Originally appeared in the Canadian literary journal THE LIT QUARTERLY (no longer with us) back in 2021.
What thoughts I have of you Vincent reading your letters traveling thru Amsterdam + Antwerp + Brussels watching you go through obsessions: being a pastor, your cousin, painting seeing how people saw you as naive idiot. If only they'd read you tho they saw your art + did nothing + I secretly thought about being a minister except don't like people even Unitarians so just studied religions on my own. Never learned to draw would've just drawn naked ladies. My favorite paintings not even in your museum: the smoking skull + peasant's shoes tho that from Heidegger's essay + were they really a peasant woman's shoes or just your own like in the Willem Defoe movie. Sharing your love of the dignity of the poor and sadness that they reject creatives. I too want to live in a small town in the country + write poems but I'd get shot too tho I like fitting in in cities like Portland + Salem, everyone in Brussels + Antwerp thinks I'm German which I guess is a compliment even w/Germany holding austerity over everyone's heads making the poor pay for the mistakes + greed of the rich but I like free flow of people across borders like you had + your disinterest in manual labor not laziness like your father accused—you saw lower class working life as a no-win situation after the coal mines of southern Belgium. Something else growing in your heart, crazy thought that people would pay you money for art + thinking too of your brother Theo, his monthly payments keeping you alive out of love not pity—he was maybe the only who didn't, taking your letters to heart + saving them all! Only more amazingly Johanna recognized their value when you both died. You could've been a writer, a dutch Charles Dickens but saw not in words but light tho my favorites the dark ones, all blacks + browns and were you bi-polar? Your letters seem uncomfortably so—your uninvited pursuit of your cousin (tho violence never anything you'd resort to) making me almost skip ahead a year or two. Also your begging + bitterness + gratefulness to Theo for money. He always knew you'd do something even when no one would buy your paintings + neither did you cut off your ear for a whore but for Gauguin by way of apology to say you're right I didn't listen to you or to spite him + say I won't listen to you. You just gave it to the barmaid you both knew as if that was ok somehow but shows people believe what they want to believe—love for a whore making a better story than love for another man('s paintings) + we mostly see what we want to see except when people like you come along and show us not another world but another way to see ours ourselves in it + creating it which is what Heidegger thought though you wouldn't have liked him but with you seeing is feeling, maybe that was the problem w/your cousin or your whole life seeing + feeling + no one feeling what you saw + felt which means how we see light is how we feel—Dear Vincent, your letters come at a good time or the right time—I came all the way here just to read them just to need them + your light.
I went to Antwerp + toured old tunnels, open-air sewers-canals
Napoleon ordered covered in true dictator make-the-trains-run-on-time
fashion. Thinking of you in the coal mines—rats + weird white fuzz
from their droppings, big spiders thriving in warm air, secret door
to Jesuit church in case of peasant uprising + not to sneak
out to see whores bien sûr—History of the sewers history of
the city along w/old printing presses of Museum Plantin-Moretus +
original Gutenberg Bible which even I find holy. You walking beaches
in England talking already of leaving city for country + quiet but
torn b/c of the community of painters (I just accidentally wrote
community of writers) in cities tho they all seem to mock you,
knowing that when you do move to southern light peasants will too you
can't win but at least there will be walks in woods + a friendly
barmaid to give you a notebook which will be lost for a hundred
years. Everything you do no one will care except Theo not even your
common-law wife who will leave you because you're too poor for even
her. In a park now in sun near chess players, Hôtel de Ville tower
of La Grande Place, trees not yet budding tho young men smoking bud,
children in gilles jaunes future budding protestors tho elites
have figured out how to take down mobs: accuse anti-semitism and
they'll fight amongst themselves while real anti-semites go to top
positions or in Amerika just accuse sexual harassment or sex in
general + everyone pretends to be horrified. No one knows who's lying
anymore so everyone becomes liars even especially ones speaking truth
which can't be spoken or not all of it not all the time but I liked
your Zola quote:
observer ce qui plaît au public est toujours ce qu'il y a de plus banal, ce qu'on a coutume de voir chaque année, on est habitué à de telles fadeurs, à des mensonges si jolie, qu'on refuse de toute sa puissance les véritès fortes
reminds me of They Live when the best friend fights almost to the death to avoid putting on the sunglasses to see aliens among us + their subliminal messages which is how your letters feel—surrounded by aliens going out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself though these strolling sun people seem ok—I guess the aliens are in the European Parliament conspiring austerity while sincerely wanting economic power to equal Amerika's tho everyone here speaks english especially the Dutch so much theirs will become a dead language, all of which to say I wish you were here to play chess or I'd sit quietly while you sketched. The light is good.
