Jena Woodhouse’s poetry publications include two full-length collections and four chapbooks, as well as extensive representation in literary journals and anthologies in Australia and abroad. She spent more than ten years living and working in Greece, and has been a guest of the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig on three occasions. Some of her foremothers were from County Cavan.
Vincent van Gogh arrives in Arles, 1888
God is nature, and nature is beauty.
(attributed to Vincent van Gogh)
Waiting for the April sun
to permeate the earth’s cold lungs
and draw forth condensation,
blossoming like mist
when breath meets glass –
the almond trees and plum trees
exhale and effloresce with fleeting
froth in wind-tossed, bouffant gusts;
stylish irises appear, accents in drab
garden beds, raising gorgeous violet heads,
coquettishly protruding silken tongues.
How the August sun warms
Roman caskets in Les Alyscamps,
rotating the chrome yellow
dials of sunflowers to track its course!
They sing aloud of utmost joy
in voices I was meant to hear;
their aura of divinity
saturates my brush.
Les Alyscamps is the Roman cemetery at Arles.
for Vincent van Gogh
My rooms at Arles were different from yours.
Reached by flights of spiral stairs,
they overlooked a paved courtyard
where trees reached blindly for the sun,
whose radiance, their bare limbs sensed,
would soon draw forth coronas of new leaves.
The building’s inner walls enclosed
a marble atrium, its artefacts and greenery
pierced by morning’s gleaming darts,
for breakfast guests to muse upon,
inhaling fumes from coffee cups
arranged on spotless damask cloths,
while sloughing off their dreams.
The decor of the boudoir was in tasteful,
neutral beige and cream; the bed too wide,
the linen replaced daily by the chambermaid.
By night I’d hear the Mistral’s cohorts roughing up
the quailing trees, setting wooden shutters’
teeth on edge and causing pores to rise:
an instinctual response as ancient as Lascaux.
My suite was rented for a week – a pilgrimage
to Arles in spring, to seek out places already
familiar through your canvases; discover
if the blue you conjured with was visible,
or emanated from some source in you.
“In Spring – say February or even sooner – I may be going to
the South of France, the land of the blue tones and gay colours.”
(Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his English painter-friend
Horace Mann Livens, autumn 1886. Van Gogh’s emphasis on blue.)
The Camargue in early Spring
And lo! I am as happy as a cicada.
(Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo)
A gleaming necklet of brass cicadas circles the throat of Spring;
after the Feast of Sainte Sara they’ll start to sing.
Camargue houses with backs to the north, the buffeting force
of the brusque Mistral, catch undertones of siren notes
piped and droned through reeds of the Rhône.
Sainte Sara in her finery, in the cool penumbra of golden stone,
waits for tendrils of sun to warm the grotto
where she stands alone, smiling enigmatically in garlands,
gems, the votive charms bestowed on her by Roma
pilgrims, cleansed by rites of brine and foam.
Across the rippling estuary, flamingos form a leggy corps
to forage the shallows patiently for the algae
that will dye them rose. Africa recedes from mind,
even when the Saharan wind ruffles their plumes like tutus,
and they seem unaware that as day declines they appear to stalk
the glistening air above the marsh, a rouged mirage.
At the Abbey of Montmajour
for Vincent van Gogh
I wonder if you ever climbed the corkscrew stair at Montmajour
to look down from the tower through vertiginous, thin apertures
separating outer walls from inner – le mâchicoulis?
You would have seen the old monks’ cemetery of Saint Pierre,
a plumbline from the tower to the tomb,
from bird’s-eye view to worm:
the empty shafts hewn into stone, wedge-shaped,
as in cuneiform, that brim with stagnant rain-
water and slimy emerald algae.
Then, if it was February, did you glance aside and see –
ephemeral, peripheral – the first full-flowering almond tree –
a shy and delicate young girl attending first Communion,
effacing images of trenches, waiting to receive?
Van Gogh produced a number of sketches and paintings
featuring the Abbey and the adjacent landscape.
le mâchicoulis: machicolation – architectural term denoting
the gap between inner and outer walls, allowing a view to
what is below and also serving the defensive purpose of
pouring boiling liquid on would-be marauders.
Portrait of a Lady, Arles
The woman has lived long, yet life
does not relinquish her. What more remains
for her to pay, in order to pass on?
So many others have been taken –
those she held most dear, her son;
her beauty and her power to resist decay
all leached away. Why is she spared
to linger here, amid these mediaeval towers,
stepping haltingly in sun, upon her cavalier’s arm?
He is relatively young; she – a gargoyle
and a crone, a figure from the Grand-Guignol,
though this is unintentional: her blonde wig;
features frozen on in artful strokes of maquillage;
her fur-trimmed wrap, expensive gown, waver
above cobblestones, past the ancient tiers of Rome.
Picasso’s white dove basks alone, breast
protruding from a niche that looks down
on the vacant Roman amphitheatre.
A bleached crescent, a pallid boat that floats
in turquoise overhead, could be a new moon
or an old. The sky reminds her of her son.
Why does the breathe the blue spring air,
the one her times saw fit to spare?
Her secrets and her sorrows weigh on her,
although she hides that well, walking with her
back erect, chin lifted on her stiffened neck.
She dreams that Death will answer all
the questions life has tasked her with.
She vows that soon she’ll take back
all the pieces that Death’s gambit won:
the pawns and knights, the king and castle
she was cheated of; the long, cruel siege
she has endured; the forfeit of her dearest ones.
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