Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Van Gogh on Rue Goyer by Sonja A. Skarstedt

Letter by Hatto Fischer to Sonja A. Skarstedt after reading her poem "Van Gogh on Rue Goyer"


Athens 3.4.2004

Dear Sonja,

As I told you on my way back from Italy, shortly before the Ferry boat called Olympic Palace arrived in the Greek port city Patras (to be cultural capital of Europe in 2005), I took into my hands your book of poetry called ‘Beautiful Chaos’. With still the strong images conveyed by your writing in the play of Saint Francis of Esplanade, I came across that poem of yours called “Van Gogh on Rue Goyer”. When reading it, some thoughts fleeted across the pages as if themselves a part of the sunlight coming through sporadically as it was raining outside and the wind chasing clouds across the horizon as if a herd of sheep.

It is good that you relate the poem to your setting and time: Montreal 1997.

We as writers relate to painters very often with the risk of envy. The word blue, red or yellow cannot be as vivid as Van Gogh’s paint strokes allow these colors to take root in their imitation of being aflame. That is why you touch upon such a true moment when you speak about Van Gogh in a personal way with his beard being a ‘fireclaw’.

Before setting out on this poem, just a few additional remarks. I did teach in Berlin at a Free Art School about Van Gogh and used his amazing book called ‘Letters to Theo’ as introduction into art. There are some quotes in those letters worthwhile repeating. For example, Van Gogh would say ‘the art of proportion is beyond all proportion as it is the most difficult to achieve in art’. He astonished me by being so non egoistical and therefore not at all egocentric. Since he had studied first theology, but then came to painting after having worked in a coal mining village, it was natural that he searched for that belief, a belief more in life than in an abstract God. Indicative of that is that Van Gogh to me poses an alternative perception to that of Marx, for Van Gogh did not believe in the total alienation of man in the city. When he arrived in London, he remarked that he discovered that the people living under squalid conditions still retained in their hearts the good old stories like ember of a fire thought to have extinguished a long time ago. The moment you do not see people being only over alienated and over determined by the system, then there is no justification for the political theory that Marx attempted to establish.

Alienation and urban life is much more related and should not be reduced merely to production as did Marx. In that sense I would say by not including the larger context in which people live, work and experience life, the theory of society became an independent subject matter. The most alienated students from common people are the sociologists. Hence it is crucial that Van Gogh begins already to establish another norm, namely that of empathy. His potato eaters, about whom you speak as well when remembering those “brushstrokes”, are not to be painted right away. That belies the method of the Impressionists as if a quick impression, a fleeting moment of light, would suffice to taunt the subject matter. No, Van Gogh had to live with them first before he saw that crucial connection: with the hands they dug up the potatoes, with those hands they would eat also those potatoes.

Therefore, the entry into your poem is quite extraordinary. You put yourself into the person of Van Gogh and begin to describe what you hold in your hand or rather what balances on your “left palm”: “a straw hat”. It is significant that Van Gogh did not have that hat on to protect his head against the blazing sun down South. Yes, it was his dream to create an atelier of the South because he saw so many subjects worthy to be painted but which no single painter could paint. Unfortunately but also predictable the experiment with Gaughin ended in disaster.

That first part of your poem overcomes that possible envy any writer can feel when confronted by the works of a painter like Van Gogh. You use the same strong language and plain colors to describe that afternoon:

“in my left palm a straw hat

Collects bits of shade

My hair culls blisters of sun

My eyes emit shards of night

My beard is a fireclaw

A blue kerchief streams

From my right vest pocket, a colleague

To appease the dust of this street”

It is like describing in one of your plays how the actor looks, what he wears, and what is the purpose of this.

You bring in here your direct interpretation as we had touched upon it already in relation to Dudek. I mean that “dust of the street” which needs appeasing. Although I would not think of such an association with Van Gogh, then yes, why not. After all he has reappeared in Montreal on an equally blazing afternoon….

