Where Would You Like to Live?: A Reading of a Poem I Like, Plus a Question

Real estate is on a lot of minds these days, but it’s in them, too; isn’t the mind (read: the imagination) a kind of low-rent housing to which we can retreat, however briefly, when we’ve been startled by a sudden scattering of cockroaches or when life, in general, looks grim under its bare bulb? I write “low-rent” because the only price the imagination exacts is our attention to what’s going on around us, in the real world, which is not always very interesting. But why limit ourselves to our own imaginations when we can live comfortably in those of others? This is a question that was prompted by a recently reprinted Don Coles poem:

On a Caspar David Friedrich Painting Entitled ‘Two Men Observing the Moon’

They have been standing here, tiny hands
clasped behind tiny backs, gazing upwards
at a full moon ever since their arrival 179
years ago. My heart swells with – with what? –
envy, not much but some, also with admiration,
looking at them. So small and so undemanding –
this patch of stony ground has always contented them.
How full their heads are with moon-thoughts!
Though there is more to be said. I for instance
who all my life have been discarding
patches of ground, stony or picturesque makes
no difference, have of late begun gazing upwards
fairly often, more than I used to, I would say,
thinking harmless thoughts. If I had been glimpsed
even one of those times, just then, or then, or
that other time, by someone who walked on past
and never turned to look again,
I’d live in that one mind forever serene as these,
a thought I’ll keep. I could say more
but they show me there’s no need.
How the moon shines! How the two men observe!
And how willingly would I have spent my life
as they have, murmuring small comments
to my friend as the years pass!

To live in someone else's mind forever – this is not exactly what the critic Lester Bangs means when he suggests that the session musicians on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks seem to be “dwelling inside of each other’s minds.” (Bangs seems to be talking about the sort of relationship which we sometimes say ‘shares the same wavelength’ and for which we now have an uglier term: ‘synergy’.) No, to live in a mind is to be kept alive by it, to be as delicate as data, but as retrievable, too. It is to be the woman in Citizen Kane, the one in the white dress, glimpsed for a moment by Everett Sloane’s character but called to mind, unbeknownst to the woman, once a month for the rest of Sloane’s character’s life. In the age of Internet stalkers who copy and paste our images onto hard drives more permanent than memory banks, such behavior may sound creepy; to many fans of Kane it probably just sounds romantic (Sloane’s character is kind of a sweetheart).

Coles’ speaker would certainly be content to linger in the mind of “someone who walked on past / and never turned to look again.” Sure, the speaker’s wish is narcissistic in that “I-am-thought-of-therefore-I-am” sort of way. But the thought that one could be housed and nourished in someone else’s thoughts is, as the speaker suggests, an attractive one. It’s “a thought I’ll keep,” a thought worth keeping. (Funnily enough, Coles himself, though very much alive, is a specimen of poet’s poet who seems to live mostly in the minds of a too-meager few; he avoided a recent launch of a new selection of his poems, although he did send a gracious note to be read at the event.)

But there’s another place we can live, the poem proposes, and that’s a painting, a work of art. It’s a romantic, silly, impossible notion but a not entirely original one. The songwriter Paul Buchanan, for instance, once wished he could inhabit the first 16 bars of Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues.” Buchanan is on to something - have you heard those 16 bars? - and so is Coles’ speaker. It would be nice to have a “patch of stony ground,” to have a friend to murmur "small comments" to, though one senses the speaker, unlike the moon-gazers, could never be contented with such modest turf - at least til now, anyway, the time of the poem, the dwindling present. "[H]ow willingly would I have spent my life / as they have," are the words of someone at the end of a slightly squandered life, a life that was too nomadic.

I myself am no nomad, and could settle in any number of works of art: amidst the Viennese rubble of the film The Third Man; in the leafier stretches of Astral Weeks; in the whole of Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues"; in the brief, beautiful crescendo that opens up, like some clearing, at the end of I think it’s Tom Verlaine’s long solo in the Television song “Marquee Moon”; in certain poems of Elizabeth Bishop, especially "Questions of Travel." Maybe in a poem or two by Coles. For his part, Coles’ speaker tells us in a blunt voice, unafraid of exclamation points, where he would like to live even if it is a place that doesn't exist or a place that couldn't content him if it did. Question is, which works of art would you like to inhabit?