I see mistakes coming in your letters: living with a woman because you pity her: not love even if you find friendship + tho saying she has become a better person because of you sounds egotistical something is there—two people can + should make each other better people like a band makes musicians better tho I'd like to think it's not relationship or even family—that we all make each other better people in the world but something gets lost + we become trolls + thinking you can save anyone is a trap which is why the Bodhisattva Vow is bullshit, mighty convenient someone will put off enlightenment until all beings attain it yet if we can help someone we should tho a drowning person can pull you under and a dead firefighter's no good to anyone but I wonder if my letters when younger (or now) reveal paths that should have been less taken, if recipients wrote 'uh oh' in margins like I'm doing—firefighting, N., K., New York, grad school, teaching, all interesting if only in the chinese-curse way, all leading right here right now writing in a café in Brussels just like all your mistakes led to your paintings. I know you would have said it was all worth it—not the part about becoming famous after death but the part when still alive, the process, days spent in dunes sketching learning texture turning two dimensions to three + hours in bliss creation which Heidegger used your shoes for to say was necessary, that all along you were helping create the world, paintings + poems the stamp of it. Some would say just sitting still for long periods creates a better world too tho I don't know—meditating seems to right already-wrongs while writing or playing music seems to create the new out on the edge of reality—Basho + Issa did both but I share your need to be out in the woods. I wish you could visit my lookout tower this summer. The women here wear short skirts + tights sometimes which is nice but I don't know how to talk to them w/o seeming strange either, nor do I have any money but you never talk about music which you never had in your life because poor except maybe someone with a fiddle at the pub tho even that what I want to believe—I saw a german movie about painting, Werk Ohne Autor, changed in english bizarrely to Never Look Away but which anyway comes to the conclusion that artists always work with the 'ich' even if they don't realize—no big revelation to you though radical these decades, but the film more conservative than it wanted to admit: ultimate goal of even liberal artists being to get married and have kids + the guy's wife studying fashion design just ends up a mom after working in a factory + being a manic pixie dream girl tho I'd forgive much from an artist who paints like that except Ted Nugent was a great guitarist + a total asshole. I loved the Banksy paintings in Amsterdam for their political satire—also from the ich—+ the girl w/her heart balloon drifting away: did it slip or did she let it go?
I don't understand people sometimes a lot of times + neither could you in their simple cruelty + lies. I keep thinking I see my old girlfriend the one fluent in German—if I saw anybody in Europe would be her tho I'd expect her to be in Stuttgart or Tübingen. I couldn't resist if it were the sex would be hot. I could do with some hot sex to cover my loneliness. I only get lonely in cities wandering back streets all morning buying Tales of Unrest by Conrad thinking of writing stories questioning not colonialism as much as capitalism which is its cause—social justice warriors perfectly fine w/capitalism—thinking if we just change the leaders everything will be fine + I'm in a café everyone sitting in the cold sun smoking. Bartender thinks I'm british she gave me two sugar cubes just as I'm reading a poem by Bukowski in Les jours s'en vont which I never liked before about a boy feeding horses sugar cubes 'like ice to eagles' somehow the french works for me. He rarely used similes usually just things in themselves. I see you shambling through La Haye in secondhand clothes, all argent going to paints + stamps + yr prostitute girlfriend, not that that was her fault nor even something to be ashamed of tho we all are—ashamed not prostitutes—or maybe it's the other: these days writers have to pay for the chance of publication in reading fees + contests which are just reading fees + none of us will win nevertheless I have poems coming out in The Chiron Review + a long one in the South Dakota Review on this cloudy cold day someone somewhere wants to publish me + someone somewhere—complete strangers—will read me + someone somewhere will even read these letters + think of us + I'm hungry—two falafels for lunch weren't enough—I've been skipping breakfast trying to eat cheap in general. I'd love to be more European mais ça coute chère + you have decided to leave your common-law wife + her kids even knowing she may go back to prostitution but staying isn't doing you or her any good: you need light + space + time to paint to live. Again I'll say you can't stay with someone out of pity. I feel bad for the children but they aren't yours + she won't allow it + she has extended family who all think you're a loser anyways—allons-y! You will be poor + unsuccessful your whole life, you will lose your friendship with Gauguin + be laughed at in the streets, you will be shot by a kid dressed like Billy The Kid but you will have put brush to canvas, ink to paper.
