1. Seven Studies for Marie-Hortense
On the last day of the Salon, Rilke wrote to his wife
about the bow on Madame Cézanne’s blouse,
the colours of her face, how vulnerable she seemed
and lost, then in another picture, clutching
her handkerchief or possibly a flower, so slight
she seemed almost to levitate. He rhapsodized
about the colour of her dress, the wallpaper and how,
walking home in rain along Rue Cassette,
he was already forgetting which blue was next to which
and what the sleeves had said, what the armchair meant.
Dear Madame Chocquet,
We are going to leave on Thursday or Friday for Switzerland
where we expect to end the season. I feel better
than when I left and am hoping the trip will put me right
completely. My husband has been working pretty well,
despite being disturbed. Yes, I have read Émile’s book.
I don’t know what to think and Paul won’t say anything;
he’s eccentric – he just wanders off into the country.
You saw from my previous letter that the drawings are at
[illegible]. You have no idea how much trouble this causes me.
I only wish [illegible]. I embrace you with all my heart
and am your affectionate
When the young Cézanne was lifedrawing
at the Suisse (drawings he’d rehash all his life),
he put a top hat and a scarf, a white scarf,
next to the model so he could better judge the tones
as when my tutor showed me a facsimile copy
he’d made of Cézanne’s portrait of his wife –
unshowy, unassertive, almost dull in its faithfulness
to fact – and asked me to study the highlights
on Madame Cézanne’s face, her paling brow
and inward-looking gaze, before holding
a heavy sheet of cartridge paper up against it
to show me just how quiet a quiet white could be.
Infrared reflectogram shows her abandoned
under a picture of L’Estaque, her upper arm
and shoulder (when the canvas was turned around)
contributing to the hills above Marseille.
We know he had difficulty with hands
and either left them out or left them bare.
As the picture developed, stroke by stoke,
he veiled her sympathetic face, deadening
the eyes by darkening the whites, then
with a square-ended brush he’d work in emerald
and iron ochre – freely at first then making corrections.
She told Matisse that her husband didn’t know
how to finish a picture and the bottom
of her dress is either boldly loose, showing
underdrawing and pooling dark blue paint,
or is indeed unkempt. Sometimes he’d conclude
with anti-representational effects, closing off
the space so the affair and eventual marriage
had to be settled among the colours themselves.
Is it sadness, quite – lost in a brown look
in a blue blouse with parted hair, against a wall
that gathers around her like her troubles?
Bored probably, sitting in a conservatory
or by a study of trees. And was it a present,
an apology or a plea, that little drawing,
with her head propped on her arm
in bed, dreamy next to a study of hortensia?
I watch her as she breaks into graphite
and watercolour, mophead flowers,
high leaves and the sunlight through them.
Rewald found her money-grubbing, trivial and plain.
The painter’s friends called her Dumpling
and gossiped in their mail. After Cézanne died,
she sold everything she could, not caring if
they were portraits of herself or of her son.
Only two letters in her hand survive, the missing wife
shuttling back and forth from Paris to L’Estaque.
And yet she stayed with him all that time, sat
for portrait after portrait, forbidden to speak
or move: seated in a red armchair; tilting her head;
leaning on a table; wearing a hat.
So Matisse is surely right about the wives
of artists who have to watch their foolish husbands
make a table with its legs up in the air.
2. Rilke on the Place de la Concorde
Rereading Rilke’s letters on Cézanne,
it’s the rain that stays, October rain,
day in, day out, lavering pavements,
choking sewers – carriage splash,
drain music – with Rilke wearing galoshes
stepping around puddles, across
gutters, walking upstairs to the Salon
where all he could see were the Cézannes –
the reds and russets responding; the blues
quietening; the yellows and acid greens
hesitating then stepping forward –
trees and skies, card players
and Madame Cézannes flaring between
these monsieurs in frock-coats,
these talkative ladies in Paris fashions –
keeping a part of the world safe,
no, not safe, seen, like a glass of rain water
where colours mix not to sulphur and shit
(the coming century of mayhem)
but to cloud-grey, rain-grey:
union of opposites; epitome of peace.
3. Two Dozen Mongoose-Hair Brushes
The teaspoon and the sugar bowl
live a lively life, inserting themselves
democratically into the company
of a pleated dress and boxer hands,
Giacometti’s exploding head.
The coffee pot, which is nightingale-tall,
might sing on a summer’s night
in gun-metal grey and flecked white,
putting his absurd theories into practice
in a world of tilts and touchables
created by a painter, according to Bernard,
phobic about touch: C’est effrayant, la vie.
After the final letter to his son –
the weather is such-and-such;
I’m not doing too badly; say hello
to Monsieur and Madame Legoupil
(going to the window again to ask
Madame Brémond about the sky) –
after they’d pulled off his wet clothes,
there were four days confined to bed
worrying about his father the hat-maker,
hat-salesman, exporter of felt hats
(local style), speculator in rabbit skins,
money lender, banker who bought the bank.
He asked Vallier to set up the watercolour –
‘I am old and ill and I have vowed
to die painting’. The wine bottle
or cognac bottle is so scrutinized
it might contain mountains or a goose
while the grapes are caught in the act
of disappearing or of dreaming themselves
back into form, moving, as Rilke said
the angels moved, between the living
and the dead. The apricots blossom
in apricot colours, inquiétude, jouissance,
truth (I suppose) and white paper.
Maitreyabandhu’s first full collection, The Crumb Road (Bloodaxe, 2013) is a PBS Recommendation. His new collection Yarn (also with Bloodaxe) was published in autumn 2015. His pamphlet The Bond won the Poetry Book and Pamphlet Competition and was shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award. His second pamphlet, Vita Brevis won the Iota Shots Award and is a PBS Pamphlet Choice. He lives and works at the London Buddhist Centre.