Saturday, February 15, 2014

the whole and broken yellows (Van Gogh poems and others) - Jennifer Zilm

Today's book of poetry:  the whole and broken yellows (Van Gogh poems and others).  Jennifer Zilm.  Frog Hollow Press.  Victoria, British Columbia.  2013.

Vincent Van Gogh is probably the most famous artist in history and as such — one of the most written about.  the whole and broken yellows (Van Gogh poems and others) by Jennifer Zilm ventures into Van Gogh world with a poetic treatment that looks at his letters, his work and inside his imagination.

The feat Zilm pulls off here, and it is a very big feat, is to make a story we all know, a story so frequently told — new and unique.  Zilm does it.

2. M. Peyron: Session Notes On V. Van Gogh

I fear the patient, the ginger Dutchman, has too much
           religion in his brain, he spent a sojourn painting
                     the grey wives of miners and preaching the Gospel.
                               Yet he refused to learn Latin so I fear his religion
                                         is most uninformed, most delusional.
                                                 Yesterday in the midst of his ravings
                                                           at the easel he "preached" a passage
                                                                   he swears is found in the scripture
                                                                                where Christ took his time restoring
                                                                                        the sight of a blind man:

                                                                First he touched and said, What do you see?
                                               The blind man answered that he saw trees walking
                           like men. Then the savior dirtied his hands with earwax,
            spittle and mud and applied his fingers to the eyes of the half-
      blind man just as I am now applying ochre oil
  to my canvas to reveal the wheat fields.

Ochre in his eyes, the now seeing man saw
   completely. All this is just to say
         that one must accustom one's eyes slowly
                                                                                                                     to a different light.
Patient reports his only symptoms as "this dizziness" and "the idleness of the south" and
that he has recently dropped some portrait of Our Lady into oil, damaging it beyond recognition.
One does not expect a madman, however, to recognize his delusions as such.

Now for the weekend,
               I shall put his religious sickness
                                                        out of my mind,
                                                                      and take my wife to Lourdes.


Jennifer Zilm has filled in the space between the paintings and the viewer by adding a new subtext to our understanding of Van Gogh.  She is showing us another veneer.

This particularly attractive Frog Hollow Press book was designed by Cayrl Wyse Peters and pays appropriate and affectionate homage to Van Gogh while at the same time stylishly framing these very good poems.

Uncollected Translations

Water, air, shadow.
The singular blue of the 19th century.

We are drowned in a thrush
of irises always flowing.

Unsent letters written on journal pages.
A codex's creased leather spine.

The empty pages, the spine
brittle, the varicose veined crease.

These ancient papers and this paralyzing handwriting,
black ink over line, withering.

Step outside the museum, the ruins remembered
only in the pages. Bright light, a morning.

And on your cheeks, the yellow sun
has dropped her thin red freckles.


Zilm takes us inside the paintings and inside of Van Gogh.  These poems are the result of much research into the specific details of the artist's life but what makes these poems work, sing, is the imagination that Zilm has filtered these details through.  Zilm has taken the factual evidence and re-imagined it, and as a result her treatise on Van Gogh illuminates another facet of the great artist.

At Last The Stars: A Post-Amsterdam Orthodox
Easter Sonnet

Some German poet, some impressionist
drawing us forward to the word
star. Perhaps this is the year we begin
to start to learn how to speak of colour.
Witness this keyboard accident--
Icons, emoticons: tiny asteroids
rather than primary red blood muscles.
My mis-text. Your reply: stars 4 hearts.
Vestiges of French immersion. Oh you.
Je t'etoile. Everywhere wireless. This
AM radio: stars wet with shining
to please you. Impressionist face bright in
the daily falling and rising of the 
sun. One of our stars, all gold. All yellow.


More than anything else this book is a celebration of the act of creating.  An intimate look at a great artist and a new prism to look through.

Zilm does that rare thing with the whole and broken yellows (Van Gogh poems and others), she takes us somewhere we've already been and then shows us what we haven't seen.

Jennifer Zilm reading from the whole and broken yellows

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