Friday, December 11, 2009

AN AFTERNOON WITH TWO ARTISTS


My poetry mentor, Darrell Bourque, cuts a wide swath in the national and international literary world, but his subjects are born in the provincial atmosphere of small town south Louisiana. In his home tucked away behind a bamboo hedge near Church Point, he emerges as a man who exemplifies Louis MacNeice’s description of a poet–“an extension of …a concentration of… the ordinary man.” Darrell resides where he has lived most of his life–in the frame house in which he grew up, located between two towns: Sunset, which was briefly the sweet potato capital of the nation at the turn of the century, and Church Point, the Buggy Capital of south Louisiana and home of the Cajun Woodstock.


Traveling north of Lafayette toward Sunset, my friend Vickie and I observed that the countryside was flat, prairie-like pastureland, a pastoral place where quarter horses were being trained and Hereford cattle grazed. After living on The Mountain at Sewanee for three years now, the flatness seemed more flat than I remembered. We turned off on Jessie Richard Road, almost immediately sliding into the drive beside a bamboo hedge that entirely surrounds the home of Darrell and Karen. The bamboo, which Darrell planted in 1975 as a wind break and for privacy, hides a lovely rose-colored frame house with bright blue shutters and blue tin roof, colors straight out of the heart of the French Quarter. We crossed the cobbled brick patio and were greeted by the Bourques and Sam, a Jack Russell terrier who moaned like a good Baptist during most of the visit. After the traditional Cajun bussing and hugging, we entered a home filled with art treasures—paintings by Lynda Freese, Clementine Hunter, John Hathorn, Dennis Williams and others. The crown of the collection is a painting entitled “Arnaudville,” by former ULL history professor, Gloria Fiero. Through the courtesy of Dr. Fiero, this painting became the cover for Darrell’s newest work, CALL AND RESPONSE.

Darrell had been fasting, so we didn’t linger long viewing the gallery of art and Karen’s studio, and sat down to eat at a festive table decorated with a Christmas table cloth. Except for the piece de resistance --a flourless chocolate cake his wife Karen had made according to a recipe by Emeril -- Darrell had cooked the meal: salad with pomegranate seeds and pine nuts, pork roast, couscous, a casserole of Darrell’s own concoction: roasted red peppers, zucchini, and yellow squash, purple onions, seasoned with garam marsala and, of course, Tony Chachere seasonings. Karen passed around a basket of nahn that Darrell claimed to have included with the meal because of my sojourn in Iran. I asked him to say grace to “give me a rest,” and he said a simple thanksgiving for friendship and food, Buddhist style. A former Roman Catholic, Darrell recently took his first vows as a Buddhist in the Shambala tradition.

Mealtime is a time of celebration for most people who live in Cajun country, and this one was no exception. The two hours spent at the Bourques’ table was a time of conviviality and friendship, and we talked about old friends and shared experiences, eventually turning to poetry and Darrell’s latest work. I asked him how Buddhism had affected his poetry, expecting a complicated exposition on the influence of Buddhism, but he answered simply, “it has had a subtle effect,” explaining that the entire idea of non-attachment has affected his art. “I’m less attached to ’finished product,’” he explained. “When I write something, I get rid of the attachment to what I think is good. Sometimes, something you think is good is not. A good poem still has merit but what you may consider to be a bad poem also has merit.” I laughed and said I felt better about writing a plethora of what I consider to be bad poems during the last fifty years.

Darrell has been writing poetry for over forty years, and I’ve followed his work since the early 80’s when I wrote a feature article about him for “The Daily Iberian,” and, a few years later, introduced him at a poetry reading in the New Iberia Library. In 1989, I enrolled in a Creative Writing course at ULL that he team taught with Dr. Carl Wooton, and filled one of the thickest portfolios of poetry I’ve ever written during a five month period. No doubt about his teaching abilities—he is inspiring! In recent years, I’ve begun to realize that he isn’t just the perfect Poet Laureate of Louisiana, he could achieve the position of Poet Laureate of the United States. After reading his two latest books of poetry, which he gave me before we left, I’m even more convinced that my evaluation is accurate.

CALL AND RESPONSE, Conversations in Verse, which Darrell and Jack B. Bedell, poet and director of Louisiana Literature Press, wrote together, is a collaborative work of two voices telling stories in lyrics that range in location from rural Louisiana to exotic places in the Far East and Europe. The book was written after Bedell contracted West Nile virus and during his illness realized that to heal himself, he needed Darrell to “help him make poems again.” The resulting work carries an explicit message about Darrell’s love of communicating. In the introduction, Darrell writes: “Poetry is for me one form of conversation. It is a way of talking back and talking into things–talking back and talking into memory, and ancestry, talking into the geographies I inhabit and the family I am part of; talking back at calamity and experience; talking into relationship, talking back and talking into the languages that have shaped my understanding the world I live in; talking back and talking into history; talking into possibility and into hope.” There, he says it all in one short paragraph—his credo as a poet!

The collaborative style of these two poets in CALL AND RESPONSE was based on the chants that workmen used when they were picking cotton, digging ditches, and doing other physical labor. One worker would sing a call, and the other workers would respond in song. The poem that resonated with me and virtually came alive, when I saw his wife Karen’s stained glass rendering of it, was “On An Overgrown Path,” a remarkable poem of love for Karen to whom he has been married 46 years. In fact, Karen was the surprise of the visit. I knew that she worked in stained glass, but I wasn’t prepared for the stunning brilliance of her work–it’s an exquisite match for Darrell’s poetry. We toured her studio in a guest cottage behind the house, a small workroom where she carries out what she calls her “spiritual work.” .
Karen is largely self taught; however, she also studied with Dave Temple who owns Acadiana Art Glass. Only a few pieces remain in the studio because she sells or donates almost every piece she creates. One arresting stained glass window of a chubby African angel caught my eye, but equally brilliant were her floral renderings, mandalas, and madonnas. Each piece of glass she inserts into the windows depicts a spiritual value, of which she is unaware until she finishes the piece and then researches the meaning of the colored stone or glass she has used. Karen says she is guided by some force that takes over and illuminates the work. The poem that inspired the jewel of her collection, shown below, was Darrell’s “On An Overgrown Path,” dedicated to her.

“The red table still holds its redness
after all these years. It is chairless
now, this table we took our meals on.
But the lilies you planted in the borders
Still bloom every month as you planned
it. Spider lilies in September, arum lilies
throughout the summer, amaryllis in
the early spring and crocuses and tulips
and hyacinths in their time. Nun’s
orchids are still here among the weeds
and grasses as is the evergreen wisteria
with Zephirine Drouhin roses twining
through it, dropping petals in our plates.
and we are here too, surveyors upright
and open, in the tangle we still tend.”

After the studio visit, we followed a path into the Bourques’ winter garden, a paradise of holly trees, ginger trees, banana plants, camellias, Louisiana sweet orange, grapefruit, and lemon trees, and crepe myrtles flanked by several bronze sculptures done by William Lewis, a sculptor now living in Arnaudville. Darrell and I posed, arms linked, for a photo taken in front of a sculpt depicting a poem by Rilke, but I disappeared myself from the results, as he looked more appropriate standing alone beside his favorite sculpture.

We visited three hours and left only because Vickie had to give a report for a Solomon House meeting. But we’re going back, at their invitation. They issued the call, and we’re responding to it! It will be a good departure point before we wing back to Sewanee. I feel the inadequacy of words when I say that being with the Bourques is an experience of being with two gifted people who have not only mastered their art but have mastered the art of living well.

Note: Photographs by Vickie Sullivan
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