Cézanne’s Last Days

Poem by John Menaghan

Find a tree to your left and the rest comes into view.
I constantly study from nature. Today, the earth
invites me out of doors, though the clouds seem
not so sure. I think…I am making slow progress.
Very slow. I know…a little more than before,
forget more than half of what little once seemed
certain. Today at le petit déjeuner the loaf,
broken, pocked by air, seemed for a moment
snow drifting into shapes on the mountain’s
brown crust, blown by chilly winds, nature
finding form. I should have liked you to be
beside me. As I ate, sipped a café au lait,
and then, later, sketched under unsettled skies.

The solitude always a bit of a burden. Once
I thought to marry form and nature, envisioned
the breathtaking bride, virginal, forever virginal,
preserving her purity by process, patience, time.
But I am old and ill. Not too old, not too ill,
perhaps, to make one more essay, aim once more
for a priestly juncture: brush, paint, hand, and eye.
I want only this: to render the world as it is,
and seems, and everything in between. I have
sworn to die while painting. Harder than it
sounds, and easier too. Like everything, nearly.

I am drunk. Not on paint or fumes, color or form.
Only…the shape of things always changing
intoxicates me, makes me want to live forever,
rather than sinking into the degrading senility
that threatens old men
. Days I will never see are
already making plans to occur in all their matchless
particularity, long, long after I am long, long gone.
After the storm of steady purpose—my life, my
work—has spent itself. The grave began its quiet
whispering some time back, and I for my part
pretended not to hear the invitation, the insistence
in its subtle summons to leave this world behind.

Let it call. I will not be one of those old men
who let themselves be dominated by passions
that stupefy their senses. I will see clearly, be
clearly, here in the open air where light and
shadow shape each stroke, each mark I make.
And though the thunder rumbles, storm comes on,
I shall remain, painting, amidst the rain.

But now a torrent comes! I must depart.
Pack away the means to make my art, achieve
my end. Demain. Tomorrow, as the English say,
I’ll come back to this selfsame spot, resume.
Do I assume…too much? Something—
the thunder?—tells me: Make no plans!
But plans are all I do make—and paintings—
while I can. I make my way along familiar
paths, battling wind and storm, on my way
home. Suddenly so dark! Yet after so long,
so many journeys, how could I lose my way?

 

Caught in a storm while working outdoors, Cézanne continued painting for hours, then decided to head for home. On the way home he collapsed and lay in the rain for several more hours. Seven days later, on 22 October 1906, he received the last rites, died of pneumonia, and was laid to rest in his beloved birthplace, Aix-en-Provence.

The italicized phrases appear in the last letter Cézanne sent to his fellow painter and fervent admirer Émile Bernard.


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2016, Volume 36, Number 2