Late Tuesday Poem – Chagall in Vitebsk – Cliff Fell

He believed in the dust that was beaten
from rugs, how it became
the stars of the Milky Way,
and he would share the last hours of animals
with his uncle the butcher
who played to them on the violin.

And he knew the tyranny of perspective
will kill us all
and that even the chairs get bored
in Vitebsk,
from sitting alone
in the courtyard all day.

So, stay here with your herrings, he said—
my concern is with movement,
with the paradise lost of childhood
and absolution of Art and Love—
though when Bella died
the world went dark before my eyes.

But we all need to copy what we already possess
and so he remade on the canvas
the lack of alcohol,
the reality that lies beyond
the shadows at play on the wall,
the images and forms that we like to say

are simply those who are passing us by.
So where are you going,
Mr. Oxcart Man, with your creaking wheels
on the old dirt road?
Will you make it through
to the seasons of another year?—

And play out its days on your violin
as you fly
to the farm where a goat and horse still graze
and the poet reclines
beneath a lilac sky
waiting for the evening stars to appear.


This poem was published in Shenandoah, volume 62, number 2  in the section on New Zealand poetry and was  listed in Best New Zealand Poems 2013, It is here with Cliff’s permission. Thank you Cliff.


CLiff Fell
Cliff Fell

Cliff’s Comment:‘The poem “Chagall in Vitebsk” is partly based on notes scrawled during a cinema viewing of Chagall, the 1963 short documentary directed by Lauro Venturi. The final stanza refers to Chagall’s early painting, “The Poet Reclining”, from the sequence known as “Scenes from Vitebsk”. The painting, images of which can be found on the internet, entranced me when I first came across it in the Tate Modern, in 1970, aged 15, and—probably for the enigmatic insouciance of the subject-matter—set me firm in my youthful resolve that poetry was the only career worth pursuing.’ (Helen McK says – see here for an image of ‘The Poet Reclining.‘  And, you can understand how Chagall might inspire a poet, here.)

Cliff teaches creative writing at the Nelson Malborough Institute of Technology where he has developed an innovative programme- the Diploma in Writing for Creative Industries. Click here for more information on Cliff and his poetic activities. His own writing CV includes a prize-winning poetry collection, (The Adulterers Bible,Victoria University Press,2003 ), fiction writing, nonfiction and reviewing. His second collection was Beauty of the Badlands (Victoria University Press, 2008). His work has been widely published in New Zealand and in journals and anthologies in Australia, the UK and the USA and profiled in the TVNZ programme Bookmarks. Two of his poems recently appeared in The Griffith Review

His latest publication is The Good Husbandwoman’s Alphabet [An illustrated long poem], Last Leaf Press, 2014.


For more amazing poetry please go to the Tuesday Poem Hub where this week’s editor is co-curator of Tuesday Poem Mary McCallum, with a striking poem by Helen Rickerby from her new book, Cinema, published by Mākaro Press.