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Van Gogh

by John Wester

Oh, Van Gogh, you rascal--you
Were awed by life the cosmos forms;
You were fearless and you knew
Your art surpassed the modern norms--
A flower, a face, defiant, divorced
By brilliance storms of life have forced.

If Van Gogh could read this rhyme,
He'd state it's infinitely shallow--
Trite, and hardly worth the time;
Sentimental, crude and callow.

He might advise, he's history--
Write about the things you see.
Forgive me, Vincent, for what I do
In drawing this schoolish sketch of you.

Did you know
The genius Van Gogh
Sold but a single painting?
While alive
Worked to contrive
Resources for acquainting
People to a startling style--
Mapping complements thick as tile.

Van Gogh was Dutch, a preacher's son,
Tried this and that to make a living;
Art dealer first, but he was one
Who favored the artist--unforgiving
Of dealers buying art for cheap--
Dealing costing Van Gogh sleep.

Six years of that, fired (or quit),
Decided to make a go of it
As a preacher, like his dad--
Van Gogh gave it all he had.

His Bible teachers left him cold.
His interpretation? Bold.
Take Amos for one, did he not teach
The fruits of labor lay out of reach
Of those who made them? That's not a sin?
The pupil wasn't giving in.

Their words weren't their practice, then
They sent him to the lion's den.
Lived with miners. Was he a dope,
Preaching to miners there's any hope?

Once, braved coal mines half-mile down.
One by one, black lung would drown
The miners, leaving families who
Had nothing--did what he could do.

He shared his blankets, food and clothes.
Too extreme! Church chose to close
The door on him, but he stayed there
In Belgium a year, or so, to share--
And sketch what he was witness to.
Alone. He drew what they went through.

The poor man is a poor man's friend,
Remained a friend up to the end.
Decided to paint the things he saw,
No longer trying to please his Pa.

Sketches he drew, from when he was nine,
Still survive, their quality's fine.
He made a sketch, drawn at fourteen,
A man was leaning on his spade--
His pencil caught the tired lean.
A camera, maybe, would have made
A detailed picture--but he could draw
More than what a camera saw.

The sky, hue of forget-me-nots;
Violet shadows on sunny sand.
Blue skin, large orange polka-dots,
Oleander in a sweet little hand.

As a painter, Van Gogh used
Colors critics said he abused.

But he wasn't into compliments--
Complements, yes, and colors intense.
Used brushes and reeds and pallet knife--
His colors made you feel the life.
Worked as long as he was well--
Ill fed, ill health--brushes fell.

Younger brother supported him,
Art dealer, himself, went out on a limb--
Believed in Vincent and loved him dearly,
And no one saw his art as clearly.
Vincent sent Theo pictures he'd paint--
Theo sent money without complaint.

Vincent once wrote him, where to start?
Start from the soul or from the clothes?

When a body's a subject of art
And peg for hanging ribbons and bows,
The thing won't last--a plaster cast--
His soulful portraits unsurpassed.

Chrome yellow was a favorite pick--
Needing fine points, sometimes would stick
The sable brushes between his lips--
And madness followed the pointed tips.

Theo in Paris, Vincent in Arles,
A train ride south. He wanted to start
A commune of artists, minus the quarrels
About what was, or not, fine art.
Independence gaining ground--
But Vincent's paintings so profound,
High-brows seeing it sometimes laugh,
The critics, themselves, too clever by half.

Van Gogh himself, he was a fan
Of the painter, Paul Gauguin.
Worshipped Gauguin, got him to stay
With him to paint in southern France.
Paul would brighten up his day,
Help with bills, united advance
Independents up to the front.
But both men were strong and blunt.

Sparks would fly on rainy days--
Electric, were their arguments.
Paul would bully, Vincent stays
With his heart and his good sense--
Painting only what he can see--
Gauguin from myth and memory.

Together two months, the tension grew,
He was losing Paul, he knew.
Maybe what happened one rainy night,
He and Gauguin got in a fight.
Over a woman who Van Gogh thought
Paul would treat like trinkets bought?

