For as Far as the Eye Can See

FOR AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE
By Robert Melançon

Poetry evokes, through the music of its language or through imagery. Its particulars are like small stones dropped in large ponds of consciousness, the ripples spreading out as echoes of other things we’ve heard, or seen, or read.

A couple of poems in to Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See I found myself imagining the cityscapes of the American painter Edward Hopper in the stark linearity of those “mounting tiers of brick houses” and telephone lines, with the “sky ruled off in glass and metal squares.” In Melançon’s lines we observe a “hardened” urban space, almost static, posed. A not-quite blank canvas, a “theatre reduced to almost nothing.” Cars inch ahead, and people trudge past the sightless gaze of shop window mannequins – in appearance, figures nearly as human as the ones outside the glass.

Or was I first aware not of Hopper’s art but of Robert Hughes’s response to it? “A great Hopper,” Hughes wrote, “always emits one moment of frozen time, literally a tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up but the narrative begun. It gives images of quite ordinary things – and everything, in Hopper, is on the face of it ordinary – their mystery and power.”

It is that sense of quiet anticipation within a “theatrically deserted” space that infuses these poems as much as it does Hopper’s paintings. We seem to be looking at an emptiness. Two words are repeated again and again: silence and nothing. Words that, in turn, only increase our feeling of anticipation, of what brushstrokes will fall upon this canvas, or what performance will take the stage.

suddenly this commonplace street resembles
a setting from Italian theatre, like

 

an infinite perspective in front of which
might be played out, in the failing light,
some tragedy in alexandrines.

Or

All seems to be waiting, motionless –
the houses, people in the street, traffic –
all displays itself, even the shadows.

Shadows. We know what Hopper could do with shadows. And for Melançon too they have a special, almost spiritual significance. In one poem he explicitly likens the world of appearances that Plato held to be delusive shadow play to paradise. His moments of vision (and they are always ephemeral moments, witnessed in a blink and then gone forever) may not be “real” in a Platonic sense, but the real as Plato imagined it is only “a stale whiteness.” The shadows, on the other hand, though perhaps derivative, are magic. (The original French title of the book establishes this theme more directly: Le Paradis des apparences. Essai de poemes réalistes.)

What makes this particular, perhaps only personal, echo so remarkable is that Hopper is one of the few painters Melançon doesn’t include in his eclectic catalogue. The colours, forms, and textures of Friedrich, Breughel, Poussin, Seurat, Hals, O’Keefe, Caravaggio, Claude, Turner, and Mirò are invoked, but Hopper remains a spiritual shadow, his presence unattributed.

Of course the conceit of a poem, and especially a sonnet (the poems here are all twelve lines, “a lesser sonnet”), being a painting or objet d’art, is an old one. Painting, like language, is experienced through time. A canvas has an overall effect, but soon the eye has to start wandering over its surface, picking up details and engaging in interpretation. We can’t see a painting whole, at once, any more than we can experience a poem or a piece of music instantaneously. Melançon plays with this conceit throughout, tracking the movement of the eye as it moves from roofs to branches to telephone wires to snow.

We see chimneys outlined against

 

a pale sun and spills of undecided
shadow. We see the air’s transparency,
and the hazy dusting of light.

Or watch the eye fall from the sky, and down the page, with “nothing” (note the repetition) to hold on to until it comes to rest on the frame of buildings, and the end of the poem, in the following:

Nothing is happening in the expanse
of blue, so perfectly blue, that has
stretched its canvas above the streets,

 

nothing but the event of the light as it
fades toward the horizon, diffusing
into a hemisphere without contours,

 

built up out of nothing. No sooner does one try
to focus on one point than the eye, lacking
an object, seeking in vain for something

 

to fix on, at once shifts back down
towards the broken line of buildings,
as if to rest against a parapet.

Then remember – the realization comes as a surprise – that what’s being described isn’t a “canvas” at all, but a vision of the street. Such a vision of the street, to borrow a line, that the street itself can never understand, since it can’t perceive itself. It is the eye that transforms reality into vision, into art, into shadow. But only for a moment. Not because the moment itself is fleeting, but because our gaze is. Poetry, in Melançon’s hands, is a way of seeing.

Notes:
Review first published online June 24, 2013.

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