Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Meditation: Corner of a table

Still Life: Corner of a Table, by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1873
Art Institute of Chicago

The following poem is not a judgment on this gorgeous painting by Henri Fantin-Latour, who is famous for paintings of flower arrangements. It is just a meditation prompted by the painting, that went off in a certain direction, deflected by a splinter in my head. As much as I love wabi-sabi pine, earthenware and distressed linen, I also love silver, crystal, damask and mahogany. And wine? Yes. And the yellow of lemons or pears that smiles upon us in a room when outside March rains darken the sky. I do love magnificence like this. It just becomes less savory knowing that not all can taste it. I know this is a bit heavy again. Don't worry, I don't feel morose, and I hope it doesn't make you feel that. As Shaista reminded me of Paul Simon's words in her comment in the last post, which was a reminder from my post before that, These are the days of miracle and wonder. Keep the cycle going.

A meditation on the painting "Still Life: Corner of a Table"
by Henri Fantin-Latour

Spare me the entire
table spread like a paragraph
of Henry James
unpacked from a sea-going trunk

Don't even think that presenting
just the princess sugar bowl, arms butterflied
and head dropping in shyness, will not be too much

And god no,
not the full
goblet of wine, so blood-rich it has all but disappeared
into the genealogy of the glass

Hide, please hide
the vinegar cruet
better than that
I can’t bear its amber-gold liquidity!

What do you mean
exposing the skins of those plump lemons
as if the white compote
lessened them with her modesty?

What do you think
the empty elegance of a cup and saucer
on glimmering damask

can do to transcend the lace
of rhododendrons
like foam from waves of the sea

reaching up to wash
the fruits and bones and porcelain sand
from the table

all under a furtive crescent moon
peering from her crystal pitcher of Bordeaux
I beg you

spare me all
but the empty corner of a frame
on a dirt-brown wall

We have had quite enough
magnificence for a century or two
And by "we" I mean just us here
at this corner of the table

Listen to a podcast of this poem here.

Listen to Joni Mitchell sing "Banquet" from her 1972 album "For the Roses" in the Grooveshark widget below the lyrics, about the imbalance of greed and need on our planet.

by Joni Mitchell

Come to the dinner gong
The table is laden high
Fat bellies and hungry little ones
Tuck your napkins in
And take your share
Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there's plenty to spare

I took my share down by the sea
Paper plates and Javex bottles on the tide
Seagulls come down and they squawk at me
Down where the water skiers glide

Some turn to Jesus
And some turn to heroin
Some turn to rambling round
Looking for a clean sky
And a drinking stream
Some watch the paint peel off
Some watch their kids grow up
Some watch their stocks and bonds
Waiting for that big deal American Dream

I took my dream down by the sea
Yankee yachts and lobster pots and sunshine
And logs and sails
And Shell Oil pails
Dogs and tugs and summertime
Back in the banquet line
Angry young people crying

Who let the greedy in
And who left the needy out
Who made this salty soup
Tell him we're very hungry now
For a sweeter fare
In the cookie I read
"Some get the gravy
And some get the gristle
Some get the marrow bone
And some get nothing
Though there's plenty to spare



Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

A quick comment, just you and me, before all the other banqueters arrive and crowd into this inviting corner of the table: this is a wonderful meditation on the painting. Following so soon after your poem on Breton's 'The Song of the Lark', I hope you will do a series of such poem-meditations on works of art.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, a warm welcome to you before the rest arrive. This is another painting at "my" beloved Art Institute, one I hope you can see one day. I have a feeling you will find a lot of pleasure at that museum when you finally visit it, and much to add to your art history repertoire. I collect dozens of postcards from the museum shop before I leave each visit and then use them for bookmarks. I pulled out my new copy of the Duino Elegies yesterday to read on my day off, and there I had already inserted a postcard with this painting, even though I hadn't read a word from the poems yet, not even Edward Snow's intro. So you will very likely get your wish for more of these meditations, as I have two towers of books at my side, and all have different art bookmarks.

Do you think I'll ever get any reading done?

Susan said...

