Jean Bleakney’s ‘Csontváry’s Flowers‘ was inspired by the titular artist’s 1902 painting View of Selmecbánya, which Bleakney first saw a century later in 2002. The poem explores the power of art to inspire others and create new possibilities.
The artwork Bleakney refers to with her poem is View of Selemecbánya by Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka Artwork.
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‘Csontváry’s Flowers‘ by Jean Bleakney details the beauty and skill of a great piece of art while commenting on art more broadly.
The poem begins by describing the painting itself, notably lingering on the striking mountainous landscape where the town of Selmecbánya is situated. Bleakney then goes on to ponder the artist himself, speculating that he must have been very high up to achieve this view of the town. The poem then goes back and forth between describing details in the scene, such as the figures on the hillside, and Csontváry himself, who Bleakney appears fascinated by.
Jean Bleakney was born in Northern Ireland in 1956, and she attended Queen’s University in Belfast to study biochemistry in her youth. Bleakney decided to stop working after the birth of her second child but found the reality of life at home to be mundane and took up gardening as a hobby. Through her newfound hobby, Bleakney developed an interest in the language of nature and began attending writing classes. The poem ‘Csontváry’s Flowers‘ is taken from Bleakney’s 2003 collection, The Poet’s Ivy.
‘Csontváry’s Flowers‘ is one of several poems Bleakney wrote in response to visiting a museum dedicated to Csontváry while on a visit to Hungary. Bleakney observed parallels between Csontváry’s life at the beginning of the twentieth century and her own at the beginning of the twenty-first, as both periods were defined by instability and the prospect of major geopolitical conflict.
The thin ribbon of sky, and thinner still,
blued hints of the easterly Carpathians
then down into the whole arboretum of blue-greens and greens
closing in around the valley town of Selmecbánya
sweeping back up to this, the artist’s perch.
He must have been as high up as that distant baroque Calvary.
It crowns a volcanic plug: as proud of the town
as a city burgher, with its fur collar of forest,
wearing, like a chain, its stations of the cross.
The poem begins with the metaphorical description of the sky as a “thin ribbon,” which reminds the reader that the scene described is a painting, as the ribbon implies a deliberate flourish added by the artist rather than just the natural beauty of the sky. The use of enjambment, when coupled with the verb “sweeping,” imbues the poem with pace and energy to reflect Bleakney’s sense of awe and wonder when she encountered the painting for the first time.
Bleakney goes on to speculate about the artist’s viewpoint through the simile, “he must have been as high up as that distant baroque Cavalry.” By emphasizing the literal and figurative height and view of the artist, Bleakney implies his view is comparable to that of gods, such as the beauty of the painting. Finally, the simile in line nine evokes a more sinister atmosphere by alluding to incarceration, possibly commenting upon how the city seems trapped in the valley or possibly suggesting that artistic talent can feel oppressive as well as liberating.
Below, the solid civic buildings and church turrets,
the narrow winding streets and jumble of roofs,
a patch of poppies and cornflowers (or is it chicory?)
and ox-eye daisies, around the feet of the women.
The list-like nature of lines ten, eleven, and twelve speaks to the awe of the poet, as though they could hardly believe the exquisite detail and beauty of the painting before them. Likewise, the hyperbolic claim that the blossoms were “indecipherable” is an acknowledgment of Csontváry’s mastery. This acknowledgment is further reinforced through Bleakney’s use of rhetorical questions, as they signify complete humility in the face of artistic genius.
As the poem develops, Bleakney attempts to speculate about Csontváry’s thoughts and motivations while making the piece, so enraptured is she by the final result. Ultimately though, she concludes that his painting developed “like a spillage.” This simile may initially appear to be insulting, but in fact, it is intended to suggest that the genius cannot be explained or extrapolated because it occurred so naturally to the painter.
They seem so content and focused, oblivious
to the dizzying slope behind them; the bowl of their town
when they turn for home, those flower-seeding women,
that renegade man who is dreamily scything the air?
The poem is described as containing such detail that Bleakney imagines the thoughts and feelings of the figures within it as though they were real. Likewise, the adjective “dizzying” mirrors the poet’s own response as she is so overwhelmed by the piece that she experiences a physical reaction. The final rhetorical question emphasizes the life that Csontváry was able to imbue within his art, as it contains such vitality that the figures within it are believed, by Bleakney, to have lives beyond the painting itself, as if the artist had willed them into reality from his own imagination.
The poem is written in a single stanza and is an ekphrasis, which is a type of poem that describes a piece of artwork and, in this case, the poet’s feelings at seeing that artwork. The lack of stanza breaks creates a breathless feel to the poem, as though Bleakney’s reactions to the painting were all arriving at once.
Csontváry was a Hungarian avant-garde painter who came to prominence in the early twentieth century. Bleakney was fascinated by his life and his art. He came to painting relatively late, having trained and worked as a pharmacist earlier in life.
The tone of the poem is one of awe and respect, bordering on obsession at times. The narrator seems entirely drawn into the beauty of the painting, so much so that the figures in it seem as though they are alive.
Selmecbánya is a town in Slovakia that lies in the space vacated after the collapse of a great volcano. The town is surrounded by picturesque mountains, making it the perfect spot for painting.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Csontváry’s Flowers might want to explore other Jean Bleakney poems. For example:
- ‘A Watery City‘ – Another poem that depicts a city, Cork, this one much closer to Bleakney’s home in Ireland.
- ‘Out to Tender‘ – A poem that explores a very particular moment in the turbulent modern history of Northern Ireland.
Some other poems that may be of interest include:
- ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn‘ by John Keats – Perhaps the most iconic ekphrasis ever written by one of England’s finest poets.
- ‘Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave‘ by Elizabeth Barrett Browning – Another ekphrasis, this one depicting a famous sculpture in Victorian England.