"On a Caspar David Friedrich Painting Entitled ‘Two Men Observing the Moon’" was recently reprinted in The Essential Don Coles (The Porcupine's Quill, 2009), selected by Robyn Sarah.

Originally Published: April 26th, 2009

Jason Guriel is a poet and critic whose work has appeared in such influential publications as Poetry, Slate, Reader's Digest, The Walrus, Parnassus, Canadian Notes & Queries, The New Criterion, and PN Review. His poetry has been anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, and in 2007, he was...

  1. April 26, 2009
     Marty Elwell

    Thanks for sharing this poem, Jason. It seems appropriate that the two men are staring up toward the sky. In a life described as "too nomadic", the sky could be considered a constant.\r

    I was struck by Seaside Cemetery (Seefriedhof) by Adolf Hiremy-Hirschl at the Dallas Museum of art. I could live in this landscape for a short period of time before moving on (too cold and wet to linger, and the beach front property probably too expensive).

  2. April 27, 2009
     Don Share

    Quite a coincidence that Tom Clark just blogged a poem on Friedrich called "Caspar David Friedrich and the Interior Dictation of Landscape;" check out the last stanza:\r

    He had a special interest in the moon\r
    He used to say\r
    that if after death men were transported to another place\r
    then he would prefer one less terrestrial than lunar\r
    in order to allow the beings inside him to feel at home\r

    Here's the link:\r


    (Funny that Friedrich's turning up in poems these days. The art historian Kenneth Clark famously tried to dent the painter's reputation by saying that Friedrich - whose inspriation included the Icelandic legend of Edda, Norse mythology, and Ossian's poems, and whose career was basically launched by Goethe - engaged in a "frigid technique" that excluded the poetical... and couldn't inspire the "modern.")

  3. April 27, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Marty, thanks for your post. Perhaps it's a sign of the times when the landscapes inside paintings look too expensive to be livable. \r

    Don, I didn't see that blog! Thanks for pointing it out. I guess Friedrich can't be all that frigid if Coles' speaker is admiring the lives inside the painting!\r

    Also, I just noticed another one of those someone-living-inside-of-someone-else's-mind-after-a-mere-glance poems by Coles. The specific poem is called, "Codger," and the relevant lines are:\r

    "But he remembers a woman\r
    getting out of a car in winter, must be fifty years ago,\r
    wore a little fur coat and looked him\r
    straight in the eye when he came up.\r
    He kept right on going, of course...."\r

    Anyway, I would be curious to hear about other works of art that folks on Harriet wouldn't mind inhabiting. (It goes without saying that bloggers on Harriet will all live on in Harriet forever - or until some central computer crashes, etc.)

  4. April 28, 2009

    Ugh... You aren't tired of poems about paintings yet? Well, personally I get a bit tired of poems about paintings not only because they tend to unconciously subordinate on medium to another (and function less as a tribute), but mostly because these meditations on art are like second-hand art... stained socks from a thrift store: "thanks for the leftover inspiration"... I feel your longing n' all but anyway. Why not just write prose about art? Oh dear Keats and your beautiful urn, How I Yearn, I Yearn!!! \r

    But truth be known I'd live in a travel novel from the age of discovery.\r

    Freud might say that the yearning to live in the moon is a regress into even further than the womb and back into the egg, but you all know what I'm getting at. I told ye before Jason that lyrical poems often end up in the fetal position. \r

    Sorry for digressing.\r

    Thanks for putting up with me.\r


  5. April 29, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    "Thanks for putting up with me." -- Hey, Guy, it's not a problem. I myself am a sucker for ekphrasis. But to each his (or her) own, right? I think an old travel novel is a pretty good idea.\r

    Actually, it occurs to me that another great work to inhabit - also moon-related - would be Miles Davis' "Moon Dreams." Great atmosphere.

