Van Gogh Dreams: Poems Inspired by the Art and Life of Vincent Van Gogh
edited by Lisa Vihos
HenschelHAUS Publishing, 2018
I’ve now been enthralled with Vincent Van Gogh for 56 years, and I’m not alone. Interest in Van Gogh has increased, and with it even the building of his own museum. This once under-recognized artist is the subject of major exhibits over this and next year in Amsterdam, London, Houston, Den Bosch, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Potsdam, Detroit, Columbus and Santa Barbara. A light show of his paintings is projected on the ceilings, walls and floors of a massive cave in Provence. There is even a 3-D installation devoted to Van Gogh in the middle of a five year tour in China and other Asian cities. What draws us to Vincent’s fire?
Poet, activist, and educator Lisa Vihos answers this question with her anthology, Van Gogh Dreams. She has pulled together a remarkable anthology of contemporary poets acknowledging the relevance and importance of the life and work of Vincent. Van Gogh Dreams gathers in 31 poets who clearly demonstrate why Van Gogh continues to enthral.
Her choice of poems creates a dialogue through time between her ekphrastic writers and Vincent, and between herself and her father Georg Vihos—who died in 2013 and whose collage graces the book’s cover. Georg, himself enamoured of Van Gogh and an artist under-recognized during his lifetime, introduced Lisa early on to the work of Van Gogh.
It’s the electric vibrancy that I most appreciate in Van Gogh, and poetry can enhance that incandescence best. Vihos' book shines, taking us into the paintings and beyond ourselves. In this collection Bruce Sager imagines himself a love child viewing in "The Bedroom" the scene of his own conception and the dim traces of Van Gogh his father.
— a child of chance
I don’t remember much else
he was gone not long after
I came. Mother says he was tender,
—that he held my face in his hands--
she always says those marvelous hands--
In "Van Gogh Visits A Friend in Wisconsin and Comments on Her Garden," Mary Jo Balistreri recounts his saying:
She’s as driven as I am, yanks weeds from hard ground,
wrestles boulders, slaps at mosquitos.
Steeped in summer, she returns me to the Midi, its heat,
my back-breaking toil with colour, always colour, at the easel.
Robin Chapman recalls "Vincent in Provence," reporting:
. . . Years of teaching his hand
landscape’s calligraphy—and now his gestures
translate hayfields and cornfield to flame,
fire burning in the cypresses, all the smoke
a radiant, rising haloed haze.
I love the differing styles and perspectives Vihos has pulled together in this collection. Van Gogh’s work presents ample opportunity for inference, interpretation, and extension. The impetus that art provides turns loose poetry to do what it does best. Vihos shows us writers who show us more of Van Gogh than may have first met our eye.
Van Gogh sought light. He moved south to find it, painted en plein air to revel in it, laboured to capture it, and was well aware of light’s metaphoric value. Yet it was more than the artwork, more than the dynamism and glow that draws us in. His paintings—visions that show us the subjectivity of the objective world and objectivity of the subject—are only half the story. The rest is Vincent himself. His life embodied the struggle we all face, artists or non-artists alike.
In gathering this collection of poetry inspired by the life and work of Van Gogh, Vihos brings Vincent alive. Van Gogh is each of us: our search for who we really are, for self-realization, for actualization, for being noticed. These words preceded the 1970s when they gained cultural cache, and they resonate again, as the wonderful poets in Van Gogh Dreams attest. And more; for Vincent lived in a time similar to ours in it’s rapidly shifting landscape. His world was wracked by the forces of early industrialization as convulsive as our current aching time of deep uncertainty.
Our work as writers and artists cannot help but be personal. Fifty six years ago, a newly graduated high school student at loose in Europe I first fell captive to Van Gogh in the Rijksmuseum. This year I returned to Amsterdam to speak personally to the head curator of the Van Gogh Museum, Edwin Becker. I asked him about his work on the recent David Hockney’s—heavily influenced by Van Gogh—exhibit Love of Nature, about how Becker managed to juxtapose Hockney’s huge multi-paneled landscapes next to Van Gogh’s relatively small paintings.
“It’s the space in between,” he smiled. "The works speak to each other in the spaces between.”
And it was true, that space between those paintings was not empty. In Van Gogh Dreams, Lisa Vihos creates such a space for dialogue.
To learn more about the book, or purchase it from its publishers, click here.
Kendall Johnson is an artist and writer living in Upland, California. He is the author of four books of poetry and art, as well as several books stemming from his previous lives as psychotherapist, teacher, and firefighter. His work has been published by Cholla Needles Press, Chaffey Review, Rabid Oak, and Literary Alchemy as well as Hunter House Publishers, Inland Empire Museum of Art, and Claremont Heritage. He can be reached by email, through his website, or followed on Fb.
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