The answer to your question above is...Not as long as you post soul-searching, introspective works such as these.

Sometimes I feel guilty when I lift my fork to my lips, knowing there are children out there going to be bed hungry.

Thank you for the reminder, Ruthie.

Susan said...

Going to bed hungry, I meant.

Shari Sunday said...

Well, I had never seen the painting and I love it. And I had never heard the song, though I thought I knew all of Joni Mitchell. Words so true. I forgot. Folk music was like a religion to me back in my youth. It is easy to forget others when you are at the end of the table laden with bounty. You can even start complaining when there is not enough gravy.

Ruth said...

Thank you for that, Susie. I'm relieved. I know that I can be awash in melancholy, but it is part of life, and I don't feel that it precludes beauty and even joy in the mix.

Dear friend, you are doing a beautiful thing volunteering and bundling up day-old food for the food pantry.

Ruth said...

Shari, isn't it fantastic? I love to see how painters paint reflections, shine and textures. Please look for more of his work. His roses are especially fine.

This album of Joni's is my second favorite, after Blue. It's full of wonderful songs, like this "Banquet." It's also the album of "You Turn Me On, I'm a Radio."

Thank you for your comment. That last statement of yours is brilliant.

George said...

Magnificent, Ruth, composed with the same skill and artistry as the painting. In my view, those who only "see" and judge paintings are missing the point. Paintings, like rooms, must be entered and experienced if they are to be known. That is what you have done with this fine work by Henri Fantin-Latour. With your poem, you have entered the painting, sipped from the goblet, smelled the flowers, and squeezed the sun from those lemons, which, for me, are the life blood of the painting. For an interesting little insight on composition, cover up the lemons and the other piece of fruit with the ends of your fingers and see how the painting changes. Thus seen, the painting has one of the elements of good art — dominance — but lacks the other, i.e., contrast.

You are such a fine poet, Ruth! I never cease to be amazed at the artistry in your work and your heart.

Anonymous said...

My, Ruth, you really are such a fine poet ... it seems you take Mary Oliver's ecstasies and find them too sharp, too colorful, too intense, that direct assault of beauty more than a being could survive ... Only an intense reader would feel that the table needs no more ornamentation, that just a sip of what already's there (like the bare corner of table) suffices more than enough. However, it all seems tongue-in-cheek, since you name so ravishingly all the things that are more than enough. From rococo to Zen there's a helluva lot of filling-in to do, which you do, in spades. What is that line from our pal Rilke-- "stretch your practiced contradictions between two poles / because the god wants to know himself in you." At least in here, in this brimming goblet of a poem. Can you tell I loved it? - Brendan

Ruth said...

George, my friend. Your words are like the richest most delicious sauce, coming from you who have such an abundance of aesthetic appreciation and beauty in all you create. Your paintings and photographs have done much to teach me this close looking that you describe. As you know, my trip to Grand Haven on a frigid day with my camera I felt you guiding my hands as I composed each frame around the sand and ice sculptures Nature had designed. Your exercise of covering the lemons is so revealing, I thank you. I confess I had been focusing on the gleam of the pitcher, and the yellow of the lemons is so perfectly toned, that they pretend to blend in to their surroundings. But lose them? And too much is lost.

I wish you would offer us some art lessons like this at Transit Notes. I would love it. You could even cut out the lemons with PhotoShop and show the difference. :-) (Well you can see how much I miss your blog. But no worries. We know that creativity . . . like any unfolding, must come from within and can by nothing be forced or hastened. . . . So I will wait patiently.

Ruth said...

Well, Brendan, you laid out a tremendous feast of words for me to gobble up from your buffet. Yes, my tongue is in my cheek as I contemplate the spectrum of abundance and want, and how I vacillate between them, and my response to having enough and having too much. I am glad you found that nuance, which perhaps is more apparent in the recorded reading of it. Inflection can be hard to pick up without always italicizing, something a good poem should not do much of, I suppose.