In Bruges! Someone playing "Sweet Dreams" as I climbed the spiral staircase the Belfort, up to dozens of huge bells wired to giant music box carillon with attached keyboard + the Prelude to Bach's first Cello Suite standing right under them LOUD + literally heavy metal. Of course you had church music which must have been magical, probably the only reason I would have gone to church tho you protestants were minimalist back then (scene from Mary, Queen of Scots of bearded scottish minister in the cold dark church, offended a woman would dare hold the throne). I'm sure trains back in your day were just as annoying as now even without cellphones loud people talking when all I want to do is take a nap tho the view: farmland + villages + actual houses + fields, stands of old-growth forest don't exist here anymore—people here don't even realize—no wolves or bears or lions. X-PO Museum had a collection of Picasso illustrations including the Don Quixote + Sancho + Dove of Peace, listing painters he was influenced by: Gauguin + Toulouse-Latrec your friends but not you. Hard to believe + sad—another insult. He must have loved Starry Night + your sketches of lower-class women. I am tired + thirsty from walking all day over cobblestone + en español Bruges se llama Brujas: Witches, great name for a city tho not what it means en français or dutch, being a shortened name for by-the-sea. I did go into the cathedral—didn't burst into fire—all that work + detail paid by tithing the poor who probably didn't even mind or maybe merchants. The light good today—spring here in february with snow in Tucson + Las Vegas.
Most uncomfortable in yr letters the necessity of asking for money you think you deserve, dependent on Theo even when he angers you—what all artists go thru in various ways but better than selling soul or body even though feels like it + maybe just is but also your parents not understanding nor anyone really except Theo tho not until later will he + Johanna know how good you are. Yesterday I walked around Bruxelles w/Reagan, we sat in a small park + talked like dozens of others in the sun for free. You getting out of the city for the light though your black + white work reflecting interiors of rooms + lives while your paints taught to re-see exterieurs + surfaces + Gauguin never had texture—I'm waiting for him to go out of fashion as a colonialist exploiter of women of color tho fortunately naked ladies in general are still ok—nobody'll come after Picasso or even Modigliani tho I wonder if Klimt's clothed ladies will ever be recognized. Painting naked ladies a good way to pick up chicks along w/having a motorcycle + playing the guitar tho Reagan theorizes that les filles don't like creatives anymore, his students rolling their eyes at boyfriends in bands. Can't fault them for not wanting to be manic pixie dream girls anymore. I always wanted a fellow creative on the road but keep missing her—anyways might be like Rutger Hauer tells Joan Chen in Blood of Heroes that juggers can't fuck each other tho in the end they do at least once. All of which is to say Vincent that I await your escape to France for days of happiness if still poor then at least free tho already your dark moods appearing but I like to think of Head of A Skeleton which you painted with a lit self-rolled cigarette: that you kept some humor in yr life if not your letters that there might have been laughter.
