Photo Credit: Jennie Anne Benigas



September 2007

"…I summon up all my strength

       to set the pear tree in the ground,

            unwinding its burlap shroud.


It is taller than I. 'Make room

       for the roots,' my mother cries,

            'Dig the hole deeper.'"


Excerpt from "My Mother's Pears," by Stanley Kunitz,


Passing Through: The Later Poems.



Thresholds I Have Crossed

Dear Reader,

I have always been a big fan of hallowed ground. If there is an artist or writer whose house and/or studio has been preserved, I'll try to get there.

Stanley Kunitz dedicated the poem which I have excerpted above to Carol and Greg Stockmal, of Worcester, Massachusetts. The Stockmals have done an incredibly wonderful thing: after learning that their house once belonged to the Kunitz family, they restored Stanley's childhood home and garden. Stanley begins the poem by telling how they mailed "eighteen Bartlett pears/hand-picked and polished and packed/for deposit at my door/" each fall. Stanley Kunitz died last May at the age of 100, and astonishingly, last year the pear tree bore no fruit.

On the special occasions when the Stockmals open their house to the public, I try to be there. I love to see that pear tree and hear the poem play in my head.

On August 17th, my husband and I boarded the train from Paris to Vernon for a visit to Claude Monet's house and gardens at Giverny. When I stood in his studio/living room, I couldn't help but think about who had walked on these floors or sat and talked about art and gardening. His yellow dining room could qualify as the Eighth Wonder of the World; according to Monet: A Visit to Giverny, it took "two tons [!] of yellow" paint to create this space where I felt as if I were standing inside the sun.*

Walking in the gardens, I stopped to look back at the house and recognized the composition of "Path in Monet's Garden" (Musée Marmottan, Paris). He must have set up his easel in this exact spot! That happened several times as we took every path available. A walk through the tunnel brought us to the water lily garden, with its weeping willows dipping into the water, and of course, the Japanese bridge crowded with tourists posing for that memorable snapshot. The story goes that the original bridge collapsed under the weight of the wisteria in full bloom on the metal trellises.

Monet's once simple house grew as he bought and converted adjoining barns; the parcel of land expanded to satisfy his passion for gardening. In his quest to study the effect of light on water, he bought more adjacent land. He had a pond dug and filled it by diverting water from a nearby tributary of the Seine. Obsessed by water lilies, he worked hard to acquire as many varieties as possible. What impressed me the most is the lengths (and depths) Monet went to create the entire visual experience. In other words, he made the whole thing up! And then he went on to create paintings that changed art forever.

On the return trip, I started to think about other houses and studios that inspired pilgrimages over the years. The list included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louisa May Alcott, Edith Wharton, Emily Dickinson, Rembrandt, Anne Frank, Paul Cezanne, Constantin Brancusi, Gustav Moreau, Herman Melville, Auguste Rodin, and Sir Walter Scott.

Why do I make special trips to see an easel and artist's materials preserved in the very spot great art was produced? Why does my heart beat faster when I am surrounded by paintings and sculptures (or reproductions) by the great ones in the very place where they created them? You would think that once I'd seen one or two famous writers' desks, there wouldn't be many others that could send that chill down my spine.

I think that my quest is tied to the act of creation and seeing how close one visit can bring me to it. I remember the thrill of casually slipping into a pew in the Seamen's Bethel in New Bedford, Massachusetts and glancing at the wall plaque that identified it as Herman Melville's.

What hallowed ground can I look forward to in the future? What would I'd rather see: John Updike's old computer and keyboard or Chuck Close's studio? My answer is: both.

What thresholds have you crossed? What made you buy that ticket and climb those steps? How did you feel when you paused in the same spot where one of your favorite artists or writers stood?

*I later realized that this must be a typo in Monet: A Visit to Giverny. The sentence reads: "Monet had the walls, the ceiling, the windows, the doors, the chairs, the two buffets and the sideboards painted in two tons of yellow, one rather pale and the other deeper." I think the translator meant two tones of yellow.

Next month, I will continue to explore the differences and similarities between art and poetry making. Please contact me if you would like to get in on the discussion: