Today is the anniversary of the Poetry Out Loud Competition. A year ago, today, I was introduced to one of my all-time favorite poems. Maybe the themes of acceptable variation and beautiful imperfection make it feel relevant now. Maybe it’s just the concept of spring in Paris on a day with a low of 20 below. Regardless, I first heard “Monet Refuses the Operation” performed by Lauren Haiar, who is now a two-time state champion. The poem is beautiful, but in the context of the project I’m doing on cultural acceptability of blindness and Eli Clare’s novel, it is deeply appropriate.
“Monet Refuses the Operation” by Lisel Mueller
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
wisteria separate from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
As if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
And white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
And change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
And how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
This poem is based on historical fact. Monet refused the operation to remove his cataracts. He produced some of his best-known pieces during this time. This is cure culture in poetry. Imagine the exasperation of Monsieur Monet’s doctor: No, Monet, the street lamps do not have haloes. You are old and the cataracts have affected your vision. We must remove them at once! Monet, fearing the operation, said: “I prefer to make the most of my poor sight, and even give up painting if necessary, but at least be able to see a little of these things that I love” (Gruener 254).
Although Monet eventually did undergo the operation, and after much trial and error, return his vision to ‘normal,’ who is to say that his paintings from the pre-operative period aren’t just as captivating as those after? There are countless artists who have dealt with vision issues: Honoré Daumier and Mary Cassatt specifically were friends of Monet’s whose cataract operations had been unsuccessful (Gruener 254). After Monet’s vision was restored, he is said to have shredded canvases from before the operation and edited others. I wonder what we’re left with. How much of Monet’s way of seeing is lost because he felt it wasn’t worth sharing? My heart expands to wonder what a world without fixed notions of top and bottom, seeing and not seeing, disability and ability, would look like.
Gruener, Anna. “The effect of cataracts and cataract surgery on Claude Monet”British journal of
general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners vol. 65,634 (2015): 254-5.
Mueller, Lisel. “Monet Refuses the Operation by Lisel Mueller.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry