Soutine: Book One

By Rick Mullin


Chapter 1:

Portrait of the Village Idiot


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.


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.


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.


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.

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RICK MULLIN’s poetry has appeared in various print and online journals, including American Arts Quarterly, Méasure, The Flea, and Ep;phany. His chapbook, Aquinas Flinched was published in 2008 by the Modern Metrics imprint of Exot Books, New York. His book-length poem Huncke was published in 2010 by Seven Towers, Dublin, Ireland. His epic, Soutine, a five-book poem on the life of the painter Chaim Soutine, is forthcoming from Dos Madres Press, Loveland, Ohio. He is a painter and journalist living in northern New Jersey.

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