29 July 2k10
On this night, 120 years ago, Vincent van Gogh passed from this life. He died in the presence of those he loved and who loved him. A rare blessing in his last days of torment and despair. Much has been written of his suicide, the painful details have been etched into history: That on 27 July, he finally lost the battle with the acute Depression he had been fighting for so many years; that he walked behind a haystack in a field where he had been painting and shot himself in the chest.
The bullet missed his heart and lodged in his chest, making it possible for him to walk back to the Ravoux Inn, where he had been staying. His brother Theo arrived the next day and stayed by his bedside, where Vincent quietly smoked his pipe, until the end.
Clinging to life for two days before succumbing to the injury, Vincent van Gogh died in Theo’s arms at 1:30 am on 29 July 1890.
Such was the bond between the brothers that Theo’s grief likely contributed to his death six months later, after protracted illness, on 25 January 1891. Today, at Johanna van Gogh-Bonger’s behest, their graves lie together beneath an ivy shroud, planted from the garden of Vincent’s physician and friend, Dr. Gachet.
Described as Grief-stricken by their mutual friend, Emile Bernard, Theo van Gogh would later write to their sister Elisabeth, “He himself desired to die. While I was sitting by him, trying to persuade him that we would heal him, and that we hoped he would be saved from further attacks, he answered, ‘La tristesse durera toujours~The sadness will always remain~’ I felt I understood what he wished to say.”
~The Sadness Will Always Remain~
Reportedly, these were among Vincent’s last words. Yet the melancholy, the archetypal mad artist, would not be the only legacy Vincent van Gogh left to the world.
Far from falling into obscurity, as he believed he would, instead the world has come to cherish the genius, the vision of van Gogh.
A vision unique; one that changed the very way we perceive art, and the artist. I dedicate this poem not only to Vincent, but to Theo, who never gave up on his brother, who in many ways made Vincent’s oeuvre possible. With this poem, written with the utmost respect and empathy, I seek to drag the spectre of Mental Illness out into the light, that others who suffer may know that you are not alone.
On this 120th. memorial of the death of Vincent van Gogh, let us celebrate his life and the illumination he provided the world, which is his true legacy.
Fou Roux ~the redheaded madman
~by D.C. McKenzie
Thirty good and wholesome
townspeople of Arles, neighbors all,
have had your yellow house closed by the cops
And you, Vincent, saw your worst fear come to pass
as, at last, you were hauled off to the Asylum.
There it took three days of solitary
confinement to regain your Self.
Gauguin is gone. It is true, Paul has left:
but not before it was too late
to stop the juggernaut of sorrow and arrest.
(and by the way, Paul Gauguin
you windbag, you…cross-eyed thief,
it had been raining for days on end—
how did you hear his footstep
so soft behind you in the downpour?
In the darkness, without lamp or light—
how did you see the blade with which
you claim Vincent menaced you so?)
You are scared now, Vincent…aren’t you?
All about you are the insane and their keepers.
Have you come to believe the vicious gossip?
Has it truly come to that at the last? Madness?
Or is it a worse ailment? Failure.
Not as an artist before the public,
that fickle beast, you know too well
it was never really about acceptance
rather, a failure to render your vision into reality.
That, I fear, is what broke you—so finally, so completely.
Now, you are surrounded by chaos and heartbreak.
Bedlam brimming in broken minds: without order, without colour,
as if you have been cast upon a fey, monochrome wind.
Alas too, the sky above you has become foreboding,
pressing upon you as much so as the pressure of poverty
skulking in the shade. For to be a burden upon Theo
and his family is a thing you loathe most of all.
There is so much that I will never understand.
Yet, this I truly know, Vincent:
Hunger is nothing next to Emptiness
(don’t believe? try it.)
—a hideous non-thing that steals away our very senses.
Of emptiness there can be no solace.
It is a thing every suicide instinctively knows.
In the end, it is not loneliness, but emptiness
which we seek to escape; and by which we are undone.
The sky, hitherto your collaborator,
your vista upon a far too vivid Now, is shuttered.
It has become a coffer of looming cobalt clouds.
In this Now, even absinthe and spirits cannot ease the pain
or bring surcease to the seizure and the sorrow.
