Last week, I dragged Violet to the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I took her to New York for a few days to celebrate her birthday, and it was a tornado of 12-year-old exuberance—Mama Mia, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Times Square at midnight. For me, going with Violet was like going to New York City for the very first time. Nearly the only motherly insistence I displayed was that we spend a morning at MoMA. Well that and also that she balance her chocolate croissant intake with at least an occasional lettuce leaf.
While—not surprisingly—Violet raised the requisite eyebrow at Al Reinhardt’s all black painting and—surprisingly—was not all that into Andy Warhol’s soup cans, she did plop herself right on the floor to take a long look at Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, 1950.
I—as always—was drawn back to the room that holds the van Goghs, the room that holds The Starry Night. It’s strange, really. I was never attracted to van Gogh when was I was younger. In fact, I didn’t think about van Gogh at all beyond “postcard material” and “pretty sunflowers.”
But now, whenever I’m in New York, I find myself making a pilgrimage to pay my respects. And I adore the painting of Postman Roulin at the Detroit Institute of Art. I’m trying to understand why. Somehow they speak to where I am in life. There’s something so tender about them. There’s such unmasked affection for the material world. Especially The Starry Night feels like a grasping, it feels like trying to capture water in your hands. There’s the nestled town, the ominous cypress, the boundless sky. And van Gogh holds it all.
Now, when I look at The Starry Night, I get it. I don’t feel as bold or as certain in the world as I once did. The world feels fragile, and I feel cracked. But those fissures and bruises make both the sleeping town and the bursting sky all the more precious. The painting brings the massiveness of the universe and the coziness of human co-habitation into intimacy but not collision. The best we can hope for, really. So earlier this week, there I was, weeping in the middle of hundreds of international tourists, trying to hang on to the moment where my 12-year-old daughter first lays eyes on a painting that cracks the world—and my middle-aged heart—right open.
So there’s this, a poem from a few years ago about the painting of Postman Roulin:
And It Appears that—Once Again—All the Blues Are On Hand
But now, I spend my time searching for a wisp
out of reach, for even serviceable French,
for enchanté & desolé. For a moment stamped
here & now. What is it about the mind made visible
in the cracked cornflower wall? It’s a tell,
Monsieur R, you could be a sea captain
but for your bead-blue eyes, not horizon-weary
but nearsighted and sparking for a brindle-back.
Sixty percent will say their favorite color
is blue. I wonder. Is it for blueberries
or baby powder, a sky-sick Navy or love
for the Saxton sea? Is it for a grandmother’s
gentian or latent loyalty to Napoleon or the steel
of the last century? Half-buried porcelain
or just an empty palm to declare a milk-sotted truce?
I wonder. Could I have been a sea captain
but for mal de mer & bald-faced failures with a compass
& two psychics who raised the flag of drowning?
You could be a police officer gatekeeper jail keeper key
keeper, keeper of the peace. Zookeeper? Maybe.
But not anything close to a stable keeper or a bar keep—
you must be something requiring the I-mean-business blue
of the state (or its proxies). For me, it’s an outright search for nouns.
The neighbors called Van Gogh Fou Rou for a reason—
all that mal de tête in the fierce night sky.
My littlest little girl: what does it feel like to be a fish?
I reply: wet. But, I can’t say: the mind splinters
& insists you could have been an astronaut.
(But what of airsickness and vertigo
and grief for the spinning blue planet?)
I could recall the sea blue wall if only the sea
were such a color, rendered by a foreigner, a mad man, a maker
of the blue of nations the blue of warhawks and love, doves.
The blue of oblivion. Of the mind peeling off in gritty, lethal flakes.
I could have been a clam digger. You, a conductor, a chancellor.
A postman is better anyway. Amongst splintered women
& salty dogs. Ah, Sacré bleu! you can smell the mind
run amok. You can hear it smoke.
Blessed are the bored & brindled. The lovelorn
& the seasick. Blessed are the stern & right,
the silvered & the split. The iced-in stars, the warhawks,
the doves. En Francais: beni. Blessed is the smoke.
Blessed is the fire and last cold spark.
Blessed are the blustering & the brackish.
Blessed is the forgetting.
Beni soit l’oubli. Beni soit le bleu.
Blessed is the blue.