Or maybe it had to do with style;
Or Vincent accusing Paul of guile;
Could be, Paul had wanted to hear
Vincent to tell him, you have my ear.
Figuratively speaking, of course, but no,
Razor in hand, there goes Van Gogh.

Or had Gauguin pulled from his pants
A click-clack Bali-song butterfly knife?
Tired of hearing his drunken rants,
Slashed down to an inch of his life.

Perhaps a fencing lesson was taught--
Gauguin's angry sword had caught
Vincent too close. But nothing is clear--
Van Gogh lost all, or part of his ear.

Most common story--Van Gogh went nuts.
Took his ear-lobe from the top.
But maybe Van Gogh was a klutz--
The razor cutting didn't stop--
He nicked his jugular and he bled.
Paul got rags, put him to bed.

Gauguin fled and Van Gogh bled--
Got up and wrapped the ear he cut
Up in cloth to offer instead
To a woman--one called a slut.

Her name was Rachel. Promised her he
Be more attentive, or try to be.
Or maybe he told her, if you can,
Give this to our friend, Gauguin.

Telegraphed, Theo's at his side.
Embarrassed, Van Gogh would try to hide
The reason for it, said it was small
Potatoes, aberration is all.

Hospital, home--and Gauguin's gone--
He'd taken his things and scooted out;
Aloof, a noble, smooth sailing swan--
Knew little of what friendship's about.

While he was loyal to his work,
Gauguin could be a total jerk--
A prick some call a pedophile,
With syphilis on a South Seas isle.

Van Gogh, himself, loved life so much
He never lost his common touch.
Hallucinations? No one knew why.
A drinker of absinthe and poisoned by
The paints he used we know were septic--
Diagnosed an epileptic.
Might have been mad when said and done,
But for himself, he hurt no one.

Painting through hallucinations,
Writing calmly, later, of it;
Describing, always his creations
In letters, hoping you'd love it.
A thousand letters Van Gogh wrote,
And not a one self-pity note.

With loneliness a shy man knows,
His heart in nothing but daubs of paint.
The paintings are worthless, said one of Van Gogh's
Letters to his brother, the saint.

His letters, ah, he could have made
A living as a writer--
Joined with Zola's poor man's crusade;
Joining as a gentle fighter;
Show Baudelaire a thing or two,
Give some depth to what was true.

He never put himself above
Another living human being.
His paintings would express the love
For every living thing he's seeing.

All the while was poisoned by
The lead in paints he used.
Had no idea the reason why
His mind got so confused.
Committed himself, he knew he was ill,
His loyal brother paid the bill.

Months from leaving the loony bin,
Soberly working a landscape, thought,
This is pure shit, I'm giving in--
Took out a scarecrow pistol and shot
Himself on the spot--deciding that he
Had failed in art so miserably.
A drain on his brother,
A blow to his Pa,
Depression would smother
His life full of awe
For nature and the lot of the poor--
Had told himself, can't do any more.

(Or had he drawn the pistol out
To scare the crows out of the corn
To paint the flight, without a doubt,
Of pestilence the farmers scorn?
The gun went off, Van Gogh, you fool,
Mishandling such a murderous tool.)

Left his stuff, walked back to where
He rented a room and laid down there.
Two days later Van Gogh's dead,
Brother by his hospital bed--
Van Gogh---37 years old.
A single painting had been sold.

At his funeral, Theo wept,
His heart-broke sobbing never stopped.
Tried to make the world accept
His brother's work in time--he flopped.

Six months later, Theo died--
Left paintings to his recent bride.
His widow, Johanna, was told to junk
Vincent's drawings and paintings as bunk.

Johanna, though, would not forsake
Vincent's fine art he'd given her mate--
It took some years but she would make
Him known, so sorry it was too late.

Vincent Van Gogh, who passed no test,
Turns out, he turned out the best.
Friend of the poor, Old Testament Amos,
Last thing on his mind was getting famous.

Supplies and shelter, and food to eat,
And once in a while to lay at the feet
Of a woman, who's struggled and knows
The heart of a man such as Van Gogh's,
Was all he wanted--no matter a whore--
That's all he needed and wanted no more.

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