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“Intimate Details”
Falling in Love with Paul Cézanne - Book Review
of Susan McCaslin’s Painter, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne
By J.S. Porter, Hamilton, Ontario

A character in Woody Allen’s Manhattan says you need eleven things for a worthwhile life, among which are “the second movement of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Potato Head Blues,’ Swedish movies,  A Sentimental Education by Flaubert, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, and of course those incredible apples and pears by Cézanne.”

How do you fall in love with a great artist? Especially one who has been deeply loved by philosophers like Heidegger who wrote a poem about him and poets like Rilke who wrote a book of letters on his life and work.

In Susan McCaslin’s case, you don’t intend to.  You do it slowly.  Her Painter, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne unfolds slowly and the whole is greater than any one individual part. You go to Aix-en-Provence in early October 2013 with your daughter to study and practise French without knowing that it is the birthplace and long-term residence of Paul Cézanne.

You go to the Musée Granet in town and see some of his work.  You read the new biography by Alex Danchev, entitled simply Cézanne: A Life. You walk around Aix where Cézanne’s presence is everywhere and you see, and walk up, his mountain – Mont Sainte-Victoire—which he lived in sight of, and walking distance from, for most of his life. 

Even though Susan thought she knew something about post-impressionists, she was, little by little, “getting it…a whole new way of seeing the world.” It felt to her “like beginner’s mind in Buddhism. I was lost, confused, dazed, blown away, but in a state of rapture and wonder.”

Cézanne is a painter of apples and skulls, still lifes and bathers, of portraits and self-portraits, landscapes and mountains –  and of one mountain in particular, Mont Sainte-Victoire, which he painted over 80 times, in oil and watercolour, in detail and outline. He was so familiar with the mountain he could have painted it blind.

So how did Susan fall in love? This way: by trying to do in words what Cézanne did in paint. She has word-dabs that emulate the paint-dabs of the master. Small gestures — in her, words, in him, paint — build towards a harmonious structure.  You see her technique in her mountain poems, studies of Cézanne’s paintings of Mont Sainte-Victoire, his holy mountain.

                 The more he tracked, traced
                circled, retraced her traces
                the more she seemed to move

          away        almost to disappear  

That’s what Susan does:  she tracks, traces, circles, retraces Cézanne in much the same way Cézanne does these things in the entry and exit points of his painted mountain. 
                As he gaped        into her sun

                the limestone quarries fractured

                her ochre morphed to a glimmering field
                uncertain web

                of trackless vibrating points—

          violet within of cells
               The more she vanished

               the more she seemed to offer entrance

Susan captures the tug and pull of Cézanne’s creative process — re-enacts it in language.  In her “mind-heart-soul-clench with Paul Cézanne,” the lines between poet and painter dissolve in a common mission to see a mountain, its thereness, its present-ness.  The “poetry” of the mountain — its mystery, its untranslatability— nudges both poet and painter towards a profound recognition:

                 the more elusive her poetry
                the more it was utterly clear

At the point of failure, “the gaps opened.”
           and when he resigned completely
           the gaps opened  

This is why Susan fell in love… here’s a man who never quits, who starts each day afresh believing that today he can remake the universe, or his small part in it, his mountain. He can see it, paint it and thereby help others to see it.

Cézanne’s mountain paintings increase furiously between the time of his mother’s death in 1897 and his own death nine years later in 1906.  He keeps going back to the site of his boyhood inspiration and McCaslin in her own studies (études) keeps going back to when she first fell in love with a French artist.  With the use of spatial gaps (silences) in her poetry she draws near to the father of modern painting.  Her words speak to the silence of a painter and a mountain.  Her achievement is to show the movement of being as it manifests itself in a painter’s quest to paint a mountain.

*   *    *    *

For purchase of Susan’s book, visit her publisher at quattrobooks.ca/books/painter-poet-mountain-after-cezanne.                          

                                       J. S. Porter, www.spiritbookword.net

December 2016
In Dialogue Magazine, Vol. 30, No. 2
, p.18

[More from Susan McCaslin here]

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