Smiling a scarecrow smile to even behold it—
the sunlight which was once your gilded muse,
once your benevolent ally in a hostile world,
huddles forlorn in your cell
caught in a corner of the ceiling
where your brush cannot reach.
A sun that is present only amidst fields
populated by an unkindness of crows.
Furrowed ground lies beneath hulking slate-blue skies
and wheat sheaves, bound into pyre-like haystacks,
which you have roughly carved in cadmium and ochre
on a canvas barely able to withstand your demands.
Although they make much of the crows,
it is the blackviolet vault of the sky
which brings a stab of empathy
for the agony and despair of your last days.
Thunderclouds roiling greyblue
broken by oblique rays of a mantled, yet majestic, sun.
Oh, they make much of the crows, but…no, Vincent,
it is the turmoil of the skies that signaled your peril.
Wheat Field with Crows~Auvers 1890
17 March 2k9
“Mad Poet” you say? Fair enough, I’ve been called worse: leftist rabble, uncompromising eco-nut (as former AK Gov. Tony Knowles once quipped. I replied that it was better than being a Corporate Pimp…), arrogant radical, insane, disabled, cantankerous agoraphobe, chronic misanthrope, and of course, a fool. Before long, if you read long enough and stay with me Dear Reader, doubtless you’ll end up calling me worse as well. It’s sort of an occupational hazard. To be a poet, and still be able to face yourself in the mirror, one has to step on some toes now and then, rattle some cages, climb way out on a limb and start sawing behind you.
17, March 1901: an artist, whose popularity had been growing for some years, was given a grand exhibition in Paris; which could have been the big break for any artist, except this poor soul had already been dead for eleven years. Following this retrospective, and subsequent others in Amsterdam and Cologne, the work of Vincent van Gogh became known to the world. His influence rippled outward and is felt even to this day, more than a century later.
What we know of the man himself is often shrouded in misery and mystery, only lending strength to the legend of a tortured, mad painter; a man whom the people of Arles, France came to call Fou Roux “the redheaded madman”. Despite decades of conjecture by doctors, scholars, and pretty much everyone else, we’re not much closer to the truth of what happened to Vincent now than we were in the days following his suicide. And while it is hotly contested, many do not agree that suicide is necessarily a good indicator for what is loosely referred to as “insanity”.
Who can say if Vincent was truly mad, mentally ill, permanently slipped off of his cracker? And if so, is it really any of our business?
For reliable information regarding the myriad of questions in this debate, I recommend exploring the admirable work of David Brooks at: www.vggallery.com. There you can find a succinct biography, qualified historical analysis, and most importantly, good representations of his art as well. Further, it is the only website sanctioned by the museum itself, so you know they’ve got the straight goods. If you dig around in the visitor submission/poetry section you can find a poem there by yours truly. Guess which one it is and I’ll send you a donut. *limited to 1 (one) per household.
I chose to begin this journal on this date as an homage, as Vincent has inspired me through countless hard times. In the palace of my mind, his work adorns the walls. It forever shows me something new and surprising about myself, about how I perceive the world around me.
His perseverance in the struggle with his own demons; his dedication to his craft, no matter the cost to his own comfort; even his failings, which so many of us share, that would not stop him from creating some of the most challenging and beautiful art in history—these lessons have taught me, often painfully, to grapple with my own work: what does it mean, exactly, to be an artist, or in my case, a poet?
I still haven’t the foggiest clue, and that is the only honest answer I can give.
Other than similitudes, no gathering of words fully answers the question.
Perhaps in your own mind you carry a definition. But tell me, do you feel that it is complete?
Confusion waxes and wanes. Lately I have stopped asking such dangerous questions.
I have been listening instead, straining to hear the quiet voice guiding me deeper through the labyrinth, to the temple where my Muse sings her arias…
Poke an artist and many will tell you we do it simply because we have to.
We seem to feel a duty to our art that transcends mere ego:
revealing the best and the worst in all of us, it is a siren song of creation—
a daybright beacon in the darkness, composed of hidden symbols;
a cerebral conduit to the heart of humanity, without which we would be hollow and bereft.
Yet while connected to it, we feel the pulse of life.
Vincent van Gogh—Self-Portrait, Saint-Remy, September 1889