Saviours in This Little Space for Now: Poems for Emily Carr and Vincent van Gogh
Page Count: 84
Publication Date: Friday, February 15, 2013
Cover Artwork: Lagoon at Albert Head, c. 1936, Emily Carr (1871-1945), oil, 51.5 (h) x 72.5 (w). Provided by the Collection of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The Thomas Gardiner Keir Bequest. 1994.055.003.
About this Book
“An intricate palimpsest of poetry and paint! With skillful hand and uncompromising heart, Stephanie McKenzie tackles the formidable project of discovering not just the paintings of Emily Carr and Vincent Van Gogh but also connections in the lives, souls and sensibilities of these extraordinary artists. What she redeems for us is no small space...”
author of Subversive Sonnets
“Stephanie McKenzie teaches us not only how to see Carr and Van Gogh’s work but how to hear it. Branches whirl and needles fall and we are inside the poem, and inside the painting. Each poem is as carefully crafted as Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Carr’s forests, inviting us into a revelatory communion.”
Managing Editor, World Literature Today
Saviours in This Little Space for Now brings together two greats artists—Emily Carr (1871-1945) and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). Their spiritual yearnings and frustrations with societies that did not understand them seem to find a home together. Saviours in This Little Space for Now suggests that true salvation can be found in the greatest paintings and creations of our time.
Stephanie McKenzie has published two other collections of poetry with Salmon, Cutting My Mother’s Hair (2006) and Grace Must Wander (2009), and a monograph, Before the Country: Native Renaissance: Canadian Mythology, with the University of Toronto Press (2007). She holds a Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Toronto. McKenzie was born and raised in British Columbia but lives on the opposite Canadian coast now in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. She teaches in the English Programme at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University, where she is an Associate Professor.
Read a sample from this book
The Horridest Pub in Town
“[Mr. Carr] built a high fence and plant[ed] a row of bushes . . .
to shield his son and five daughters from the wayward trend of
the Park Hotel.” (Geoffrey Castle)
I’ve tried to bury his secret far below my heart.
But this doesn’t happen. Cannot. The dark has been told.
Each time I traipse through Beacon Hill Park
the men at the races hover like tentacles. Huge jellyfish.
They are hard.
Boys’ Own Nature Studies. Father knew I loved woods.
No dolls but a book, gift good for growing men.
But it is the grown and now bold secrets of their flesh
that have me huddled in corners desiring
sleep. And father I cannot forgive.
Still, something has told me, one day I’ll paint
these forests female to the core.
The Pink Peach Tree (after Van Gogh)
Some days we rise in earnest, convinced it will not come.
Your pink peach tree juts into the bluest sky.
Today is a good day to wash out clothes.
Tomorrow we can’t be sure things will rise just so.
We curse the coming on.
I wanted beauty, colours in your pink peach tree.
But in Amsterdam, all salves failing, there is nothing
romantic about it. Who cares for your starry night,
staunch and droopy sunflowers? They are Venus
Flytraps. Scratch at lungs of air.
I want for you the comfort of a loving home, slippers
slipped on your feet.
Startling change of lights.
And the purpose behind it: to heal. To see things
without the blunt and ephemeral the pointillists
Your pink peach tree is a saviour in this little space
The crowds gather in front of your sunflowers.
But I can’t bear it. Can’t take the truth in these stalks.
Your pink peach tree, Van Gogh.
Your pink peach tree.
Heads of Peasant Women in Brabant
Behind, there is nothing to run to. No field, no sky.
Warm, past verdant, flicks stone-hewn faces.
Hunkered in darkness, you’ll never speak of almond
blossoms worlds away from sober brushes.
Capped in white, red, hair desiring to hang loose,
you travel to museums. Sotheby’s auction. Private
lives. Pinned to walls, portraits record
properties of soil. Yet no fresh air infuses
Stagnant, solid, yet sure of yourselves, voices
whisper: Time, an augur, makes sense of birds
at last. Let be. As if a gunshot disturbed
their flights in fields, we sit laden. Curious to fly.
Dear women perched in public, you are part Willemina,
Van Gogh’s sister. Deemed demented. Locked in House
Veldwijk, Ermelo, forty years. Yet you are all pure
witness. Amnesty, asylum, the falconer’s gadgets held
somewhere in your reach.
You linger like springs in Nuenen.
Copyright © Stephanie McKenzie 2013
Review: Saviours in this Little Space for Now reviewed by Michael Higgins in his Mysteries & Mystics column in the Aug. 3 2013 edition of Salon, New Brunswick’s home for fine art and culture in the Telegraph-Journal
It was a curious discovery and a rich one. I had just finished teaching a graduate course in Vancouver on the psychologist and spiritual writer Henri J.M. Nouwen and one of the lectures dealt with his understanding of the life and work of his compatriot, Vincent van Gogh. Nouwen’s most popular course at Yale University was on Vincent – his art and his spirituality. Nouwen’s insights provided a unique aperture into his own theological and psychological travails.
A few hours before boarding my plane back to Connecticut, I decided to revisit the Vancouver Art Gallery – in particular the Emily Carr collection. As I was leaving, I happened upon a small stack of books near the door in the gallery bookstore. The cover drew my attention but the contents are more than compelling; they are epiphanic.
Stephanie McKenzie, a British Columbia native now teaching English at Memorial University’s Grenfell campus in Corner Brook, N.L., has had a long and creatively nurturing attraction to both the 19th-century Dutch artist van Gogh and the Canadian writer and painter Carr. Her approach – both academic and poetic – bears close attention.
McKenzie manages to find spiritual and artistic alignments in places dark and luminous. Of their respective struggles with lucidity, breakdown and depression she notes: “Do not house me in diagnoses, medical practitioners’/ affairs. Or maddened airs. If one day writers gather round/ searching my mind, tell them truth is only/ in my paintings.” (Floating Between the Greys and Rising Sun)
Although the above poem is about Carr, the van Gogh resonances, parallels and personal convergences of mind and spirit are adroitly and obliquely suggested. This is what poetry does; it paints a mental landscape of connections.
In an illuminating afterword, McKenzie, determined to ensure that the poetic voice retains its immediacy and discrete integrity, provides a prose exposition of the synchronicities and convergences that enrich and reward a second reading of the poems. Misfits, solitaries, obsessive, emotionally conflicted and profoundly sympathetic to the marginalized, both van Gogh and Carr can be seen as spiritual voices in their time. McKenzie observes:
“Son of a clergyman and an aspiring preacher himself, van Gogh never seemed to leave his faith in God behind. And although Carr would severely question Christianity, most notably the missionaries of her day who attempted to proselytize amongst the Native populations of B.C., she, too, maintained a belief in her Christian upbringing, especially when the leading artists of her time embraced theosophy and she could not pin that philosophy to any specific kind of deity or meaning.”
The artists come together in the poet’s imagination in time and space: “none can dispute you were lonely. I have grown/ more lonely, too. In your presence. Today, writing of you/ from B.C., the sky, overcast, does not afford/ one single flower.” (“Van Gogh Painting Sunflowers (after Gaugin)”)
Saviours in this Little Space for Now is a surprising treasure.
Michael W. Higgins is vice-president for mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Conn. He is a former president of St. Thomas University.