Heidegger Comes to the Mountain

Questions and Answers

What inspired or motivated you to write this poem?

In August of 2012, my adult daughter and I determined to live in France for three months while she improved her French in order to improve her prospects of becoming a French immersion teacher in Canada. Though I had travelled in Europe a number of times with my husband (who was unable to accompany us this time), I had always gone as a tourist. My daughter and I settled on Aix-en-Provence for our stay because it was a medium-sized city, reputedly rich in arts and culture. She signed up for French lessons at her level and I at mine. She made friends, ran a marathon; I walked daily, lingering in book stores and art galleries. Until I arrived, I hadn’t known Aix had been the life-long home of the post-Impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. Almost immediately Cézanne become my muse, just as the painter-poet William Blake had done when I was in my twenties. I followed C. everywhere, or he followed me: the Granet Museum, the école where he first met his friend Émile Zola; his family estate the Jas de Bouffan; the Bibémus quarries where he discovered cubism before Picasso; the roads he walked daily with his paints and canvases; his graveside. I devoured a major biography by Alex Danchev, Cézanne’s letters, and Rilke’s letters on viewing a Cézanne exhibition in Paris in 1907 shortly after the artist’s death. I climbed Mount Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne ’s holy mountain just outside the city, which he painted over 86 times. We entered a “heart-soul-mind-clench.” Slowly, a sequence of ekphrastic poems (poems in which poetry dialogues with visual art) emerged. Our heady days ended just before Christmas, but I brought Cézanne home with me to Fort Langley where we viewed Golden Ears peaks and Mount Baker from the dikes in the Fraser Valley. It seemed as if we were experiencing the beauty of the BC landscape through each other’s eyes. “Heidegger Comes to the Mountain” was written several months after my return to Canada where I continued my contemplation, research, and crafting.

What did you find particularly challenging in writing this poem?

Dealing with Martin Heidegger himself was the biggest challenge. After all, it is well known that Heidegger had been a member of the Nazi party during WWII, something his former student Hannah Arendt, who was herself Jewish, struggled with enormously. I love philosophy and had delved into Heidegger’s Being and Time before coming to Aix, but found it weighty and somewhat abstract. Yet I was attracted to the philosopher’s notion of “Dasein”—being-in-the-world (being there, or here; presence; being present). How can one convey in concepts an experience of Is-ness beyond all metaphysical notions, a presence that moves through thinking, feeling, language and the body? Dasein. Then I discovered that Martin Heidegger also adored Cézanne. Not only was he mesmerized before his predecessor’s paintings, but he respected the artist so much that he made pilgrimages to Aix beginning in 1956 that continued for ten years. He even wrote a poem about his hero. He wasn’t the only modernist who worshipped at Cézanne’s feet. The provincial artist whose work had been reviled by the academy and who had to exhibit his work at the Salon des Refusés (the salon of the rejects), soon became the progenitor of a new way of “seeing seeing,” of being-in-the-world. His participation in nature through painting was a quantum act of “being here” from many perspectives at once. Picasso borrowed his techniques and took them further; D. H. Lawrence worshipped him; Gertrude Stein came to live in his hometown. So my poem “Heidegger Comes to the Mountain” is a late-arriving petit homage. The challenge of this poem was to reference Heidegger and Cézanne without becoming too obscure or explanatory. My longing remains to access these liminal places where poetry, painting, philosophy, and music interpenetrate, collude, and dance.

This poem “Heidegger Comes to the Mountain” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 10.

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