(after La Condition Humaine by René Magritte)
This is how we see the world.
-René Magritte, 1938 lecture
There is a room where a man lies next
To a woman whose shoulders are lit
By morning. He wakes her to drift
Of clouds, wash of skies, drizzle
Of leaves in the air. “Magritte,”
He says into her ear, tracing
With a long slender finger,
A frame beyond the windowpane.
Another room in another time
Suddenly opens inside her.
She is standing by a window
Before the painting’s expanse of grass,
The cut of dirt road, and on the horizon
A stand of mountains measuring the reach
Of a single aspen. “La Condition Humaine,”
She turns to the man beside her,
As if to say she understood how inside
And outside the rooms of love
The landscape was not always seamless;
How, every time she turned her heart
Into words to invent the true form
Of being, dustmotes were already trapped
In the light of images, like this morning
Vanished fast into another day.
In no time they shall each be elsewhere.
I wrote “La Condition Humaine” after a 12-year incubation of the images that simmered during a stay in the Bacong Tree House in Negros Oriental. That summer the flame trees, also called flambouyant in French, lined the pathways to the tree house. The writing of the first line was sparked by two experiences: 1) going for two days to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. to look at the painting, and 2) re-reading Simon Schama’s book “Landscape and Memory” (1995) for a book project I was writing on the art of Boholano painter Hermogena Borja Lungay. Magritte’s painting argues that we see the world the way it shows us how: the view outside the window has been superimposed with a painting that depicts the landscape as though they are continuous and undistinguishable.
Magritte says in a 1938 lecture: “We see it (the landscape) as being outside ourselves even though it is only a mental representation of what we experience on the inside.” Schama cites Magritte saying: “What lies beyond the windowpane of our apprehension…needs a design before we can properly discern its form, let alone derive pleasure from its perception.” It is this design that I have tried to craft in the poem.