Poetry Review: After Cézanne by Maitreyabandhu

Book - After Cézanne by Maitreyabandhu

Paul Cézanne repeatedly attempted to capture the image of one particular mountain (Mont Sainte-Victoire) in his post-impressionist paintings, and this obsession is echoed in Maitreyabandhu’s most recent poetry collection, After Cézanne. The collection is unusual in focusing entirely on the work of one artist, and reproducing many of the paintings in full colour, so the reader can peruse the original works of art alongside each poem.

Many of these poems are conventional ekphrastic responses to specific paintings, but there are others which focus more on the events of his life, particularly on Cézanne’s relationships with his wife and various friends, including Zola and Pissaro. The collection begins with a forward written by Christopher Lloyd, which includes a short biography of Cézanne. Lloyd describes the collection as “an incomparable poetic expression of the artist’s idiosyncrasies and manifold achievements”. It could be read as a combination of art history and biography in poetic form.

There are several references to apples, inspired by Cézanne’s still life paintings, and my favourite poem from the collection is ‘The Apple’s Progress’, which places the humble fruit in its wider artistic context:

Cézanne - Le Buffet

The rosy apple passed down by the snake
with a putto’s chubby face and toddler hands
to be taken by an already reaching Eve
restrained, at least dissuaded, by beefy Adam
in Ruben’s copy of Titian’s original
inspired by Raphael’s fresco and Dürer’s print,
appears a hundred and fifty years later
in Le Buffet, another still life by Cézanne.

That word ‘another’ seems to hint at Cézanne’s repeated attempts to paint certain scenes, and this subtle irony appears in several of the poems. The poem goes on to interrogate the orange, the tablecloth, the lemon. There is something quite mesmerising about the way Maitreyabandhu writes, which brings to mind the intense gaze of John Ashbery’s famous ekphrastic poem, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’. Most of these poems are slow-paced and understated, so that you come back to them again and again, discovering new layers of meaning. There is a useful set of notes in the back of the book, with more information about key moments in the artist’s life, although I would have preferred these to appear beneath the poems.

‘Madame Cézanne with Anti-representational Effects’ is written from the viewpoint of his wife, Hortense, providing a different perspective on the work of an artist:

I have learnt to endure it, having my head
turned into a block with the same
formality, the same parted hair, choosing

my clothes like a man, being told how to hold
a glove or lift my chin…

Several of the poems are written in third person, and have a prose-like, narrative feel to them. Others are written in the voice of the artist, or from the perspective of the poet himself, and these are more engaging. Here is the first stanza of ‘Self-portrait of the Artist Wearing a Hat’ which captures some of the irony of this whole collection – the idea of the artist following in the footsteps of the artist, who follows in the footsteps of other great artists…

Cézanne - Montagne Sainte-Victoire

Once I tried, like you, to sweat it out
mark by happy mark – I had a mountain
all my own and more grief and stupid rage
than I could shake a stick at. I stretched paper,
took my brush in hand and said to myself,
No romancing now, no cut and dash,
just this line here, no this, this emptied blue,
this grey. But the mountain was beyond me
and the pine trees creaked and lumbered off,
folding up the road behind them as they went.

Although Cézanne was not a surrealist painter, I have always felt that there is something slightly surreal about much of his work, perhaps due to the brightness of his colours and fluidity of form, and this dream-like quality is matched in some of Maitreyabandhu’s poems. His poems flow through time, from Cézanne, to the present, and back again, focusing on strange details, on one-off thoughts, relationships, colours and shapes.

This is not a collection to read in one go, but something to ponder over, to re-visit. Maitreyabandhu is both a trained artist and a Buddhist, which might go some way to explain the profound concentration of the poet’s gaze. These poems are quiet, they pause and reflect, as they carefully consider the act of putting pen to paper, or brush to canvas.

After Cézanne by Maitreyabandhu is published by Bloodaxe Books.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

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