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A painter of peasants at work and murky-lit windstorms in the countryside, Jean Francois
Millet, born 1814 on a farm near Cherbourg, provides a point of introduction for the poem by Haizi to be posted below.
Millet’s paintings present symbols strikingly to similar Haizi’s pastoral objects, which point always toward the magnetic north of a pure and constant eternal. It’s a desperate struggle–Haizi strives to pull from within himself, as a creator of microcosmic universes, the kinds of suns and moons that will engender a pure existence for himself and the people. Birth, death, flesh, wind, cloud, sun, moon, rose, and farther flung symbols–Arabia, Emperors of Chinese dynasties–provide cryptic juxtapositions. A superficial look at his poems could lead to a view of Haizi’s poems as basically rustic, antiquated exercises in the bucolic.
This sort of interpretation, out of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get school of art criticism, projects the observer’s lack of sophistication onto the artist. Such assumptions, by the way, are examples “convergent thinking“.
While it’s a tautology to say that assuming ends where vision fails leads to shortsightedness, reductionism in the modern world is often taken for keenness, as cutting through nonsense.
Actually, it takes the artist ,a divergent thinker, to heal a language infected by materialism.
An artist does this by “directing tenderness,” as D. H. Lawrence would put it. In The Gleaners, tenderness lingers over a dark hand that has known suffering. The hand, stretching toward the earth, represent’s the artist’s. Just beyond the fingers are the kernels that give life, the bare distance recalling Michelangelo’s Adam. Within wheat a fable is wrapped: birth, sex, death, and rebirth, and the gleaners are closest to this reality. As Millet worked at the painting, he may have recalled that Jehovah commanded that the Israelites never return to pick up stray sheaves of wheat after they had once passed over a field.
“And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corners of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleanings of thy harvest . . .. When thou beatest thine olive tree, thou shalt not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.”
With the exception of the sun, Haizi extols wheat above all other symbols.
The Angelus is deceptive. There’s a far-off church and two figures interrupted from their digging of potatoes, bending their head in prayer: a prosaic scene. Millet, like Haizi, is not prosaic, but attuned to profound cycles of birth, death, and transcendence. Upon closer inspection the putative church is too far away to provide a clear Angelus for the figures. Note the furrows with their vegetation unbroken until just near the feet of the couple. The windrows or sheaves in the background provide another clue–it’s not a potato field. Since no one travels to the center of a field (probably not owned by this poor couple) to fill one, tiny basket of potatoes, it can be derived that these two are not digging potatoes at all but burying a child. Salvador Dali was intrigued by this painting and created a number of works based upon it. He felt that some sexual tension was apparent between the man and the woman. In my view, the sexual tension is composed of the man’s guilt and the woman’s isolation and blame that goes along with her deeper sorrow.
Here is a poem just translated from the Chinese by Haizi; it also takes up the theme of the burial of an infant.
The Duke’s Illegitimate Daughter
Our chance engagement
Has melted away without a trace.
In the dusk of heaven,
Of money or wheat,
The sole encounter of our existence
Is a poem of a day of birth,
Of murder under the sun.
Each page of poetry under the moon
Is a dead baby,
Blithely carried through fields
In moonlight on a remote path.
Broken already; path already tread;
Killed for whom?
Laid out like a drunk in grass for whom?
Our chance encounter
Has vanished without a trace.
Outside the stone gate, night watchmen
Hold three flames,
Bury two eyes under a night of long sleep.