  6. April 30, 2009

    to Jason & also to Anti-Poetics:\r

    Jason thanks for inhabiting Coles’ poem. Your post gives us not only an astute reading but a meditation on what we do when we engage with art generally, no matter the form; and it ramifies wonderfully if we consider the poem itself, your treatment of it, your mention of other possible habitations and the comments that follow. \r

    My sense is that “inhabiting” is a metaphor for what we do before art, whether reading, listening or looking. \r

    Writing about paintings, Anti-Poetics, is really no different than writing about anything else. Certain poets are more attracted to the world of plastic art than they are even to poetry. Most “strong” poets, according to Harold Bloom’s well-worn, but still useful theory of the anxiety of influence (still useful, especially for those of us, like yourself, who still read Freud), are always writing about other poems, whether explicitly or implicitly. I often write about classic music, certain movements, or even just a few bars, consciously, or not, and nearly always, on some level, about painting, photography, landscape and architecture. Of course there is a term for Coles’ procedure here, in which he deliberately sets out to write about a painting. But in Coles’ poem the painting becomes so fused with a meditation on the transience and the ephemerality of life, that “ekphrasis” seems too deliberate to describe what is exactly going on. \r

    Jason, in Bloomian terms, of poems about other poems, this is an interesting case. Coles’ poem is haunted by another poem “about” a painting, similar rhythm, the calmness of the narrating voice, the theme. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts”. Except the narrator of Coles’ poem seems to take the role of Icarus:\r

    …If I had been glimpsed/ even one of those times, just then, or then, or /that other time, by someone who walked on past/ and never turned to look again…\r


  7. April 30, 2009

    Well, I myself was a freelance classical music "reviewer" for a short spell and it seems to me that the old "impressionist" critics were practically writing poems about the music. I guess my feeling is that Art about other Art often seems to display a certain redundancy as if it is a "second-hand inspiration." And quite frankly, I see too much of this in poetry, especially recent poetry. I wonder if something is missing in a poet's life if they have to go to a museum to go musing or can write lazy interpretations veiled as ekphrastic poetry.\r

    Here is another example that recently came to my attention via a local radio show:\r

    Beth Ann Fennelly's "Berthe Morisot: Retrospective"\r

    "Degas, Renoir, Manet with his two-pronged beard- \r
    go to the Café Guerbois. \r
    Let them drink calvados \r

    On their way home, let them look up from the cobbles \r
    to where I've hung the yellow canvas \r
    of my studio window \r
    see \r
    while you boys leapfrog in the alley \r
    my light is burning" \r
    (Berthe Morisot: Retrospective, Colorplate 13) \r

    Now this is what I'm getting at. It is, in my lonely view, a problematic approach. Firstly, it is name-dropping of painters seems to invokes a facade of sophistication: sneaking into the art world in a sense. Secondly, it is the same francophilia... a nostalgia for gay Paree (Paris) that is overwhelmingly present in a good deal of American Poetry. Though I will say the francophilia is ok and I'm not suggesting that the author is a francophile, but my suggestion is rather that by name-dropping of old impressionistic painters there is a presumption that this poem is therefore raffiné rather than the "deep-biographical" examination of Morisot. And this leads to my last point where this imagined biography, this imagined monologue, though it does suggest significant issues of feminism/feminity and art, it is doubtful that such a biographical poem attains a resonance anywhere near that of Rita Dove's resurrection of a dead artist via "Sonata Mulattica." Yet the main problem is that she has chosen to employ lines that are a bit prosy and one wonders if this is really a shortcut to actual biography. Finally, whilst we can take on personas (just as I am doing now), is it perhaps a lack of inspiration in a poet's own life? Is this a form of recycled art, a sincere examination of a female painter who deserves recognition, or is it the poetic equivalent of Evian water as opposed to pure mountain streams?\r

    But let's go further: \r

    "Am I not yet that girl \r
    who pried, in secret, the diamond \r
    from Mama's hat pin? \r
    No one guessed no one ever guessed \r
    I swallowed brilliance, \r
    nature's hardest substance scoring me." \r
    (Berthe Morisot: Retrospective, Colorplate 70) \r

    Now here are, in my opinion, very good (though slightly metaphorically predictable) lines of poetry. Yet the overarching theme I'm gradually getting at is that, in renaissance and classic art, for example, the painters often painted about poems (or scenes from literature). Here, in our time, we have the reverse happening. Why is this? Perhaps, since we have no gods or heroes we have artists and anti-heroes (I am reminded of Maugham's Gauguin in "The Moon and Sixpence"). But even further than this, I'd argue, that there is more going on: We all know that Poesis has something to do with "creation" but what do these "poems" create really? Certainly not "something out of nothing." \r