As if you would anticipate the question, the next two lines are significant for taking up that doubt:

Is this the future

Or another dream?

Surely, we have not like Jung a ready-made typology of dreams that the Surrealists exploited in a mind setting way when confronting the frottage technique with the automatic writing throwing out images like the hay making machine once you pass the juxtaposition of being nowhere and in a landscape that is unremorseful against you. The decline of that landscape into an urban setting is even more so stifling. You can retrace with Cezanne already what it means to abandon the house in the green or with Van Gogh what it means to leave behind the rural road and head for the railway linkage to the big city. Different time zones, a different life style calling for a new orientation, but where to go once there, if everything has been abandoned, that then poses many new questions. I sense all this in the next lines of yours:

“Here the taste of tumult seems to eat one alive

These pants cuffs sawed by decades of wind and tears

Exude brushstrokes reminiscent

Of The Potato Eaters

And that man for example calls me menace

When I stop to calculate the hues

Of his machine, metallic as the air

Invading my skin.”

Yes, the confrontation with the world dominated by the machine is the urban setting. Cars fill the air, or else the machines that drive on the production while heaps and heaps of hopes are left behind. Clearly you single out one important juxtaposition not noticed so much by the Surrealists, but which is of course in the history of insanity (Foucault) a part of the human drama. For what happens when one confronts another opinion, a different way of thinking, so that this man calls Van Gogh a “menace”. It is the beginning of being outlawed, or else called insane because of not finding the reason to exist within one and the same society being determined by the machines. In looking back, you evoke here a strong image, for the present is cut off from its past. That becomes noticeable once you describe those pants which are sawed off by “decades of wind and tears”. The jump from a natural force – the wind - to signs of sorrow – tears – reveals a need to be still encompassing in terms of human compassion but also expressions of genuine feelings from pain to sadness. Certainly the question here is whether all that has to do with your own way of merging images spread in time but now convulsively brought together by the example of this painter Van Gogh? As indicated by the poem, you believe that very much since the experience can be described as if something “invades the skin”. The conclusion is suggested that in the city there is no longer any natural birthplace. Gone is the feeling of grass, nor is there no longer the time of lying underneath the trees while listening to those natural sounds created by the wind brushing through the leaves. Instead the metallic ring in the air drives out those other sounds which had till then created our memory track and only the paint strokes of Van Gogh remind of something.

You write then eloquently further in the ‘I’ Style of Van Gogh, imagining what he would think, do and see:

“I seek the safety of a corner café

Only to encounter fresh hallucinations

I beg the sympathetic eye of a woman

Whose shoulders are wrapped in a cluster

Of rogue squirrels, reminds me of primeval Paris

Her demeanor, her ability

To cloak my perception, my colours

Clots every inch of my oxygen – “

Before entering the relationship Van Gogh had to women in general, and then in particular in Arles, I wonder if Van Gogh, once he found himself in the urban situation, sought the “safety of a corner café”? Here I think the interpretation of Van Gogh begins to join day and night as before it was the wind and the tears. It is understandable out of the perspective of Montreal 1997 but would not do complete justice to Van Gogh’s “Night Café”. I see that painting as an amazing testimony of then as it is nowadays. Due to ambivalence of the hallucination the waiter becomes a ‘butcher of time’ with the unemployed sitting at the various tables and just waiting for time to pass. Certainly Van Gogh had his hallucinations there but he could perceive also in a very realistic way what is the situation of those men. It is also important that it was the Night Café and not the corner café: the difference of meaning perhaps an indication of what would be your own understanding and what is retrospectively perhaps the most natural thing to do when completely alone in facing that urban beast.

Very quickly the poem enters here the relationship to the woman. The empathy developed by the poem is amazing as you are a woman and yet you put yourself into the position of not just any man, but of Van Gogh. Indirectly something enters into the image and with it a sense of the presence as if the poem wants to use the power of the wonder to show how startle a man can be in the presence of a woman:

Theo, as I touch her satin palm

She electrifies the present

Am I still the same man, or

Am I seeing things again?

