This is a piece from my new collection – A Night Sea Journey it comes from the Vincent cycle. Van Gogh spent a year in the Asylum at St Paul’s in San Remy de Provence. He was both well looked after and allowed to paint. He was prolific. He wrote many letters to his brother Theo, and these are quoted at the beginning of a number of the poems in this cycle. This poem describes the time when he first arrived and he tells Theo what he can see from his room. I am deeply moved by the way he painted his way out of his mental health trauma. I find that I can often begin to write my way out.
‘And yet I have only seen the garden and what I can look at
through my window.’—Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo van Gogh, from the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, early June 1889.
The winter of his symptoms was shocking,
catching him out with their intensity.
They diagnosed epilepsy and exhaustion;
he knew it was mental illness, though.
He had to leave his house in Arles,
prized canvases in that bedroom
he captured so poignantly in oil,
that simple floor and the sky-blue walls.
The sign that he accepted his sickness
was that he went freely to Saint-Rémy,
allowed himself to be called unwell
and unable to cope with ordinary life.
The storm left him shattered like those
he saw each day in the asylum, idling
like old horses no longer fit to plough,
this idleness he feared and fought hard.
modern words for what the psyche does
when it is prey to the utter dread
that anxiety brings to body and mind.
Somehow, he worked out that it was all
part and parcel of his plight, seeking
sanctuary in the old monastery walls,
painting his way out of a dreadful corner.
The terrible fear of madness receding
in the glorious greens of the garden,
the pebbled paths and cloister leading
to a round of walked and plodded calm.
He knows his illness may well come back,
but he is not braced rigid against it.
No, he is breathing out the garden that he
inhaled onto the stretched new canvas.
He says it is bravery to live this way.
His brush is chasing the essential, the true
likeness, strokes keeping up with sight,
and the reaper in the barred window’s field.