‘The Apple’s Progress’ follows in the footsteps of a long history of poetry about art, famous examples including John Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ and WH Auden’s reflection on Pieter Breugel the Elder’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’, both of which you’ve likely read if you’re already into reading blogs about poetry. I’ve got a great little book that I picked up in New York while I was being a metropolitan liberal (which is always), which is made up entirely of such poems and includes this fantastic poem by John Taggart, which you may not have read, and which I highly recommend.
Anyway, here’s ‘The Apple’s Progress’. If anyone knows how to get in touch with Maitreyabandhu or Bloodaxe so that I can get permission to reprint it here, please let me know. Equally, if you are Maitreyabandhu or Bloodaxe (or lawyers working for them) and you’re not happy with it being up here, let me know and I’ll take it down. As is often the case, I first read this one in The Poetry Review. You can find out a bit more about the poet on Bloodaxe’s website.
The Apple’s Progress
The rosy apple passed down by the snake
with a putto’s chubby face and toddler hands
to be taken by an already reaching Eve
restrained, at least dissuaded, by beefy Adam
in Rubens’ copy of Titian’s original
inspired by Raphael’s fresco and Dürer’s print,
appears a hundred and fifty years later
in Le Buffet, another still life by Cézanne.
This orange, if it is an orange, finding
its necessary weight. This lemon turned
towards the orange, which is so empathically
full-face. This propped-up apple almost erotic
in curvaceousness and stem-end. This distance –
intimate, standoffish – between the apple
and a second lemon. This fellowship of fruit,
these colours conversing together and apart.
The tablescape maintains a swaying balance
between illuminate and shaded – colour
begetting colour – its gaucheries at home
in evident design. Neither artful nor showy,
a few estimated and cherished things
join hands across a space as actor-objects
and sensual fruit, shadows, sugary fingers
on a plate, teacups and troubled saucers.
It might be summer’s marriage hymn: a bottle
taciturn in brown, a chalice-beaker,
blue and bling, a cloth and walnut dresser –
each stubborn thing relieved of contradiction
by assiduity of thought. Love is a candle
lighting many candles without surcease.
It is this apple next to this lemon next to
this other lemon in a still life by Cézanne.
The poem mainly refers to this painting by Paul Cézanne. He also refers to The Fall of Man by Rubens, the work of the same name by Titian, this fresco by Raphael, and this print by Dürer. All share the same theme and the title of the Fall of Man, or Adam and Eve (or both). Also worth checking out is this later oil painting, also by Dürer, where Adam completely looks like he’s telling Eve what an apple is:
Appropriately enough for a poem that is itself part of a long lineage, the theme of this poem is the influence of artists upon one another, as laid out in the first stanza: Cézanne has taken an apple from Rubens, who got it from Titian, who got it from Raphael and Dürer, who of course got it from the Bible, albeit without visual clues (it’s not even an apple in Genesis, another fun fact for you all, there – #PodFact), which itself drew on earlier texts and folklore for its account of the Garden of Eden. Maitreyabandhu’s explication of this process of artistic legacy handed down across centuries clearly echoes the serpent passing the apple to Eve, who then of course hands it off to Adam: though here he is restraining/dissuading, we all know what happens next. Per Paul the Apostle, we’re already doomed. Per Milton’s clarification, we’re ‘Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall’.
Maitreyabandhu’s linking of folklore’s most famous fruit (don’t @ me) with Cézanne’s still life seems at first glance be mainly free associative. At the literal level, bar the roundness and the fact that they’re both in paintings, there’s not much to link Rubens’ apple with Cézanne’s (Cézanne’s looks more like a granny smith, whereas I’m getting russet vibes from Rubens, perhaps just because I love russets and would absolutely take one if it was offered to me by a talkative snake with a dubious back story). If any art historians would like to correct this contention, please do.
Regardless of how he got the idea, Maitreyabandhu links his various paintings by describing the Cézanne in terms that could just as well, or even a little better, be applied to the earlier painting: the latent eroticism in the ‘curvaceousness’ (and everything entailed by the usual use of that word) and the angling of the objects towards each other, and the use of shading and colour. Cleverly, some aspects noted here, particularly the ‘sugary fingers’ are literal in one painting, but metaphorical in the other. The ‘orange, if it is an orange’ echoes the vague identification of the Biblical fruit, leaning on the metaphorical resonances of the Genesis narrative that people have been picking up on from Augustine to Freud and on. So, whatever it was that initially prompted Maitreyabandhu to see Genesis in a still life, he lays a pretty clear trail for the reader to follow in making the same link.
That done, he then moves to his final rhetorical flourish. Riffing off the disparateness of items in the still life, he suddenly, almost out of nowhere, produces a final pair of metaphors: love as ‘a candle / lighting many candles’. Love, in fact, is what he’s been talking about all along: the eroticism, intimacy, ‘fellowship’, ‘marriage’ of objects/ideas weren’t just flowery poetic descriptions of, as the poet acknowledges, basically just a bunch of stuff: it’s all in there to prepare us for the final flourish of the candle. It’s like he lights it for us. And, of course, it all makes sense at another level, because everything he’s been describing is painted. The medium of painting is not oil and canvas but, as every art student knows, light. Art bringing forth the candle.
As well as preparing the ground for the sudden introduction of love with his choice of words, Maitreyabandhu also subtly varies the rhythm in the final stanza so as to make the final couplet feel like a natural resolution: having tended towards long sentences throughout, the line and a half with which he introduces the candle decelarates the feel of the poem, while the last two lines recapitulate the central theme (of handing off without losing anything) by repeating the structure of the poem in miniature, with their own repetitions (‘it is this’ in particular taking on a near-biblical resonance when repeated) likewise echoing those earlier in the poem.
The tension in the poem comes from following the chain of ideas that Maitreyabandhu links together. The jumps in conceptual space are fairly dizzying, but he makes them feel smooth: the literal depiction of an apple being handed over becomes the seed of inspiration from artist to artist becomes the shared colours between two images and that, improbably, becomes a lit candle, which is love. It’s a masterclass in using a poem to yoke together disparate concepts in a way that makes human sense, and also does all this while somehow finding a new resonance in the old metaphor of love as as a flame.
“‘The Apple’s Progress’, by Maitreyabandhu” by Frank Podmore is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.