The Rilke quote is quite wonderful, and now I'll let it work in me and my mind, which looks more like the thick glass of Bordeaux than the bright lemons at the moment.

erin said...

i have very little to add because somehow you've given words to what i have been feeling. such luxury we have even those of us who have little. it is all unbearably too much at times.

absolutely gorgeous writing, ruth.

spare me all
but the empty corner of a frame
on a dirt-brown wall

We have had quite enough
magnificence for a century or two
And by "we" I mean just us here
at this corner of the table

you make me happy to give voice to this.


Ruth said...

erin, I first used the word "luxury" where "magnificence" is. I think you and I use those words for wonders other than what we're talking about in this post, and in our private musings, it seems. Luxury and magnificence are found in a look in the eye of one we love, who loves us, in the curve of a lip, a hip, or a shoulder, in the gentle contour of a beach's border with the water. Finding deep satisfaction from these things, more and more, sometimes dims the luster of these other pretties. Have you noticed? There is a cultural shift as well. Audi's latest ads showcase the "old" and unfashionable luxury of the Mercedes Benz. Ahh, marketing ...

Me so glad I made you happy and that we have the same feelings about this.

Margaret said...

It this is what happens when your mind splinters, then keep it up! I live George's comments and he is right. Without the lemon, one's eyes have not place to "stop". It looses focus and energy. I second the idea for him to take this and apply it every now an then to his blog!!

The Bug said...

I feel this same way when I glimpse those shows about vacation homes. It's just too much. Well done!

Deslilas said...

"And some get nothing
Though there's plenty to spare"
is always true !

Jane Lancaster said...

This is a banquet indeed Ruth of imagery! So much. It is quite beautiful..there is something about a still life isn't there? I never heard this song before I love her voice. It all makes me think about Michael Moore's speech this week in Wisconsin...

Gwei Mui said...

"And god no,
not the full
goblet of wine, so blood-rich it has all but disappeared
into the genealogy of the glass"
There is something so apt that sums up the excess of now but also points back to a different enriched age
A real feast for the minds eye fantastic Ruth thank you

Louise Gallagher said...

When your mind splinters the world is exposed in multi-faceted hues of rainbow colours spilling out onto a bounteous table rich with desserts for everyone to sample.

Gorgeous write.

thank you!

May your mind always splinter so we can rejoice in the beauty of your reflections.

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm glad of the splinter in your head which split the centuries in two. I like the way you subvert this painting - in a gently ironic but appreciative way. It's a timeless dilemma: do we have to sacrifice aesthetics, or the 'good life', to guilt? It seems to me you are saying: 'Of course not, but please! Not the full-on sensuality, it wouldn't be right now, in our time, give me the 'dirt-brown wall' and 'the corner of the table', I'm happy with these - although I can't help hankering after the elegance and the luxuriance of the rest ...'

freefalling said...

The haves and have-nots - too many thoughts - too much, too big.

The painting - made me look further at his works.
Have you seen his Nasturtiums?
'Tis magnificent.

Pat said...

I am so in awe of your writing talent and skill. I can't imagine writing a poem, let alone one based on a PAINTING. This was wonderful.

BTW, I don't recall seeing this particular painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, but next time I will keep my eye out for it! (That is, if I REMEMBER! LOL!)

Dan Gurney said...

I must say, dear Ruth, that you've served us up an elegant and satiating poetic feast here, both visually and sonically, and most importantly, morally. The comments, especially George's add to the experience. I'm glad to stop by here.

Having just seen the movie The Social Network I've come to feel our desire for too much food and too much fine food is perhaps rooted not so much in hunger for food so much as hunger for social connection.

Anyway, thanks for the feast!

Ruth said...

Margaret, I think you know from experience that when you go "inside" to write a poem you never know where it will lead; these things write themselves sometimes. I guess we'll have to wait and see if George will be inspired by the request for art-composition lessons. Mostly I hope he will be inspired, period, and see where that leads, because it is always somewhere very good when he is inspired and shares with us.

Ruth said...

Dana, yeah, I know. Lavish does not equal appealing.

Ruth said...

Daniel, the statistics are staggering. I have heard (I don't know if it's true) that just the croplands in the U.S. that are cultivated to raise corn to feed cattle would feed the entire world with proper cultivation and distribution.