    Though I have digressed, I must say that as a poetry reader (and anti-poet/writer), I've just about overdosed on poems about painters, and more than that, french-modernist nostalgia that masquerades as poetry. Furthermore, I think that there are hundreds of great contemporary painters right now, yet this nostalgia for Parisian Salon culture (as, in most cases, American Poets imagine it) is a bit tiresome. Think of it this way: It is not inhabiting a poem or a painting so much as an archaeology of art (or even grave-robbing in some cases), a shortcut to actual biography, a means of exhibiting cultural capital (that is usually a dead currency) disguised as prosy "verse," or perhaps a seance of modernism. Yet lastly, art goes into museums which in a sense are mausoleums of old aesthetics, reliquaries. What does this mean about art coming out of the museum? Is this is why this "ekphrasis" (a term subject to meaning-slippage) often leaves a reader like myself feeling like a zombie when confronted with this trend in poetics? \r

    And just to stretch the metaphor into the corny: has the poetry page to often become mummy-wrap for dead artists? Is it just too much artifice that it become Frankensteinian as if we are stealing the lightning from pumpkinified (original) artists? \r

    I mean, take the Fenelly poem I cited: she is living not just inside a work of art but in an artist. And is this more than just ekphrasis (greek terms used for legitimizing, sanitizing as in medicine, latinate botany)? Is anyone else tired of poets trying too hard to be "painterly" or trying to hide weak biographical art criticism behind the designation as "poem?" Do today's poets lack inspiration in their own experiences (which usually, from what most I've read, consist of bookstores, museums, and universities)? And why aren't contemporary painters poeticized as much as dead ones? Is it an elegiac impulse or a "visionarily" parasitic, redundant? What is the line between allusion and name-dropping? Why are women obsessed with 1930s France? \r

    And lastly, do poets too often inhabit paintings that their poetry becomes vacant of originality? And does Ashbery's "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" transcend the meaning of ekphrasis? I'd say it does, and in fact uses the painting as an axis: the painting lives inside of it instead.\r

    Sorry for the digressions. As a reader, the citation of painters and the word "painterly" in describing poets has certainly taken its toll on me... don't get me started on jazz and classical music references....

  8. April 30, 2009
     Jason Guriel

    Martin, thanks for the comments and kind words.\r

    And Anti-Poetics.Gov, no need to apologize. I appreciate your digressions and very good questions. Speaking for myself, I have written some poems about more 'contemporary' works of art and more 'contemporary' artists - like certain films, for instance, or the session musicians who played on Beach Boys tracks (okay, the latter example is not that contemporary). But the point is, I myself don't have much nostalgia for french modernists or anything; I just like the Coles poem! But perhaps others would like to pick up these questions?

  9. April 30, 2009
     Mary Meriam


    I am careful in my work and love it.\r
    But today composing–the slowness of it–has discouraged me.\r
    The day has had a bad effect on me. Its shape\r
    keeps growing darker. It's all wind and rain.\r
    I'd rather see than say things.\r
    I look in this painting, now,\r
    at a beautiful boy who has lain down near a spring,\r
    just where running must finally have tired him.\r
    What a beautiful child: what a godly noon\r
    to overtake him utterly and make him sleep.–\r
    I sit and look in this way for a long time.\r
    Immersed in craft again, I rest from all its labors.\r

    C. P. Cavafy\r
    (trans, Theoharis C. Theoharis)

  10. April 30, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald


    Jackson Pollock was a Cubist\r

    Jackson Pollock was a Cubist,\r
    Picasso painted pears.\r
    Oranges and apples,\r
    bananas and pears.\r
    Some once wrote in rhyme.\r

    Picasso found a new dimension,\r
    Pollock the dance the organic shares.\r
    Poets touched the meaning\r
    of the unstructured now,\r
    Picasso the structure of time.\r
    Pollock found the Tao.\r

    a poet never wrote,\r
    forsaking poetry.\r
    Like Pollock and Picasso found\r
    the finite boundary,\r
    and then, too, went beyond.\r
    Beyond the page and ink to sky,\r
    to wind and clouds and breath\r
    and birds,\r
    to perfect symmetry.\r
    He wrote new poems every day\r
    without the need for words.\r

    His life was poetry.\r

    Copyright 2005 - Evolving-Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald