Soutine: Book One

By Rick Mullin

Poem

Chapter 1:

Portrait of the Village Idiot

I

A charcoal line divides the wrinkled scrap
of butcher’s rag. And in a lightning strike,
another follows. A child’s fingers snap

and fumble with a brittle charcoal spike.
It crumbles, leaving marks that coalesce
into an aquiline and golem-like

portrayal. Repeatedly the fingers press
the black material into the brown—
a beard, the eyes, an overcoat. A mess.

They tear the paper. And they throw it down
as charcoal limns a landscape in the sky
and February hunkers over town.

II

And blood will fall. A life of Chaim Soutine
would almost have to drip in lacquered red
across a crusted base of brown and green.

In the beginning? Well, the rabbi’s head.
The nightmares that transgression might engender,
and the power of nature. Elemental dread

as, liver-lipped, the tenth child of the mender
waddles through the gray-slate thaw of Smilovichi.
Chaim the pariah, blood and dander

drawn distractedly across his twitching
face. His blood describes a dizzy trek
between the wagon ruts where Nietzsche’s

underdog progresses in the wreck
of finished business, punctuating shtetl
street with fallen drops. His chicken neck

and urchin’s chest exposed above the wattle
of a tunic ripped within the hour, the boy
is beaten once again. Not by his brutal

brothers this time, but by others. Oy!
Beware obsession! For in this world are things
as likely to empower as to destroy,

a light and darkness through the land that sings
precariously in the resonance
of every day. A pendulum that swings

inside a hidden engine. There’s a sense
of latent danger, violence in a law
beyond tradition, an experience

in nature and the Lord’s imprimatur,
“Behold the Child”.
       Having never seen
a work of art beyond the constant noir

vignette of Jewish poverty, Soutine
compulsively confronts the world, his scrimmage
with the word of God, by drawing. Green

and gray convert to charcoal in his homage,
meanwhile flouting a severe taboo,
the second one, against the graven image.

And now, it’s learned, he’s sketched a learned Jew.
“As if such portraits weren’t forbidden, dunce!”
The rabbi’s son, the village butcher, screw-

locked, punches Chaim and kicks him once.
The butcher’s brothers throw him at the wall.
“We teach frumkeit and how to take a punch,”

the eldest grunts and swings a board with all
the force of his observance on the slumping
boy. And then the boots. And then the crawl

toward the doorway of the shed. Then something
drops on Chaim’s back—a burlap sack
of poultry offal. Now the older boys are bumping

into one another heading back
to town, ecstatic in the rage they’ve spent
and laughing, satisfied with their attack.

III

At the end of the road he sees his father
sitting in a window sewing rags
and davening. Factotum to a tailor,

poor as gravel, Soutine père reneges
on any promise of Chagall nostalgia
that the shtetl might suggest. He sags

over a pile of scraps in a neuralgia
of repetitive despair. His cuff
must be avoided! Surely all the

Soutine children understand the stuff
of dreamless sleep. The ghetto’s endless drone.
The heavy thud of father’s mad rebuff.

But how long has Chaim been standing there alone,
the raining shots of multicolored light
behind his eyes? He plucks a chicken bone

and feathers from his clothes as night
chokes over Smilovichi. Then she’s there,
as always, to collect him. “What a sight,”

his mother says, and pushes back his hair.
And what a sight indeed. An eye is swollen
shut. He’s bleeding almost everywhere,

his face, his hands. His hat is likely stolen,
“for he had one, yes, this morning, if you please!”
He isn’t crying this time, though. A woolen

shawl is wrapped around him. Mother tries
to lift the boy, but at 13, her youngest son
won’t budge. “He usually cries,”

she mutters to the doctor’s wife who’s come
to see what all the trouble is about.
“It’s bad,” she tells the mother—the child is dumb

and listless. “Some cuts are very deep. I doubt
they’ll stop without some stitches. Let me help.”
They carry him. Now half the shtetl’s out

to see the doctor take the sorry whelp
indoors. A mass of beards and pipes and hats.
The donkeys haw. The scrawny street dogs yelp.

IV

For sixteen days, Soutine remains in bed
recuperating at the doctor’s home—
a bed he doesn’t have to share. His head

is wrapped in cotton gauze, a comb
of rooster shock protruding from the crown.
At first he worries he’ll go blind and roam

the streets of Smilovichi like a clown,
a village idiot. The term had been applied
at various localities in town—

When the schul dismissed him, Chaim stayed inside
and helped his father. He would watch the light,
remembering as a toddler how he’d hide

behind a chest of drawers, stay out of sight
for hours, while the window’s square design
traversed the room. And now, in bed at night,

he only has to close his eyes. The fine
bouquet of pin-scratch lights still shoot and twist
inside his mind. By day, he struggles with the line,

a charcoal sprig inside his healing fist.
The springtime air outside makes slight incursions.
His mother visits once. She brings a list

and shows it to the Smilovichi surgeon.
“Your mother’s going to the village council
with her case”—the doctor’s wife, her words in

gentle pace, describes to him a town still
buzzing with the news of how they nearly
killed him. He considers how the town will

someday do the job and sees it clearly.
Should he heal, he’ll somehow have to leave.
This incident will cost the rabbi dearly.

“The idiot gets paid! Can you believe?
As if the world were rattling with such rubles.
Soutine the mender cannot sew a sleeve—

he gets a quarter-hundred for his troubles?
Our rabbi is a fool to play along.”
The muddy street of Smilovichi bubbles

for an hour. And it isn’t very long
before the artist leaves the family hovel
for the school of Vilna. That’s where things go wrong.

OK. Rick Mullin. Your second book-length poem in as many years, Soutine, is due out soon from Dos Madres Press. How are you feeling about everything?

All right. But I need to get involved in another big project soon. Lately I’ve been working on compiling a collection—cleaning up my desk, that kind of thing. I’ve been going back to older work and revising. I’m trying to keep busy. But I’ve got an itch.

 

It’s kind of weird, right?

You know, ending work on a book is like the end of a rather intense relationship. You live in a story for months. Then you have to live with it. Alicia Stallings once said that a poet is never really happy unless he or she is in the middle of a poem. I think that’s true. It’s a very, very happy life living in a story while you are creating it.

 

The two books you’ve written, Huncke, which was published by Seven Towers in Dublin, Ireland last year, and Soutine, which you finished writing this summer, are very different books. Where did they come from?

Huncke surprised me. I had gone, quite reluctantly, to a memorial reading that a friend was hosting for Herbert Huncke. I knew who Huncke was, but I didn’t know much about him. Nor did I care much, really. I have a great deal of regard for Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and other Beats, but contemporary Beat poetry, per se, is not particularly appealing to me. Anyway, I went. And I wrote a sonnet—practice, as I recall—on the way home. It didn’t work, so I switched to ottava rima, wrote ten stanzas and figured that was my poem. Well, that ended up as Canto One, the shortest of a twelve-canto cycle of tales. I warmed to Herbert Huncke in the process. Soutine, on the other hand, I approached fully conscious of the poem as a book-length poem. While Huncke took about two months to write, Soutine took a year. It is also about three times as long as Huncke.

 

Who are these guys?

Well, Huncke was a progenitor of the Beat movement. He innovated the Beat life, as it were, and Burroughs and Ginsberg and Kerouac lived a bit of their lives vicariously through him. He is in their books in one form or another. Soutine was perhaps the greatest painter of the 20th Century. He, Beckmann, and Bonnard are the big ones for me. He was a Russian Jew who painted in Paris and died in a roundabout way as a victim of the Holocaust. He brought the grand traditions in western art into something like the modernist idiom. But he was his own man, which is why he is not very well known. His roommate, Modigliani, a lesser painter who is quite well known, recognized Soutine as a genius. Soutine’s life story matches van Gogh’s for sheer drama, which doesn’t hurt when you’re writing his life story.

 

So, you knew a lot about Soutine, and very little about Huncke when you started these books.

Right. And as it turned out, I did weeks of research writing Soutine and almost none writing Huncke. I used old Herbert as a diving board to write about America. I actually invented my own Herbert Huncke, based on what I’d heard at the memorial reading, which was kind of an all-over-the-place group performance. But Herbert Huncke lends himself to being invented. With Soutine, I put myself into the protagonist’s life. Don’t get me wrong about the research—the book is very much an historical verse novel, but I did not work from notes. Certain scenes and encounters are entirely imagined. Soutine also has a parallel narrative, a memoir describing my discovery of art, of Soutine. It captures certain revelations that occurred in writing the book. Writing it was very much an experience of writing poetry. It never felt like I was writing a term paper. It felt more like I was flying a small airplane.

 

Give me a little bit of the technical stuff, but keep it down.

Sure. Huncke is written in ottava rima, as mentioned, the verse form of Byron’s Don Juan—I invoke Byron, or a Byronic hero, in the first Canto. It is a bit of a picaresque gallivant across a big swath of American history with sections concentrating on art, literature, and music. Somehow I managed to sidestep the Civil War, but nobody’s called me out on that. Soutine I started in blank verse, but I very quickly started over in terza rima. That form ended up having real resonance in the parts with Modigliani, who loved Italian poetry and actually recites from Inferno in the poem. Terza rima, as we know, sustains an epic. My model, really, was Derek Walcott’s Omeros. He used the form very gracefully in that poem.

 

You write almost exclusively in form.

Well put. Yes, I love formal poetry. Writing it and reading it. I compare writing in form to the exercises in art school where you draw without looking at your hand, only at the model. You produce a picture that is entirely yours but that would never have materialized if you kept your brain in the game, measuring the space between knuckles and knowing there are five fingers, etc. The picture is strange, yet familiar. You have to do it many, many times to get the hang of it, but the immediate results are stunning even in the earliest drawings. Similarly, making a rhyme and keeping the rhythm forces you away from what occurs immediately in your head, from what you already know or intend. It internalizes the thought processes, ideally subjugating it to unconscious feeling and experience. That is where the imagined scenes in Soutine come from. The counting, the formulaic part of writing metrical verse is incidental. Writing in form often results in a poem that you could not have imagined writing. But imagination has a lot to do with getting you there! It’s a paradox. A really beautiful one.

 

How about guiding principles? Who are your masters?

Well, I can point to some great ones in music, poetry, and painting with whom I associate an idea or guiding principle. First, there is Duke Ellington, who says we must find a way of saying it without saying it. Then, there is Rainier Maria Rilke, who, I am told, said that the truth is buried under a pile of facts. I can’t find it anywhere, but I believe it to be his observation. Who else would say something like that? And then there is George Inness, the American landscape painter, who reminds us that knowledge must bow to spirit. Put all three together, and there you have it.

 

This from someone who has written two book-length poems filled with facts and things that he knows?

Indeed. But that is the beauty of poetry. The chance to come up with something better. We all have information, knowledge, and something to say. But if we surrender to feeling and experience, the rest becomes something like technique or ink. They are vital to the process almost on a physical or structural level. The verse comes from within. It strives for the truth under all the facts in a way that cannot occur in the writing of prose—I’m a journalist and editorial writer by day. I know. Verse conveys what truth it gleans via a kind of spiritual channel. What moves us in a poem? It is almost impossible to answer that question. It really has little to do with what the poem says. There is a lot of historical information in my two books, but the narrator is pervasive. I record my experience of living the story and I try to subjugate the facts to that experience. The autobiographical tracks in Soutine are there to personalize Soutine’s life and invite the reader to connect with Chaim on a more visceral level than might otherwise occur. I make myself a foil to the hero, which I don’t consider hubristic—I paint, and I’ve lived painting for a log time, during which I internalized Soutine’s art and his story. I’ve been a carrier, so to speak. I have to say that I am very anxious to do this kind of thing again. I have my eyes on Janis Joplin to round out a trilogy. We’ll see. Maybe something will hit me like Huncke did.

 

What sort of future do you see for the long poem?

Well, it has had something of a renaissance with Walcott, Les Murray and David Mason. Mason’s Ludlow is beautiful. I can’t imagine an historical novel on the Ludlow strike that would affect me as deeply as his poem did. Omeros is one of the greatest books I have read, and Murray’s Fredy Neptune is a natural marvel. I have fervent hopes for the long poem. I think we’ll see more of them.

 

Hey, let’s hope so. Thank you very much. You kept the name-dropping down, which was one of my big concerns going into this.

I told you not to worry. And it was nice doing this for once without the sock puppets! Thanks for the opportunity. Keep in touch. And thank you, The Nervous Breakdown!