Joseph Spece

At the Orangerie


At the orangerie, two ovular rooms. Outside, the queue; the guards in smart black attire; views of d’Orsay and the broad-faced Louvre; moving water. 

At the orangerie I realized I did not know Claude Monet; I was aware of Monet as a man concluded by—well, occluded by—postcards and details, half-figural / half-objective paps. At the orangerie I sat before certain panels completely dumb. The breaths came in even taut strands. Awareness swam back sometimes. 

I chuckled—Well, wellOnce more!—the meagre fixity of popular truncation! All of what makes Monet in a in a set of kitschy glass coasters, a journal cover. And me nodding, nodding these many years. I learned: that Monet ends up being nearly the opposite of Monet’s ambition.

I wondered how to write poetry like Monet paints Nymphéas at the orangerie: aformal; largely abstract; outside of time; extant as both pinpoint cadre-moments and gestalten. 

I’m thinking: the Greater Abstract in poetry must be more baffling tissue than Moment. 

The apprehensible floats up from Monet’s long concave canvases—some twenty feet in length—and is simultaneously held—the pinpoint cadre-moment is held, the stroke is painted—while lovingly occupying a treatment demanding its dissipation. As in the poem: le mot juste is demanded, or la phrase juste, to build a thing properly called a poem, but all those inspired choices cannot make a poem proper; they yield—as Monet’s lilies yield to the reflective watery substrate—to the poem’s greater aspirational ‘whole.’ 

This itself if obvious. And yet!—one returns again and again to the delicious moments in the poem that seem to be its part-and-parcel, not its rank-and-file: Hopkins: Ah, touched in your bower of bone, / Are you! or Dickinson: Moral—with a mastiff / Manners may prevail. Why.

How am I to understand this return alongside a desire for Greater Abstraction—not that a poem demands more than stacks of good lines, but how that demand functions in the indigestible moment of contact with true poetry. And how lines fail to fully satisfy.

At the orangerie the second ovular room treats de facto landscapes—the imposition of trunks and long hanging branches is placement in a gardeny scene—the second ovular room at the orangerie holds no interest for me. This group of paintings by Monet are each like a common poem of figuration and object, without any substrate of note. A surprising development! Physical stroke (glyph or word in poem) is subsumed—not in service to Greater Abstraction, but object-making. A pretty repugnant artistic barter: the hand’s labor for a bit of dock. A pretty repugnant barter, at least when barter might be: the hand’s labor for a bit of world. 

The indigestible moment of contact with true poetry. Poetry ought be chewy, at least; not only, as man Paul Valéry (so right in so many things, Paul Valéry) asserts, ought it ‘outlive understanding,’ but—through its utter Doctrinaire; its pointed verbosity or spareness; fragmentary grammar or fragmentary shape; its willful refusal of any connection with the practical—discomfit understanding. Discomfit even reading. So the lilies and the lake—as Greater Abstraction—act at the orangerie; one is witness to them, not viewer. In a very real way, one is victim to the fullness of their application.

We can begin to understand the preëminence of the poetic cadre-moment over that of the Greater Abstraction this way—why, that is, ‘Zero at the Bone’ prevails over the gestalt Speaker of some interesting gender and some Natural inclination reflects on seeing snakes in memories of Dickinson’s [986]: noise. A kind of shorthand ease. Shortness of attention. Crystal brilliance. In said phrase there is a stiletto; and so it gives stab. So the lilies in Monet act as summation of the Nymphéas in at-large consciousness; so that fatuous ‘April is the cruelest month.’ 

Both the pink-and-purple pad-and-flower and Mr. Eliot’s nugget are darlings, little novelties. They slip from mouth to throat without any catch. These have their effect and their beauty, yes; but in the canvases at the orangerie, the flower-marks become matter-waves, held in constantly motile abeyance by the force of the canvases’ Greater Abstraction. (Whether there’s any real matter of Greater Abstraction in Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is dubious; I fear there is simply Moment acclimatized to a certain critical weather.)  

When Valéry says, then, that the poem is independent of prose and of language’s utility because it is ‘expressly designed to be born again from its ashes and to become endlessly what it has just been,’ he apprehends the work of cadre-moments in poems—of why moments of clear lily-making can create a cultural memory of Monet—but leaves Greater Abstraction’s imperative alone.

At the orangerie I begin to see why reading most contemporary poetry is a dulling affair: objectobjectobject / marker-emotion. No substrate. No sense of page’s silence as threatening blank relational force. And wherefore the poem, Das Ding, and not only the line. 

I’ve had enough of lines; I’ve had enough of the line claiming to suffice. 

The Greater Abstract in a poem has an artifact’s in-the-round power; or, like many bonsaï, a hoped-for viewing angle—but always, in the second case, the capacity to be spun about and seen as living sculptural mass outside placement—‘beside itself.’ Recall:

through its (a) utter Doctrinaire;
through its (b) pointed verbosity or spareness;
through its (c) fragmentary grammar &/or fragmentary shape;
through its (d) willful refusal of any connection to the practical; 
and through its (e) rejection of rote emotional or occasional scenarios (familial or romantic love, loss, victory, sex, ‘hunger,’ anniversaries, funerals) in anything but alien tongues—

—the poem may begin to be examined for its Greater Abstraction. The moment a poem acquiesces to the colloquial or cliché or any ready-made phrase, or to the pabulum-emotional (n.b., most of our go-to emotions are pabulum when brought ‘honestly’ to poetry), one can wager the piece has fallen out of contact with Greater Abstraction and become a little collection of lines.

I’ve had enough of lines, whose ‘power’ can be faked, made to coincide with the political or the popular so as to claim waivers. It is no surprise Monet refused to open the doors of the orangerie to the public until the day of his death. No surprise at all.

At the orangerie, yes, there are strokes that resemble things, and how beautiful. Riding: Nothing so far but nearly / The long familiar pang / Of never having gone—beautiful. Those beauties must serve their own blurring to make a painting or poem of Greater Abstraction, and in no cosmetic way: they must outfit / out-fit the mud-mass where their diamond glint is all but buried in an awful bulbous organic equipage at the orangerie.