at the hallway
and he pointed a gun just for fun.
Why? There having no great truth
thronging the waves right now.
Just a haul of shrimps pink in
the sun as we trotted out barefoot,
he and I, and then afterward we
beached on a rock looking up, free
of turbulence, at the voodoo moon.
What does a lyric poem do? I read yours and thought of
a plumage of white and gray. Unidealized, even derisive but
not quite dead as sea-birds she had carried ashore.
So is that our duty then to poeticize? Is life our fodder?
An inner monologue to soothe as lozenges? An opiate?
To wade out, row out a boat bringing back those birds.
Weight of wings drooping wet. A living art–that’s what’s said.
Sand, sea and sky in one’s net. Waves in gold as the girl
turned her back hoisting stick. If one isn’t apathetic then
to sing rapturous and wild as sea-gulls flew overhead.
Prompt: I remember asking for a nature poem. So this is a reprise I guess. Specifically write about birds. I wonder, can one write of birds without thinking of their symbolism of freedom? Aren’t they the archetypes of freedom? Maybe you could describe the plumage of particular birds? For that is where beauty and function reside. What about caged birds? What feelings do they evoke? See what I mean about thinking about the symbolism of birds.
Soon I will awaken. But how?
Specters follow the forest.
Maybe when I come upon a stream,
realise you’re no longer there.
Asleep in the dark with untamed beast.
Wager a shadowy, half-finished dream–
fluid muscle memory from above.
These words I riffed–a kind of fire,
is it not? In an ether I remained
obscure making itinerant notes.
What, disdain? Tessa, a whole culture
runs against our grain. O unlovable poet!
Yet let us be, ranting in turn;
with the tide let us love.
Prompt: When we’re close to nature we feel closest to God-energy. That’s why we find nature to be uplifting. Because life can be oh-so-confusing and often bittersweet. When I write, I feel close to that energy too. If I fail to write, then I fail in my duty to tap into the energy. Do you feel the same? Robert Frost said, “Every poem is a momentary stay against the confusion of the world.” Run with that quote and write a nature poem.