My father paints walls
My father paints walls
because the daylight is malignant
Malignant, used in such close proximity to the images of paint and sunlight stirs this poem in a way that feels dangerous.
Bill Yarrow: The poem opens with the “daylight” (not the sunlight) being “malignant” because for Goya being in public was dangerous. He had strained relations with the King (Ferdinand VII) and feared for his life. “Malignant” also functioned for me as a reference to my father’s cancer (he had just been diagnosed with cancer at the time of writing this poem). So, yes, there is a feeling of danger and lurking death as the poem begins.
Susan: I felt the poem had to be operating on a personal level, too. The repeat line “My father paints walls /… ” is such a strong physical image. Besides Goya, I was getting a man who is not an artist painting the surface of walls. Spreading paint (himself) across time and what is left of time. A left imprint on the future, from out of a son’s desire.
Bill: Yes, your intuition about the poem being personal is exactly right. The poem is about Goya and his son but also about my father and me. My father was not a painter exactly, but he was handy and good with tools. I have many memories of my father with a paintbrush painting the walls of the penny arcade he owned and ran on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, from 1947 to 1977. Stanzas 2 to 4 are about the artist Goya, but they are also about my father suffering from the effects of mesothelioma. The “private darkness” in stanza 5 refers to them both.
Spreading paint (himself) across time and what is left of time. A left imprint on the future, from out of a son’s desire. Susan, that is very well said. Yes, painting oneself across time-that’s a good definition of writing also. I tried to make painting and writing equivalent in the poem.
Susan: This is a deeply sensual poem that reflects Goya’s work which always struck me as mystical but also sensual and earthy and abundant. Your poem is all of that, and more.
You end the first stanza with: “…because time’s wife spits through cracks/
Profound. It raised the hair on my arms. Can you recall the visual image or a feeling that came to your mind when those words were written?
Bill: I wrote the poem a long, long time ago in 1977 when I was 26. I remember the image just coming to me at the time. In fact, that whole stanza just came to me in a rush. When I wrote poems back then, I didn’t work from visual images. I almost always worked from the sounds of words, the assonance of “time’s wife,” the consonant play in “spits through cracks.”
Some of Goya’s work is mystical, but the Goya referred to here is the old man Goya who, alone in his house outside Madrid, painted fourteen paintings (the Black Paintings) on the walls of his rooms.
Susan: You numbered the stanzas 1 through 7. It sets them off perfectly. I wondered if 7 was chosen for any particular reason or if the poem just landed that way?
Bill: Interesting question! Originally the poem had nine parts. I edited it and edited it over the years as it came back from magazine after magazine. I could never get it quite right. I got it down to eight stanzas. Still didn’t work. Finally, in desperation of ever getting it published, I put in on The Woodshed in Fictionaut in November 2010 where Sam Rasnake saw it and brought it into his creative writing class and shared some of the comments of his students with me. Their comments and Sam’s help were invaluable. I saw through their gifted eyes that one of the stanzas was just killing the poem. I eliminated it, made a couple of small changes, and Sam graciously took it and published it in blue five notebook in January 2011. Anyway, the number seven has no meaning except that it’s half of fourteen (the number of Black Paintings and the number of lines in a sonnet)!
In stanza number 3 you write: “The King has commanded / … to scratch / envy’s initials on his heart / with a pebble and a rag /
Envy. Cruelty. Misery. War. The beat goes on…
I’ve heard tell we are in the same play over and over and just the costumes get changed.
Bill: Yes, paraphrasing Aristotle, history is what happened; fiction is what happens. Happens over and over. Emotions never change. The human story never gets boring. As Pound says: “Literature is news that STAYS news.” All those productions of Shakespeare plays in which the plays remain the same but the costumes and the sets are continually changed!
Susan: Bill, in stanza number 6 you write: “I am not against the darkness / ”
Well, that line broke me.
A thought: Goya / Father / Son = Triptych (3 panel painting)
Do you see any parallels?
Bill: The idea of the triptych is a good one, but which father and which son? Goya /God / Jesus? Or Goya / his son Xavier /the author of the poem? Or Goya /my father /me? There are a lot of possibilities, I think.
And what kind of darkness? Shadow? Satan? Sin? Melancholy? The darkness of some of the paintings?- Saturn devouring his son, for example. What did Goya’s son think when he came home and saw that particular image on the dining room wall?
He thinks, I am not exactly against all this (it is art, after all), but…what happened to my father?
Susan: In stanza number 7:
“Last week I returned home / and entered the house of a deaf man /… / I entered the house of Goya the painter /… ”
Bill, I don’t know which three on the triptych either. Only that you’ve written a poem that feels essential.
Bill: “…entered the house of a deaf man”
“The house of a deaf man” is the literal translation of La Quinta del Sordo, the name of the house where Goya lived and painted the Black Paintings. He was 74 when he painted them. He was literally deaf. In the poem, I tried to suggest that he was figuratively deaf as well.
“feels essential” Thank you, Susan! I’m just happy that it works.
Read “Son of Goya” by Bill Yarrow
Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.