Caroline Knox on "Flemish"
My sister said
"All the elements in this painting
Still Life with Strawberries,
seem to levitate"
(by Isaak Soreau [1604-after
Flemish, early 1630s
Gift of Mrs. Robert McKay
Cincinnati Art Museum)
DO NOT WRITE BELOW THIS LINE
it said on the postcard of the painting.
"I'll tell you how to levitate
strawberries," said my daughter.
"Hull a quart. Sprinkle them
with half a teaspoon of balsamic
vinegar and a teaspoon of
confectioner's sugar; let them sit."
Still Life with Strawberries, though,
isn't a patch on his Carnations, Tulips, and Other Flowers in a
Glass Vase with Peaches, Grapes, and Plums in a Basket
on a Ledge with Cherries, a Butterfly, and a Beetle.
Isaak Soreau was a twin, moreover,
and in 1652 his twin, Peter Soreau, painted Still Life with
Apples, Black and White Grapes, and a Walnut in a
Porcelain Bowl, Together with Chestnuts, a Pear, Figs,
Turnips, and a Melon, All on a Table with a Bunch of Snipes
Hanging on a Nail
(S L A B W G W P B T C P F T M A T B S H N). Oh Flanders! A
Benelux country, a Low Country.
After I'd written "Flemish," I realized that it contained many unresolved and insoluble puzzles, and that was fine with me. Belgium, Flanders, Benelux, Low Country—so many words associated with this tiny and stunningly gifted land. It speaks Dutch, French, German, and its own dialects. In the poem, interruptions and distractions are part of the design. The poem wants to upset our expectations by juxtaposing high and low, plain and fancy, original and copy. It tries to surprise the reader by sometimes foregrounding the "unpoetical."
My sister is right: the elements in Isaak Soreau's painting seem to levitate, in a faint aura of magical light. My daughter is right: the strawberries recipe is mindlessly easy, yet it transforms the few ingredients into extraordinary new taste and texture, if you "let them sit."
But we aren't looking at the real painting; it's just a postcard (as in Marianne Moore's poem "Saint Nicholas")—it's not Mrs. McKay's generous gift. "DO NOT WRITE BELOW THIS LINE," we read. And then we get the line of punctuation, which is also a line of verse, and is as important as the painting, as far as the poem goes.
Still life isn't still. In the Soreaus' paintings, the history of each item is present, although the items had never been assembled before. Just saying each title is saying a mouthful; it's a challenge and an entertainment. Finally, we get an acronym for the Peter Soreau painting—acronyms are supposed to be helpful shorthand, but this one is pleasantly useless and confusing.