Thursday, February 16, 2006

My favorite poet named Wystan has a new book out. Actually, my favorite poet named Wystan, Wystan Curnow, known also as editor & critic, known inevitably further as the son of Allen Curnow, the late great late-modernist poet of New Zealand. But Wystan always has been a fine poet all on his own, at least so long as I’ve known him (and those years have begun piling up).
It’s a simple enough book in a short run, just 500 copies, not very much for somebody whose writing is known & appreciated on three continents. And just 46 pages, although it feels like more because each page consists of a sheet of paper folded over, a so-called French fold – at first I thought the pages were still uncut until I realized there was nothing printed on the interiors. The poems inside are quite different from one another, albeit all in a post-New American aesthetic mode that may remind some new readers of William Carlos Williams, Jimmy Schuyler or Michael Palmer, an intriguing trio I never would have thought to triangulate I had not read these poems. Indeed, different poems are printed in type sizes as small as eight points & as large as ten. Functionally, the book is a series, as virtually every poem addresses (or contains) the problem of color & many the subject of painting:

Blue nude

I saw you



At one level, that seems like slight pun on the old Rodgers & Hart song, but in the context of this book, it invariably calls up Picasso (just as those brackets invoke Brancusi) & the song itself, which has been recorded by everyone from Sinatra to Bob Dylan, likewise invokes one side of modernism, a concept one is never very far from here. The key to the book, in fact, is two color reproductions of Piet Mondrian’s Composition (1920), one on page four facing the first text, the other on page 30 facing the last. The painting is in Mondrian’s geometrical style of the period, and is a piece that Mondrian never sold, but kept on display in his own studio at 26 Rue du Départ in Paris, his base of operations from 1914 through 1936. During this period Mondrian continually repainted the studio itself so that it was, all on its own, “a Mondrian.” Unfortunately, the only photographer who ever documented the apartment was a local Parisian named Delbo, who took some black & white photographs in 1926.
Obviously the colours are crucial to an appreciation of the impact the studio made on its visitors. Could they be deduced by matching the grey tones of the painting in Delbo’s photographs of the studio’s interior? There were six different tones of grey in the painting: red, yellow, blue and two shades of gray and black.

What seemed straight forward in theory proved much more difficult in practice, however. In the first place it turned out that the grey tones in his photographs differed from those [Frans] Postma [who took on the job of restoring Mondrian’s studio] found in the black and white photographs he himself took of the painting. Was the difference in the painting or the film? Apparently, Delbo had used a film stock that was less sensitive to yellow than to blue and that had long ago been taken off the market. And then the grey tones in Delbo’s photographs were determined in part by the light conditions in the studio. Until variations attributable to those variations were eliminated they greys could not be successfully matched. The colours of the painting and of the oil paints Mondrian used had to be submitted to spectrographic analysis, computer models made of the lighting conditions, before a plausible replication of the studio’s appearance could be reproduced.
The color in the two photographs of Composition, the first as it would look using Delbo’s unsensitized film & reconstructing hues from that, the second “as it would have looked if the grey values had been rendered regularly in the film used by Delbo” are almost entirely different. Reds are grays and grays become reds. Or yellow.
Modern Colours is divided into two parts, of which the piece containing the section above, comes in the earlier part of the first. Not, however, the opening, nor positioned so as to be the book “about” Postma’s problem. The second part, starting on page 31, after the second of the two reproductions, is “Mondrian’s Restaurant,” written in three parts:

Chairs, yellow and blue. Who
is ‘himself’? What is abnormal?
The outer side we understand
first. The orange is no good
before it is ripe, nor beef before
it is ready. What’s the link
‘’tween pig and tong’? White-
decked tables—carafes—blue
siphons—people under the
terrace awning and indoors. Pang.
A young woman with a pointed
hat. ‘Une orange.’ When are
we ripe ‘n’ ready? ‘Un café
vieux marc.’ A glass wall
open: the little restaurant itself
open to the sun. A glass of
wine knocked over. Spillage.
Abnormal only ‘here’. Orange
outside and orange inside.
Beef is beef and orange is
orange. This workman
does not allow himself luxury.
Liqueur neutralises wine.
The whole framed by evergreens
in boxes also green. My blue
siphon. Who experiences
everything and remains unchanged?
The crowd decides. The orange
from outside is other than
the orange from inside.
A gourmet is a gourmet even
in the church of Montrouge.
The young woman with a hat
puts water in her wine. Inside
and outside: the owners and
the people asking for an eight-hour
day or night (says my L’Intran).
In winter the restaurant changes
again. Of course the taller
person sees more. ‘Un petit
suise’. Yet a businessman is
often a man of very little
business and an artist is
often very little an artist.
This man does not put water
in his wine, and takes no liqueur.
Icy fingers down the line.
Workman and intellectual.