Ruth said...

Jane, thank you. Oh, I have not heard about Michael Moore's speech. I've been out of the news-loop for a few days. We have to strike a balance in this world of ours, always keep the bigger picture in mind.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Gwei Mui, for your enthusiastic response to this poem. It really means a lot to me.

Ruth said...

Louise, how generous and kind, thank you so much.

Ruth said...

Robert, thank you for expressing that perfect understanding of what I was feeling in this write.

Ruth said...

Letty, yep, even thoughts about the too much are too much.

I looked up Fantin-Latour's nasturtiums after your comment. Thank you. What balance! Again, the lemon yellows are essential surrounding the red. I imagine you quite like that red. I admire his use of darks in his work, giving flowers just enough relief from their light, precious colors.

Ruth said...

Thank you so much, Pat. Wow, such generous words.

The painting is in the area of the European paintings, on the second floor. I like the idea I heard, though I didn't hear it in time to have my kids do it, to go to the museum shop first, have kids pick out favorite art in postcards, then go and find the originals in the museum.

Ruth said...

Dan, thanks so much.

I want to see The Social Network. My son loved The King's Speech, which I saw and loved, and he loved The Social Network even more. I appreciate your observation about misunderstanding our longing for social connection and looking for it in other fulfillment. Very thought provoking. Thank you. Your warm comment means a lot to me.

Dan Gurney said...

You're most welcome. I don't see many movies, but I happened to see both The Social Network and the King's Speech when my wife's sister (a movie buff who works in the Hollywood--she brought them and we watched on the computer) was visiting us.

I enjoyed both movies. I'm with your son as to which movie meant more to me.

Loring Wirbel said...

Here in Colorado Springs, the focus from now through National Poetry Month is on ekphrastic poetry, poems based on works of art. Special reading/gallery display on April 16. Last Saturday, Brian Barker of UC Denver did a workshop in Colorado Springs on ekphrastic - I did a piece based on a Walker Evans photo that I've been meaning to post to the blog, but it's so hard to find decent copies of his pictures, copyright law being what it is. I need to post about four or five recent poems, the Facebook poetry circles have been so busy of late, I've been very remiss on blog updates. And on visiting yours, spank me now.

Terresa said...

Art feeds the writer's brain, yours and mine both! :) I've been marinating and meandering in art (as well as photography), becoming self-taught in artists I never learned of in school. It's a meandering I have no intentions of ending any time soon.

Thank you for your fine poem, how it resonates off the edges of Fantin-Latour's, it is blood-rich, every last word, not to mention the beautifully wrought last stanza.

Vagabonde said...

What a symphony in words Ruth. Your poem is a beautiful as Fantin Latour’s painting. But you made me work. By your poem and Joni Mitchell’s song I understood that you are lamenting the injustices in the word. I also wonder why more is not done to help alleviate all this poverty. I read that the GOP wants to cut US Foreign Aid. So I searched the UN’s site to see which countries give the most in Foreign Aid – by the percentage of their GNI (Gross National Income) of course since big USA’s amount has to be more than tiny Luxembourg. I thought the US gave the most by % of their GNI. Well I was surprised.

Here is the list of 18 major donor countries by % of their GNI (as of 2009 latest list I could find): Sweden, Norway, Luxembourg, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Finland, the UK, Switzerland, France, Spain, Germany, Canada, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and the USA. Interesting. We are not the best donors to the worlds’ poor – but then we don’t help the homeless here either. Of course as they say money does not give happiness – unless that is one’s only aim in life, but then we say “la joie de vivre” not “la joie de la richesse” n'est-ce-pas?

Guzmán. said...

Jiddu Krishnamurti telling a joke...

“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?”

Ginnie said...

Even after condensing a lifetime into 2 truckpacks and moving overseas, Ruth, I still feel the opulence of my life. There's nothing wrong with 'things' in and of themselves, of course. Maybe it's the core-knowledge we can take none of it with us, except how it affects the spirit, that is most important?