Drama has it that the poem jumps into the middle of being startled once that setting exists of not only a café but with a woman in its midst. I suppose that you know Van Gogh’s biography well enough to sense his agony for finding not merely a woman to love, but also a human being he could use as a model for drawing purposes. ‘Draw, draw’, Van Gogh would write to Theo, ‘before using paint because the pencil is that much more honest’. In that belief he restrained himself for such a long time before allowing colors to express his images and perceptions, including hallucinations or what he did not know how to identify.

It is wonderful when the poem does not stick to the script as written by Van Gogh himself but now develops more fully a plausible encounter Van Gogh could have had with a woman and what begins to turn the axe around which everything resolves. You express that so well in that question:

Theo am I losing my identity?

Once that question is posed, the logic of the poem takes its own course. It highlights the drama Van Gogh must have gone constantly through, namely not to have enough money and to depend upon his brother who was the only one believing in his art. The two were most attached. Indicative is that once Van Gogh dies, his brother follows shortly thereafter. Milton would call this the Godly pulley: a mutual dependency. It is not the dice that rolls in the end but the coin taken between the teeth with a most telling inscription. Here the nature of a gambler may become apparent but also what could entail another element of surprise: the sketch that Van Gogh carries with him the next morning (the time difference to the previous day is here important) when entering the café again. The final poem is like an elongation of life as the various levels of materialization and spiritualization become intertwined in the recapitulation of the story told before. The poem shows here a narrative element when ending with

“Tomorrow morning the café owner

Might be pleased to find a sketch

Whose charcoal depicts a most arrogant man

Making faces at a woman

As she removes her rogue squirrel camouflage

For the benefit of a beggar

Whose brushfire beard lights up the room

As he seizes her coin between his teeth

Having inscribed upon the sketch: this is for the woman

Who saved my life with her gift of four sous.”

Van Gogh himself writes 1890, very close to the end of his life: “I am now quite absorbed by the immeasurable plain with cornfields against the hills, immense as a sea, delicate yellow, delicate soft green, delicate violet  of a ploughed and weeded piece of soil, regularly chequered by the green of flowering potato plants, everything under a sky with delicate blue, white, pink, violet tones.

I am in a mood of nearly too great calmness, in the mood to paint this.

I should rather like to write to you about a lot of things, but to begin with, the desire to do it has left me completely, and again I feel it is useless.

I still love art and life very much, but as for ever having a wife of my own, I have no great faith in that. I am – at least I feel – too old to go back on my steps or to desire anything different. That desire has left me, though the mental suffering from it remains.” (Letters to Theo, p. 478-9)

I think your poem draws out that mental suffering and gives it its own drama to narrate about those ‘sous’ of hers that saved his life, at least so long as he could still paint and not suffer so much that he would be unable to step outside all hallucination in order to talk about his love for life and the once existing desire to share that love with a woman.

Thanks for having send me your collection of poems containing this one about Vincent Van Gogh.



Response from Sonja A. Skarstedt in Montreal


Welcome Back, Hatto --

Given my own travel experiences, especially ones requiring lengthy drives, I can imagine the sleepy state you are in at this moment. Which makes me all the more amazed that you took the time to read and mention my Van Gogh poem...thank you so much. About a decade ago I was walking in what is known as the Cote-des-Neiges region of this city, on Goyer Street. At that time I happened to be reading Vincent's letters to his brother Theo. For some peculiar reason, a "what if" scenario arose when I looked up at the Goyer sign post. The imagination has its own

Here it has been rainy for the last two days, but Monday and Tuesday were so remarkable the face of the city, it seemed, was transposed into one gregarious smile. I sat on my balcony and imbibed a biography along with the sun on Tuesday afternoon, as well as wearing my sandals for the first time that day. Next, to observe the green rivulets of new growth overtaking winter's brown-grays.

I hope your voyage was most rewarding and that, when you next open your eyes, you will be fully rested...




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