The lace curtain in front
of the glass wall pretties up
what’s outside: TNAR—UATS—ER,
gigantic letters on three
large glass panels
above the white. Breakage.
A car on the left, a peram-
bulator to the right. Just as
white inside and out.
A man is sometimes a
woman and a woman some-
times no woman. Pang.
The pharmacy still has char-
bon naphtolé granulé
and vin de Pepsine Byla.
It may be jelly. A family.
The words tell their meaning
On the outside: RESTAURANT.
Both reach their destination.
‘Voilà, Monsieur.’ ‘Un boeuf gros set.’
Everything has a remedy
and each remedy its disease.
‘Sunday best.’ The ornament
on the white below has no
special meaning. The ever-
greens in boxes: neither
to the left nor to the right
on Palm Sunday. Orange
on the white plate on the
white napkin. ‘Une pomme
dessert.’ The coarse and the fine.
Buttermilk helps one’s stomach.
I think of ‘Sunday’ in the
provinces. It is what it is
from both inside and out. Straight
up. Purity through one
colour and purity through
fullness of colours. Spill-
age. Both are necessary.
Where there is nothing, even
the King has no rights:
there is no buttermilk in Paris.
A Parisienne. ‘Une pomme purée.’
The green shrubs are not
palms. Purity by reflection
and purity by absorption. Can
they take each other’s place?
Supplanting. ‘Une banane.’
A beggar. Today sprigs of
boxwood (buis) serve as palms.


Who absorbs purely
and reflects purely?
Each costs money,
each has value.

The flower seller
doesn’t water her wine
but her flowers in the sun.
‘Une chopine de rouge.’

He is dans la purée.
The buis is blessed
by the Church. The orange
a feast in the sun.

‘Elle n’est pas trés
bonne,’ the apple is
of little value, yet it
costs money. Her

flowers come from
outside Paris and so
does she. ‘Une religieuse.’
‘Un mendiant.’ The shrubs,

to what do they owe
their blessing? Yet some-
times one fears pure
colour. ‘Deux cafés, deux!’

So does the little woman
with the coeurs à la crème.
‘Quatre sous de pain.’
Better to eat a ‘mendiant’

than to be one. Re-re-re-re—t-toe-oeh!
White envelope on white
napkin. I see pink
paper again. She has

lunch and does business
with the restaurant. Worse
bread, higher priced, after
the war. Union Centrale—

an archway—des Grandes
Marques. There is the
blessing (heartfelt) of the
green of the shrubs.
10 cts. Horoscope . . .

a legacy, yet the horoscope
is for a woman, not for me.
A coeur à la crème: a heart
of buttermilk in milk.

Behind the evergreens
on the footpath, people
to the right and people
to the left. A great factory

gate across the way is
closed on Sunday.
These chairs, these tables,
these dishes, these people

—who blesses them? A deaf
mute through the green shrub.
An automobile. White
in white and yet not the same.

Most to the night. On
Sunday who is ‘open’?
Three men with palms.
Pink paper: Horoscope.

A Sunday hat blows off.
Buttermilk in Paris!
‘Voici, monsieur’
‘Merci, mademoiselle.’

A woman trolley
conductor. The flower
seller also has palms.

Montrouge—St. August-
in in red on yellow.
I feel the wind along

the glass screen (slip
stream) behind me. We
find the same everywhere
in different form. On

the right the Metro and
also the Barrière. The
green shrubs leave
an opening. Lace curtains.

A widow, a child, a
decorated soldier
all with palms. The deaf
mute hears no noise

from outside. The sun is
shining and the wind is
cold. Streamers colours feel-
ings. Many coeurs à la crème

take the place of liqueurs
and medicines. The
Barrière leads out and the
Metro leads in.

Two soldiers. How did the
soldiers earn their palms?
Does he hear from within?
The good and the bad together.

The liqueurs and the
medicines in turn
replace many ‘hearts.’
Left are the church of

Montrouge and the city.
Everything has its ‘sphere.’
A poet without a palm.
‘Du pain, s’il vous plaît.’

‘Je vous donne mon coeur’—she
has many of them
la bonne femme. For a long
time Montrouge was beyond

the Barrière. Restaurant
things and men. Two
ladies with palms and parasols.
‘Merci madame.’ The sun

is shining on the flower
carts, on the oranges,
on the avenue. ‘Ma fille!’
church is still where it was.


One thing at the expense
of another. People like
to protect themselves.
Everyone talks.

A poster across the way:
Fabrique de sommiers.
At one time she had just one
heart. Black silhouettes behind

the green shrubs from
outside, is that why they
speak? The factory is necessary
like the restaurant. The couple

over there are sharing one
coeur à la crème. The sun
shines equally on the dark
figures of people—darker

on Sunday than on other
days—and on white tables
—whiter on Sunday than
on other days. Flower

barrows by the footpath.
The dove of the Ark carried
such a green branch. The
deaf-mute sees well enough.

Behind me through the glass
a bit of the fortifications
—posters to the fore. The petit
trottin has two coeurs

à la crème. On working days
it is different at this hour.
All the same. Barrows with
apples. ‘Merci madame.’

