Gauguin’s Menhir, Tahiti


Gauguin’s Museum in Papeari Bay
Is either a pious or a sardonic fraud:
Not one of the works he sold here, gave away
Or swapped for crusts, it seems can they afford.

Among poor prints the traveller finds instead
This granite god’s uprooted monolith;
His deity is lost to mind: the dread,
Menace and awe outlive his vanished myth.

So Gauguin’s wit, savage as his palette,
Survives him here; these efforts to atone
Might draw its bitter rictus even yet:
“I asked for bread, they have given me this stone!”

Twice exiled, twice abandoned, twice bereft,
Strangest of strangers in this tropic sea,
No more improbable tourist ever left
The skies and apple-crofts of Brittany,

To stand here ringed with bread-fruit, vine and palm.
Nature in full profusion of colour and scent
Blazes outside, seaward there sleeps the calm,
Teeming lagoon; but this indifferent,

Implacable menhir, alien and alone,
Withdraws into itself, rejects, denies,
With the uncompromising strength of stone,
All this alluring island paradise.

He too saw through it; caught with his painter’s eye
The shuffle of boredom towards the pit of dread;
The eternal honeymoon’s improbable lie
Prompted his rage: he painted in its stead

Something the travellers did not wish to see:
Tupapau haunting Loti’s waterfall;
Satiety; fiu; inertia—but he
Painted his own predicament most of all.

The genius who left his age behind,
A middle-aged schoolboy playing truant from school,
Who founded his Abbey of Thelême to find
Fay ce que vouldras was an iron rule.

Calvin was there before him; though he wore
Festoons of flowers and danced in grass skirt,
The creed was still that grim Mosaic Law;
And lurking waist-deep in volcanic dirt,

The old gods in the jungle beckoned still,
Had never accepted sin in the past tense
And “free love” substituted for “free will”
Was their predestination, and made sense.

A will to undo, a longing to destroy
Looked at him from the eyes of a doomed race.
He painted pleasure, their nearest approach to joy,
And melancholy, their only notion of peace;

The women so sombre, stupefied with love,
Cursed with thick ankles and ungainly feet.
With all the pity he was capable of
He painted their grossness and their grace complete,

The aimless terror, the emptiness below
The orgy and the himéné alike:
(“Whence and where are we? Whither do we go?”
“What shade broods in the shadow, poised, to strike?”)

Loti’s dream-isle was dying: he painted her
With love and rage, for he was dying too,
The festering corpse of La Nouvelle Cythère.
Though no one else had guessed at it, he knew

This island, flourishing beyond belief,
Was but a hat of flowers, a leafy crown
On a bald, basalt skull. Beyond the reef
A huge sea-mountain’s flanks plunged down and down

And a volcano god, whose fires were dead
Rooted in magma where his brutal weight
Drove his splay feet deep in the ocean bed,
Stood brooding in the dark and nursed his hate.

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