Picasso (1973)


You ask what I truly remember of it—everything and nothing:
the cries of peacocks in the Moorish ruins of Málaga,
Ménerbes where the owls would swoop down at dusk
to carry off the rib-thin village cats, a night in Naples
when Stravinsky and I were arrested for pissing in the Galleria,
Alfred Jarry’s pistol, the statuettes stolen from the Louvre,
the sea, of course, the Mediterranean shining olive-silver
on a day we sailed out from the white harbor of Cadaqués
and Frika swam after us, so deep we let her clamber aboard,
soaking the skiff as she shook her glittering fur.
And la vie Américaine in the 20s with Gerald and Sara Murphy
and Scott Fitzgerald pouring their dollars into the sea
off the rocks in Cap d’Antibes like flat champagne,
and I supporting Olga in the style to which she aspired,
a chauffer to guide our immense Hispano-Suiza
through the village streets of Paris, and servants and maids
and white shoes and dinner jackets and diapers and headaches
and the Dadaists and the balletomanes and the war
between Cocteau and Breton and Satie and Massine
and the dealers and the bankers and at last Marie-Thérese
to alleviate the weight of all that money upon my soul.


In human affairs everything is craven, tainted, exigent.
Only art may live beyond compromise.
But merely the intention to create is not enough.

Sometimes bronze is too luxurious, marble too intense,
pebbles shaped by the sea too masterful to equal.
The world provides a treasury from which to choose—
paper or canvas, gouache or charcoal or ink.

Even in my life there were days when the work would not come,
when the child had the measles and the wife was a shrew,
when rain on slate made we wonder how I ever felt affection for Paris.

The Mediterranean rejuvenated me,
junk rejuvenated me.

Bored, I searched the scrapheap and potter’s field
for broken urns and jughandles, string and wire,
wicker baskets I might put to use in some assemblage.

Driving home through Aix after the bullfights I stopped
always at the same candy store to buy their almond-paste calissons,
not for the sugar but the sturdy, diamond-shaped box,
which, filled with plaster, creates an ideal base for a sculpture.

Yes, to see is to possess, and you must invest heart and soul
in the work, but not all hearts and souls are equal.
How much must be poured until a vessel runs over
depends on the size of the vessel, how much must be drunk
depends on the strength of the liquor.

For Braque, a bottle or two of good wine.
For Matisse, a glass of Armagnac.
For Picasso—a spoonful, a thimble, a single drop of blood.

This afternoon, waking from siesta, I watched a column
of light slip between the wavering curtains,
certain as a bar of gold, solid as the cast-iron truss
for some incalculable architecture of the air.
Closing my eyes, the darkness was faceted and cloven
by that brilliant negative, that linear declension
imprinted upon the cornea in an infinite planar regression.

It was a vision of Cubism, I recognized at once,
an argument for its strategy of representation,
its assault upon the viewer, its fragmentation
of continuity and surface into theoretical instances.
I admire it still, but its self-consciousness exhausts me.
I feel as if the canvasses are inspecting my studio
with their insect-like eyes, studying and judging me.

Cubism was like the desert in the American cowboy movies,
or the olive-starred uplands around Horta del Ebro,
a wilderness to be crossed at any cost—
gold dust, drinking water, the lives of the animals—
everything sacrificed for that desperate journey.

Sometimes, waking in the heat of afternoon, things
come back to me, and I feel not young again
but ageless, primordial, like fresh clay in the hands.
Of course it is an illusion. The body withers,
the body fades. Only art carries on, a riderless horse
wandering the bone-colored desolation of the canvas.

Among the many forms of human desire, the only one
I cannot claim as an intimate is the wish to surrender
to the prerogatives of a fevered abstraction,
renunciation to the posturing of saviors and overlords,
capitulation of the self to Jesus or Franco or Stalin.

If birds and the sea are not enough, if all figures erode
to sand and representation proves insufficient,
what likelihood that conceptualizations will sustain me?

Whatever they were thinking in the painted caves
it was not to submit to a regime of monotony,
not to weigh themselves down but to lighten the load
of their burdens. Even then they knew that art
was called up from a deep source to enrich human life,
not hermetic but invigorating, not ideological but erotic
as pigment palmed across bare rock and naked skin.

If the Mediterranean piles its silver treasure in my arms,
if the cooing of doves prove balm to my ears,
if the sun, if the moon, if the cock, if the she-goat—
if the world is the only idiom I have mastered
why bid me abandon this body for a paradise of ideas?

I am an old man, though I hate it,
and wish now to immerse myself in raw color
that its child-like state of grace might comfort me.

Drawing on the beach with a stick
I feel a spirit of delight I seldom find in the studio,
but they wince and beg me to stop,
my canny dealers and rich collectors.

They say there is no money in it.

First I destroyed the Old Masters and then
I destroyed modern painting
and you ask me why?

Because breaking the mold is what I understood,
tearing down temples and monuments,
releasing the Minotaur from his labyrinth.

Why blood? Why the sword? Why poetry?
Why a dab of ochre for a pear,
why blue apples, why ask such questions?

Why do I go forward, am I a fool, do I believe,
like some superstitious Andalucian peasant,
that painting will help me to stave off death?

Do not mention that word!

But I will tell you, since you ask, why I paint.
Lean closer, so I may whisper it.

To stave off death.

Campbell McGrath is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Academy of American Poets Prize and a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress, among many other awards. He has authored ten collections of poetry, including, most recently, In the Kingdom of the Sea Monkeys (Ecco Press, 2012).