Bought my ticket back to Amsterdam: less than a week left in Bruxelles—trop vite! Trying not to think about l'argent I've spent not so much trips to Antwerp + Brujas as daily meals. Oui, des frites but halfway healthy falafels + phô tho sometimes can't resist a baguette at a boulangerie nibbling + walking thru streets flaneuring but losing weight by walking everywhere—didn't end up being a big french-speaking trip hélàs, everyone just speaks english on hearing my accent. My social life the same as in Amerika: in bed by ten, certainly not going to just walk up to les femmes + talk—what kind of madman would attempt that? Meanwhile sitting in a café w/really loud music which prevents people talking on phones tho I'd prefer those Brujas bells + more Bach—I wonder if you ever got to hear Bach even on the organ, not just Toccata + Fugue in D Minor (saddest of all keys) but all of it pretty dark + intense + non-christian-y. Bach in his solo instrument works created ways to sound like more than one person, Whitman's 'I contain multitudes'—ourselves in concert with ourselves or con-versation. Charles Bukowski saw you as a role model: creating in and out of poverty and la lucha tho he would've thought the ear being for Gauguin pathetic + chastised you for seeking community w/other artists but I've had that void all my life too sitting there staring back at me. A gutshot a slow + painful way to go yet you never denounced the kid—there's a story we'll never know the middle of. Your last painting of yellow wheatfields, yr happy color tho The Bedrooms look sick + warped but of course it's closest to pure light. I'm in the wind in that field + wheat-light with yr need for bread + heat + smell of ploughed earth, crow caws + trees bustling in their hedgerows, smile of the barmaid bringing wine end of the day.
Je viens de manger dans un resto syrie, falafels et du riz et something a little like channa masala w/pita bread which isn't called pita tho the owner refilled my basket w/great concern very happy I was enjoying myself, making me real moroccan tea stuffed with mint. I wanted to apologize for my government but neither of our french was up for that task—imagine what Belgium did to the Congo—did you know at all what was going on—+ would you have liked Heart of Darkness? Imagine choosing between english + french to write novels in—Conrad knew polish wasn't going to get him anything. Your later letters in french + I'm studying latin in which you sometimes drop phrases in your letters. Cicero now a literary + political hero ending up with head + hands chopped off: warning to other writers + democracy lovers. What happened to you in Divinity school in Amsterdam? One letter you're excited to become a pastor the next a year later you're bitter + mocking religion tho you never stopped being spiritual. Art was God. I'm in my room now probably as small as some of yours + yes even yellow walls! In early for the evening to write letters + read, a young beautiful frenchwoman playing piano in the room next door, a Chopin nocturne....
Less than a week—I leave Brussels on Sunday, reading your letters here in this library café—maybe I'll meet a bookish women + have a tryst tho my thinking always goes well I'll be gone soon so why try + since I'm always going to be gone soon....Today a man asked me for directions to the Magritte Museum, my accent apparently so bad he switched to english to say 'sank you'. I swear 15 years ago my spoken french was pas mal but I'm not sure you would have liked Magritte—too sleek with weird apples + eyes not a true reflection of reality which you wouldn't have done tho Yellow Room looks odd—I suspect it's how you really saw it somehow + certainly Starry Night plus Magritte was rich + famous in his lifetime. My favorite of his an outline of a bird in flight thru it sky + clouds—sky + clouds flying and he did use lots of light as much your wheatfields. Are yr self-portraits a lack of money for models? Some get odd—bright pinks + greens + of course yellows—seeing yourself different—which Magritte never did nor Picasso to my knowledge + a woman who actually liked you had a nervous breakdown, everyone including yr family blaming you, the local minister offering yr models money not to pose for you which they didn't accept but the message clear: you are not welcome wherever you go. Theo eventually lets you work in his gallery in Paris. Speaking of letting—I got an essay accepted in an academic journal special issue on Green Theory + Praxis + creative writing which anytime anyone uses the word praxis look out but included contract stating I wouldn't get paid, that I couldn't re-use my own essay for any for-profit publication + that I'd have to get permission, for a small fee, from them to reprint. I wrote back about rewriting the contract but the professor/editor wrote back no, not possible but that he'd be 'happy' to 'allow' me to use the piece again. el muy hijo de puta académico—va te faire foutre! Glad I got out of academia when I did otherwise I'd've punched someone in the face. My friend Rick advised to go along with it + simply ignore the contract later if/when I ever get a collection of essays published (ha).
