Troubled skies

by Louise Wakeling

Someday death will take us to another star.  Vincent Van Gogh

you liked “a glass too much” of the green fairy, 
raged at Gauguin’s absence, painted 
the Yellow House in Arles like a lover 
trying to impress - outsider 
framing nature through a window, 
the ugly-beautiful faces of Arlésiennes, 
yellow-lemon light on walls, 
purple irises on a yellow ground

you kept no animal,    
could barely feed yourself –
a cat in unfamiliar surroundings, 
a dog with dirty feet, a noisy barker 
far too wild for your parents’ liking

you tried to drink turpentine, 
ate paint, your mind half-foundering, 
but here are cornfields endless as the sea,
the comforting heft of earth, its silences, 
washed-out blues of reapers in the fields  

a tolerably firm foundation, 
you said, your last paintings.  
Crows brood or wing it 
across an irritability of sky, 
paths dwindle under turbulent skies

you with your back to the wall, 
in solitude, constant repetitions, 
trying to get it right.  
you risked your life for it, adrift 
among the dealers in men 

well, the truth is, we only make 
our pictures speak: 
crows drifting home to roost, 
birds and clouds flying, still hopeful 
in the face of coming darkness

This poem was inspired in part by Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, especially one of his last, Wheatfield with Crows, (oil on canvas, 1890), and also by his moving letters to his brother Theo. Van Gogh believed in the originality of his art, even if many people of his time did not. He probably suffered from alcoholism and malnutrition, and it seems likely that his psychological problems had a physical basis. Although isolation and rejection by others made his life even more unbearable at times, they also created the conditions for his work. In this poem I was searching for a way to express my appreciation for the persistent optimism of Van Gogh’s life and vision, despite his troubled state. The imagery of the poem draws on my own unforgettable experience of visiting Arles in the south of France in 2019, as well as the immersive Van Gogh Alive exhibition at the Hall of Industries in Sydney in November, 2020.   

Louise Wakeling is a poet and teacher who lives in the Blue Mountains.  Her first novel was Saturn Return (Allen and Unwin, 1990), and she is currently working on a second novel exploring family dysfunction in the 1950s-70s. Her third poetry collection, Paragliding in a war zone, was published by Puncher & Wattmann (2008), and her fourth, Off Limits,has been accepted for publication in 2020. Wakeling’s work has been published widely, including in Antipodes(2011), Contemporary Australian Poetry (2016), Caring for Country (2017) and Wild Voices: An anthology on wildlife issues (2019).

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