Poetry by Joseph Stanton from Things Seen
The Artist Enters the Scene and Keeps Right on Walking
It might have been his masterpiece,
but he could not leave it at that.
Striding into a foreground of scattered,
refrozen snow and a bitter cold
that made the background sky above
the horizon crackle blue-white
with grief, he wondered why he had
never realized how easy a journey
it could be,
but, after years of walking,
he could come no closer to the pale,
distant mountains, where God
and his office staffmight be waiting.
Clodion’s Dancing Bacchante with Amour
It is well to dance with abandon
and with Love says this terra cotta
by Claude Michelle, aka Clodion.
It matters not that Amour is not a
man of his word,
but just one of those putti,
a silly cupidity
drunk on what he
thinks must be operatic song.
The dance of this lovely Bacchante
seems to want to play along,
inebriate and voluptuary.
This lover of Love’s too blind to see
that either of her cymbals could be
Paul Gauguin’s Vision After the Sermon
I have ordained myself a cleric
in the right-hand corner of this scene
to picture what these women
of Brittany, through their ecstasy,
could see. All must bow their heads to pray,
so I have bowed my head,
but cannot pray, nor know what prayer can
know, though I come here to make my art
discover that God is God
and that angels are winged and dangerous.
That I have had to shape the women’s vision
for myself makes it no less theirs.
An artist’s faith must be an inspiration,
and his inspiration must be a vision
that goes, faithfully, beyond him.
Thus have I spun into my scheme the dream,
the dreamers, and me—who must try to know
but has not seen the dream.
What the vision sees are two tiny figures—
a blond, gold-winged angel in royal-blue robes
and a dark-bearded, dark-robed
Jacob. They are grappling on a field
of absolute carmine. This dream’s audience
curves round two sides of the scene,
starting with me and ending with apple leaves.
Jacob, his angel, and the intimate
wrestling they make together
are cut off from the nodding worshipers
by the apple tree’s diagonal thrust,
which echoes the angle
of my head’s lean; thereby, the priest who wears
my face enforces the boundary between
the seeing and the seen.
Eliminating the middle ground,
I let the story hover in the glare
of scarlet earth or scarlet air
and make the image mine to make it theirs.
To make the scene profound enough to dream
I have learned to believe
in a floating world: my wrestlers are
by Hokusai; my tree, by Hiroshige.
The truth, as always, must be
re-imagined to be real. There’s a moral
here beyond this Sunday’s sermon and its
This picture is a stained glass full of light,
of hope—my mind’s enraptured window,
carnal scarlet and ethereal blue,
a roseate window in which my story
gleams for all to see;
my struggle to know, my difficult wrestling
with that indefatigable god—
my deft, ungraspable self.
Robert Delaunay’s Rainbow
This Orpheus plays a tune parisien.
A cathedral of sacred heart rises
from a high hill that collects artistes
at near dead center of this landscaped view.
“Orphic Cubism” was what Apollinaire called
Delaunay’s scenery—a form of art
whose song is almost pure abstraction,
aimed to get a rise from the almost dead,
but well-heeled, stiffs of black and brown salons,
not to mention saloons where Delaunay
and his coterie would hoist a few—
orphic insights arriving glass by glass.
Drunk he was on color and its rainbow
arc, a cage of tones to catch a city in,
bending the bow enough to fit his squared
canvas, hiding in pure delight the point
of Eiffel, the turning wheel of Ferris,
and a lovely Montgolfier balloon
ripening to orange and rising to a sky
abstracted to purely green above the clouds.
Thomas Eakins’ William Rush and His Model
. . . The best art, they say, is that which conceals art.
—Ovid, Metamorphosis (“Pygmalion”)
William Rush helped his naked model down
from the pedestal he had placed her on.
She had been for him the Schuylkill River—
all in the interest of allegory
that undergoes here a sea change,
so that Rush and his unclothed employee
must stand hand in hand in paint, paired emblems
of Eakins’s honest gaze and honest art
that wants the image more in the eye
than in the heart with everywhere the mind,
the mind, calibrating a kind of soul
as deeply felt absence of sentiment.
For Eakins, Rush was a forefather,
a role model, an exemplar of mild scandal;
Rush at the start of the age, Eakins at the end,
shocked Philadelphians with the terrible news
that clothes can be taken off to reveal bodies.
The joke here is mythic and photographic—
the sculptor handing down a homely woman
as if she were a polished-marble goddess,
a metamorphosis of Ovid’s sexy text,
a demonstration that, for Tom Eakins,
received wisdom could be received
and must be, Eakins would say, or be lost.
This was the last of Eakins’ many tries
to capture Rush and his naked truth.
In all the rest, the sculptor faced us,
while his nude faced him, giving us her back,
revealing the pose that became the statue:
delicate mythic bittern resting on
delicate mythic shoulder. In those
poses, frontal nudity was denied us.
We had to contend—and be content with—
the frumpy irony of Rush’s wife
seated, knitting, on a stiff-backed chair
(as if in any Calvinist pallid parlor)
inches away from the luminous flesh
of the slender, lovely poser for pay.
In our version, both the sweet, young ideal
and its needling counterpart are gone.
The woman here is no nymph in the making.
She is just as coarse and common and real
as you or me; likewise the man here
is a bear with no forebear.
The heavy-set Philadelphian
who shows his audience his back and rear,
as he leans to help his statue down
resembles not at all the slim, nervous
woodcarver of all the other scenes.
The artist here is only Eakins,
within the frame as well as without,
self-portrait as portly Pygmalion,
turning away from us and toward his art,
whose truth is its only beauty—which is,
as it turns out, all he needed to know.
Variations on a Theme by Winslow Homer
1. The Fox Hunt
harried in snow by a gathered hunger
echoes Homer’s name, cornered on canvas.
Both fox and name
appear as ruddy diagonals
determined to keep on going,
through the white fear’s
that the artist’s name
and his animal
2. The Fog Warning
The fisherman’s home
in the distance,
It is about to be lost to view
in the horizon’s rumor of fog
that may soon be
the only thing
he can see.
3. The Gulf Stream
The waiting is
all he has
to hold onto
besides the stalks of sugar cane,
sweet last straws to grasp
in hopes that help might come.
Even now a phantom ship
teases the horizon—
one of the dreams
he’d have to be
unframed to see.
4. Right and Left
Two ducks suspended in mid-air
above angry green waves.
One, bullet-struck, dives to its demise;
the other, about to fly away,
will have to live without its mate.
Neither life nor death,
neither right nor left,
the artist tells us,
is entirely without fear.