Poets of Franklin County: Heath poet John Palmer
“I don’t know if ‘hero’ is the right word but I’ve always just loved Cézanne,” Heath poet John Palmer said, when asked how he came to write his poem, “Houses by Cézanne.” The poem appears in Palmer’s full-length collection recently published by Pleasure Boat Studio: A Literary Press.
Palmer first encountered the work of the French artist at the Galerie de Jeu de Paume in Paris when he was 19. There, he came across one of Cézanne’s still lifes, which didn’t particularly interest him, or so he’d thought.
“But I found myself just staring and staring at these apples and feeling amazed at their weight on the canvas,” Palmer said. He was struck by Cézanne’s ability to convey the “thinginess” of things.
Though Cézanne’s work appears representational — a mountain is recognizable as a mountain; an apple as an apple — Palmer points out that, through his brush strokes and lines, the painter also creates, “A world of geometry, which is so much of what his paintings insisted on — you know, arcs and curves and triangles.”
Cézanne painted in the mid to late 1800s. His work was a break from the more purely representational work of the 19th century, making him, if not the fountainhead of 20th century art, “Certainly one of them,” Palmer said.
He described Cézanne’s paintings as, “Beautiful and legible and abstract,” adjectives that could be used to describe Palmer’s poem as well.
The poem’s genesis can be traced roughly this way: Palmer was looking at a postcard he’d picked up — a reproduction of one of Cézanne’s landscapes — when he began to imagine his way into the scene.
“It’s hard for me to remember but I would guess that that curve in the road was just something that I was following,” Palmer said. “I was starting to write about the curve in the road and — you know how it is. Generally, you sit in front of the piece of paper and some noise starts to come and you just follow the noise, you follow the rhythm and that’s what kind of starts you on the way.”
The poem begins with an elongated, walking rhythm that evokes the sense of moving through a landscape: beautiful. Details of the scene — the dusty houses, orchards and flowers, the sea — are described in straight-forward language: legible. Then, the poem shifts to a more interior train of thought — “Nobody built these houses./ They came like geometry …”: abstract.
Palmer and his wife had traveled to Provence, the area in Southern France in which Cézanne lived and worked.
“It’s not lush,” Palmer said. “It’s not a tropical landscape. It can be sere and windy and the mountains can look pretty imposing. I think it cannot be an easy place to live, beautiful as it is.”
As he looked at the small reproduction of the painting, “It seemed as if something about the houses had to do with love and desire but absence also,” Palmer said. He thought some of this sense of absence was probably caused by the partially abstracted way Cézanne had painted the houses. There may have been something of Palmer’s own mood at work as well. And some of it may have come from biographical details that Palmer knew about Cézanne.
“One of the things I remembered was that he would go out and paint Mont St. Victoire every day. He painted it — what? — 90 times. He was regarded amongst the local children as kind of a kooky old man,” Palmer said.
Children used to throw stones at Cézanne as he walked through the village, Palmer said, yet, every day, he still went out to paint.
“I guess I sort of imagined at the end that he thinks of these silly little unimaginative people and extracts some energy out of them,” Palmer said, taking delight in the justice of Cézanne’s transformation of his tormentors into what Palmer describes in his poem as “a row of black cleft-marks above the road.”
But transforming the children into marks of energy is more than Cézanne’s revenge. Transformation is what art is: experience rendered into form. It’s what Palmer does, too, in his poems that often begin in a literal place — Cézanne’s Provence, a bank of the Deerfield River, an empty field, or a café in Siena — and carry the reader someplace unexpected.
Ask for John Palmer’s “Return to a Place like Seeing” at local bookstores. For more information about the press or to order books online, visit www.pleasureboatstudio.com
Poet’s Seat Poetry Contest deadline is March 10
Don’t forget the Poet’s Seat Contest deadline is coming up March 10th. You can find more information at: http://greenfieldpubliclibrary.org/node/226 or by contacting contest organizers Hope Schneider, 772-0257, or Cynthia Snow, 625-0105.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. Crapo is seeking published poets for her column. She’s interested in books written by a Franklin County poet and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.