‘L’addition, s’il vous plaît.’
Does he see more? Behind
the fortifications apaches
asleep on the grass. The
foreigner over there is eating

his coeur à la crème all
alone. An hour later, again
different. Barrows with oranges.
Montrouge—Gare de l’est

—Gare de l’est—Montrouge
in red on yellow. Rhoe-aeh-hae!
One is not yet out of the city.
A soldier. No people: chairs,

tables, carafes, siphons
are again ‘themselves.’
Barrows everywhere. Coming
and going. This automobile

he does not see. Apache, city,
police: each exists through
the others. He has a coeur
à la crème? Who is ‘himself’?

‘Caisse.’ Ebb and flow.
‘Qu’est-ce que vous prenez,
madame?’ The avenue runs
on beyond the Barrière. A coeur
à la crème is not only soft but

also white. Pang. The ‘caisse’ is
still operating—thanks to money.
Both the trams alike but their content
is different. The fille de sale

is not deaf-mute. At night,
not individuals. ‘Vous
avez terminez, monsieur?’
A glass of wine is knocked over.

Breakage. Heads and hats
above evergreens. Taller ones.
Outside, a child is spelling:
A-lec-san-dre. The orange

was deaf-mute. Beef.
Only the crowd is moving
but the avenue is alive.
Chairs, yellow and blue. Who

experiences everything and
stays unchanged? Evergreens
about as tall as the normal man.
From this inside I see erdnaxela

on the flap of the terrace
awning against the light.
Which ‘speaks’ most? A freight
train is running on the tram

tracks: with produce. White
-decked tables—the carafes—blue
siphons—people, under the terrace
awning and indoors. In winter

the restaurant changes
again. What is normal? But
is not Hebrew. My boeuf
bourguignon was also deaf-mute.

Without provisions, no city, no
restaurant. The glass wall
open: the little restaurant opens
itself to the sun. The lace curtain

in front of the glass wall, scribblings
gigantic letters on the three
glass panels above the white.
‘Un bifteck aux pommes.’ ‘Alexandre’

reversed. Yet it too ‘spoke.’
Everything is linked. The whole
bordered by evergreens in boxes
that also are green. Outside.

Words tell their meaning on
the outside: RESTAURANT.
Who is normal? The word is
changed but some of the letters

have not. But differently. Yet
this hard-to-find link ‘’tween
pig and tong’ in orange. Inside
and outside: the owners and

the people asking for an
eight-hour day or night (says
L’Intran in my hands). Ornament
on the white has special meaning.

It must be jelly. The French
are not tall: in England the hedge
would have to be taller. Who
is the same from the inside

and from above? The orange
was orange and the beef was brown.
‘Un café vieux marc’. Worker
and intellectual. It is

what it is, both from inside
and out. That soldier over there
comes above it, so does that
lady and so does that priest.

From the inside. The green.
And yet each letter stays
itself: inside meaning streaming.
I would not have liked

either the other way around.
This workman does not indulge:
liqueur changes wine. A family.
‘Une pomme puree.’ A little man

with a stiff leg is near me.
Yet the outward remains the inward—
the outward is made up of
the inward and the inward

of the outward. ‘Une blanquette
de veau!’ The young woman puts
water, the young man puts water
in his wine, yet takes no liqueur.
The book is dedicated to Jackson Mac Low and one almost has to think of Jackson’s own Light Poems as a precedent for this obsession with color as an organizing principle for a suite of poems. But more than anything, this poem for me carries the feel of Jimmy Schuyler, with his sense of detail & penchant for description as sufficient to carry the work. That seems clear enough with the first section, with its long stanzas & soft enjambments. But it’s true also – maybe even more so – with the last two as well. Other pieces in the book, however, use completely different strategies & yet still arrive very close to this same place, as with this gorgeous untitled poem:
Reds lamp tresses

gyratory pianistic updrafts

of reading matters and socialite getups

by Arp’s four cousins’ famous

forte celibacy and so forth

from a long line of vanishing points

bundling off big settees

well into the wee small hours
This poem is every bit as painterly as “Mondrian’s Restaurant,” but on completely different terms, treating sound here as tho it were a palette of hues. Read aloud, the lines are marvelously physical on the lips & in the mouth, which I found surprising given just how few hard sounds are being employed & almost never clustered together to call attention to themselves.
If Modern Colours feels at moments a little too constrained – all of the artists & writers mentioned here have long since been canonized¹ – it’s also almost a text of how every element of a book can contribute to its overall effect. The execution is brilliant, including not just Curnow the writer, but Toby Curnow, Wystan’s son, who designed it. It’s one of those projects that forces you (if you are me, at any rate) to acknowledge that your own strengths as a poet lie elsewhere. I’ll never ever have a book so completely realized. So I simply stand in awe.

Mondrian’s studio
as reconstructed by Frans Postma

¹ Roman Jacobson knocks on Klebnikov’s (sic) door, Krychenykh drops by, Max Ernst has (or perhaps is) a dream, there’s a portrait of Picabia, Lissitzky’s room is deconstructed, we see Modigliani’s "mob," etc.