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Essay

On Stephanie Bolster's "Les Beaux Jours (1937)"

(How Poems Work, March 2006)
This poem stayed with me for days after I first read it: the overriding image of blue, Bolster’s restrained use of language, the sharp image of the greed of artistry.
The poem was inspired by a portrait by the same name by Quebec artist, Jean Paul Lemieux. Les Beaux Jours (1937) details an afternoon with his new wife, the painter Madeleine Desrosiers, in Charlevoix. The painting was praised for its harmony of colours in the blue-green palette, as well as the frankness of composition. The poem echoes this aesthetic, capturing not only the tranquility of the work, but also the assumption of intimacy effused within it. Here, Bolster uses understated lyricism–“her scarf,/ flicker of summer maples against river”–to portray both the beauty and the tenuous relationship between husband and wife.

This poem stayed with me for days after I first read it: the overriding image of blue, Bolster’s restrained use of language, the sharp image of the greed of artistry.
The poem was inspired by a portrait by the same name by Quebec artist, Jean Paul Lemieux. Les Beaux Jours (1937) details an afternoon with his new wife, the painter Madeleine Desrosiers, in Charlevoix. The painting was praised for its harmony of colours in the blue-green palette, as well as the frankness of composition. The poem echoes this aesthetic, capturing not only the tranquility of the work, but also the assumption of intimacy effused within it. Here, Bolster uses understated lyricism–“her scarf,/ flicker of summer maples against river”–to portray both the beauty and the tenuous relationship between husband and wife.


This poem stayed with me for days after I first read it: the overriding image of blue, Bolster’s restrained use of language, the sharp image of the greed of artistry.
The poem was inspired by a portrait by the same name by Quebec artist, Jean Paul Lemieux. Les Beaux Jours (1937) details an afternoon with his new wife, the painter Madeleine Desrosiers, in Charlevoix. The painting was praised for its harmony of colours in the blue-green palette, as well as the frankness of composition. The poem echoes this aesthetic, capturing not only the tranquility of the work, but also the assumption of intimacy effused within it. Here, Bolster uses understated lyricism–“her scarf,/ flicker of summer maples against river”–to portray both the beauty and the tenuous relationship between husband and wife.
We are introduced to Madeleine in Stanza 2, and come to understand this poem as hers as it continues. She is the driving force here, the true source of artistic inspiration to both poet and painter. Bolster first suggests the alternate vulnerability and manipulation of Madeleine in Stanza 3 when “her sun-/burned neck bends to the view you paint/her into”. She is rendered malleable, displaced within the artist’s view of her in the landscape. In this manner, Bolster swiftly and decisively aligns us with Madeleine–who has “laid aside/ her brush to make your lunch/ and has not picked it up again”–as a pseudo-victim: here is the frustrated artist, confined by the trappings of domesticity and assumed femininity. With only three compact lines, Bolster has let us into the inner most workings of Madeleine and Jean Paul’s life, as well as the terrain of his artistry.
In Stanzas 7–9 we see the true crux of the poem: “Though you/ believed her praising eye alone/ kept your canvases alive, you killed/ the part of her that could have lit you”. This is a commentary on the inequality of the time, as much as that of the character of the artist. Lemieux is a man who desperately needs the absolute devotion of his wife, but is also terrified of her talent. Bolster’s specific use of unusual line breaks add weight and attention to specific words such as “killed”, forcing the reader to contemplate underlying meaning. The lines speak directly to the continuous battle of the sexes and the fragility of the artist.
The last two stanzas offer an alternate to the dissection of this marriage; Bolster inserts the will of the poet, allowing us a brief glimpse into her own character as offset by Madeleine and Jean Paul. The lines “Love bends me in more resistant shapes;/ my neck cracks like ice. I would not give you/ a shred of blue, my own too few and far” illuminate the poet as less emotionally available, while also beautifully echoing the opening image of the poem: the blue scarf. In this manner, Bolster associates herself with Madeleine, despite the assertion of fundamental difference. This speaks not only to the sameness of the female experience, but also to the similarity of artistic expression, despite time and form.
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p(#columnistbio). Andrea MacPherson holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia, where she was also the Poetry Editor of Prism International. She has written three books, When She Was Electric (Raincoast, 2003), Natural Disasters: Poems (Beach Holme Publishers, 2005) and Beyond the Blue (Random House Canada, 2007). She teaches English at University College of the Fraser Valley, and has taught writing classes and workshops with various other programs.