Your teeth falling out in your thirties. You smoke too much, you're sick + dizzy + only eat bread to save enough argent for paints + inks + canvas—True that in your self-portraits you're never smiling. I'm close to losing a tooth or two—bottom incisors loose. Then I'll never get chicks except chicks w/no teeth. Can't afford an operation which may or may not help, not covered by insurance so no more apples! One of yr letters you write Theo about expenses saying you have to buy dresses for yr models to wear—is there something going on Vincent? Is this related to why the villagers hated you? Something else certainly—yr dizziness, depression, doctors telling you you need to rest yet you need to work to make money to have a place to rest in. A woman who saw yr hands + thought you were an iron worker. I'm sure Magritte's hands were fine—his whole life was fine. People still thought Bukowski looked homeless after he bought a house in San Pedro + drove a BMW. One time in Jackson at Key Largo Lounge I came in wearing a p-coat + watch cap + everyone stared, woman barfly convinced I was a private investigator, said I was lying when I told her I taught english. Thankfully now not, tho miss being in the classroom when learning was going on either by me or my students—I still have thoughts of going all-out Paulo Friere turning the class over to the students having them decide what + how to learn from each other—would chaos ensue or actual learning or both? I never slept with a student tho got a few offers—not sure if it makes it better I wanted to fuck the smartest but anyways now I'm a fire lookout + un espión en Bruxelles trying to determine how real people live in lonely cities + who actually wears all this lingerie here it's madness. I guess I could play more music if I lived here + did go to a zen sit one night so could survive as long as I had a quiet room that's all you need just a space in the world + the brain to create a clearing to gather force + push out again. What if you had gone to Amerika + ended up in Taos like Georgia O'Keefe painting buffalo skulls + got run out of town there too or shot by a cowboy. Last day of sun—came in w/cold rain will go out w/it. Violinist busking near Mont des Arts professional-level Bach sonata + everyone just passes him by....
So glad you're going to Paris to work for Theo. Every time I go there it's cold + rainy but it'll be good for you to work in the gallery studying paintings + access to others in museums—your painting + thinking will change forever + you'll get to talk to other painters most especially Gauguin. I liked the line from yr last letter about women: Les relations avec les femmes sont d'une grande importance pour l'art. You said a wife would better yr art + yet your art did not suffer for lack of one. Maybe it would have turned out different tho I feel the same always always wanting approval of women but not sure if you mean just a manic pixie dream girl because I've always wanted a woman who has her own thing: cellist or mandolin player or fellow poet-jugger even a politician as long as radically liberal (but please god not an academic or composition instructor) when really I just fall in love w/baristas + banktellers b/c they're the only ones I talk to + they smile at me. Watching a beautiful interesting woman enter a café or even just a beautiful one when I'm writing feels like I could either talk to her or create—that desire turning into + onto the page to write something she would praise tho to give it to her would be creepy I suppose—keeping her in ideal mode b/c nothing ever works tho there have been women just like you described Vincent where I have to talk to her— not in a while maybe I don't want to or think I do but I just like to be alone tho I'd like to paint someone's toenails sometimes. Too scared of rejection scared of disappointment scared of hurting someone scared my sexual perversions won't align w/her sexual perversions tho have to say I've been lucky in that regard—that or a lot more women are sexually perverse than we think. I'm probly making you blush or degoutant-ing you. I'm just interested in the sexual-profane + spiritual + you in the sexual-spiritual which you later drop to spiritual which is how you start thinking you'll be a pastor in England. Maybe I'll stop thinking about sex but not here in Bruxelles w/all these black tights. They're everywhere Vincent, we'd better go to the woods + become shepherds.
I hope París goes well—less letters from you. I'm in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts w/Dutch Masters, you're not here—too late. You surely must have seen Bruegal, may not have liked the weird stuff but surely appreciated satire of Dutch society. La Chutte des Anges Rebelles using images from Amerika like an armadillo to portray a devil. Did you ever see Bosch? Where did he come from? Heavy metal 500 years before heavy metal he must have horrified you tho perhaps you'd like Breugal's La Chute D'Icare. I already knew it from William Carlos Williams + Auden so won't try to top their descriptions (this is Europe—to stand where masters stood) except to say there's a narrative and/or a lesson, something you never wanted in a painting. Line up your self-portraits you'd get the Andy Warhols in Brujas—Otherwise it's a whole bunch of dying Christs in here. Jan Brueghal (Bruegal's son) also got weird, especially Bacchus orgies + naked ladies. La Tour de Babel by Joos de Momper horrifying in its way—in collaboration w/Frans Francken who did the rich people in the foreground checking out how things are going changing the parable a little tho the tower looming-ish + even tho I got here early to avoid the crowds the place still overrun w/field-trip children—younger ones seem to handle museums better w/wonder but any older + all they want to look at is each other. Not sure what the hell I would have thought at seven if I'd seen a Bosch in person—nightmares for years. Back then in museums I learned it was ok to like naked ladies which was so totally wrong in Amerika or that is we all like them but we're shamed to look meaning sex which was true back then thus Bacchus orgy paintings—not real sex just a myth to show how bad it is but more interesting than portraits of rich people in poofy white collars tho curators did a good job showing earlier crowd scenes + temptations of St. Anthonies to show where Breugal came from. Maybe Vincent you didn't paint demons because you were yr own but now I'm tired + my feet are sore time for lunch.
You're already in Arles inspired + painting! París couldn't have been too bad if you stayed almost three years—longest anywhere since you started sur la route. I didn't stay anywhere for more than eight months in the 90s. I laughed in one letter how painters degoutent you just like people. I sometimes feel that way about poets (+ their poetry) who probably feel the same about me: spent two years in a MFA program with people who wrote stuff like 'My name is Veronica / I live in a harmonica', came out 30,000 in debt + no real friends. Was happy to leave. No one from class ever wrote or published again. I wonder if we'd have Gauguin w/o you pushing for him w/Theo. You only sold one painting in your lifetime + yet continue: the process is the meaning. One would like to think misery not a precondition to creation we just neglect other things supposedly more important + you've given up love, quoting Richepin: l'amour de l'art fait perdre l'amour vrai. It's more like you never found love + so immersed yrself in love of art tho who am I to write about love I don't believe in it only like + lust I guess ergo no relationship in 15 years + that a long-distance phone sex thing—perfect: intimacy confessing dark fantasies in the dark to a voice. That was Santa Fe. We stopped + I moved away. Don't know if I'll ever get excited about a woman again. They still look good + I like talking to women more than men but I'm like you I like my solitude in woods or city, can't waste time w/just sex tho if it happens I won't turn it down but it's never going to happen if I don't put in some effort alors voilà. Brussels cold + rainy again I'm in the library staying warm until a movie this afternoon + some falafels. Two more days. You out to the woods painting w/Gauguin, poets don't write poems together. I too wanted a community of creatives to share + talk with came close a couple times but people drift + stop + get married + have kids + I guess that's meaningful too tho doesn't feel like a choice. I'm w/Emma Goldman + Simone de Beauvoir: marriage bad at worst, unnecessary at least but nobody today reads those essays.
Leaving Bruxelles by train in the rain backpack filled w/books. I stayed on the edges so I could look in windows + look out. Graffitti-names the only color this morning, their need to create something in something ugly, a word you've never used in your letters not even to describe London, only degoutant to describe people's behavior. You took this same route north under same low stratus clouds passing windmills having the urge to charge yelling 'have at you!' but you didn't read Don Quixote, you would have wanted to be a shepherd. Glad your health is better—I too find being healthier good for art tho a whole night life world here I've not seen. Every european town Barcelona Sevilla Salamanca Marseilles I'm always in bed reading by ten. Think of all the Before Sunrise experiences I could have had! Still romantic enough to think if I met a woman I'd change my life + move here in which case why don't I just move here. Working on my novel Dawn revising + editing feeling that alivenesss you talk about in the process + I didn't even want to write another novel except the main character—the real person she's based on— came in a dream and asked me to write it (just now wrote 'right it'). Tho do another? Not that I'll stop writing but all that work + time into a novel—I know some painters take time on paintings but in Arles you did one a day as if you knew—should I spend more time on smaller stuff novels make money. Shouldn't be for the money but as you know it'd be nice. Amazingly people somewhere like you still want to read them. Long stories merging/changing our own long stories something about time—in which created + in which experienced —doesn't take long to see one of your paintings to shift how we see if only a little while maybe forever which is why we should always seek out art in all forms so as to constantly be shifting ergo growing—being requires growth otherwise we're only existing. I don't know how people go thru life just doing that I guess they don't know any better or are not allowed to. To teach the humanities to teach how to live which is why it's being cut in schools. In my teens I already knew I wasn't going to make money at writing or anything because you can't live ethically + be rich so vowed to live rightly + interestingly. So far not incompatible with scribbling.