Beneath the Midi Sun by Jim & Carol McCord
Reviewed by Charles Rammelkamp

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“Beneath the Midi Sun”
Shanti Arts LLC, 2021
$22.95, 126 pages
ISBN: 978-1951651510

Combining poetry and photography, Beneath the Midi Sun is a true travel book that gives a real feel for the Midi, the cultural region encompassing the southern French regions of Aquitaine, Languedoc, and Provence. Bounded by Spain and the Pyrenees to the south and by Italy and the Alps to the northeast, the Midi is rich with history and art and natural beauty. The poems are ekphrastic in the sense of vividly and dramatically describing the visual images that accompany them, but no less are the images there in support of the poems.  In a word, the McCords’ words and images complement one another.

As the first two poems in the collection make plain - “Out Our Back Window” and “Out Our Front Window” - history is all around. You don’t need to dig through dusty library stacks to find it. Here, Simon de Montfort, the medieval Crusader, rode through, “to gouge

out eyes of heretics, collect trophies of ears,
lips, tongues on his way up river to Minerve
to roast alive in the savage heat of July 
one hundred sixty Cathars (more or less).

The Cathars were a Christian Gnostic movement who were persecuted by the Catholic Church from the 12th to the 14th centuries for their unorthodox beliefs. “Rage of a Crusader” begins, “Cathars pray in the synagogue of Satan,” and “Defense of a Heretic,” which follows, begins “Our Cathar homes besieged by Catholic wolves.” Pope Innocent III, who directed the Fourth Crusade against Muslim Iberia and the Holy Lands, also merits a poem.

But breathtaking photographs and lyrical verse about the natural beauty of the landscape and provincial lifestyle follow the historical perspective to charm the tourist-reader. “Fire and Water” describes the “land of waters” that is Aquitaine, and “Villecroze” describes the spectacular Provencal landscape with no-less-spectacular photography on the facing page:

Water everywhere. Cascades 
of silk tulle, pools to cool
young bodies, rivers to turn 
dusty banks to mire. Streams
glide over rocks step by step,
runnels channel to stone
aqueduct and through lavoir
where village women gather 
for cabaret. Springs rise 
to fill mouths of fountains.

“Eus,” a poem about “our hill village,” “Country Dining,” and “Ceret Market Day” with its “Pin-sharp seamstress thin as thread,” flesh out the idyllic country life. 

Fittingly, for a book of such awe-inspiring vistas, Beneath the Midi Sun includes more than a dozen poems about the artists and sculptors associated with the region, from Cezanne and Van Gogh to Renoir, Matisse, Chagall and the sculptor, Aristide Maillol, whose bronze statue, La Mediterranée, illustrates “Seeing Round,” a poem that describes the lyricism of Maillol’s work.

No straight lines, no angles, no sharp
edges for Maillol. Torsos round and 
heavy as Plain trees in Banyuls-sur-Mer,
arms strong as those of women at lavoir,
thighs like breakwater boulders, breasts 
small and firm as grapes in his vineyard,
hair coiffed in buns.

“Maillol’s Girl Lounging,” likewise accompanied by a stunning photograph, also describes “Feminine beauty / frozen in bronze.”

We see Cezanne over half a dozen poems, first “In his atelier in Aix” in “Last Days with the River Arc” finally to his tombstone in “Saint-Pierre Cemetery” - with an accompanying photograph of that headstone - and similarly, in “Five Day Holiday” we encounter Van Gogh “When Arles and its river dulled” at the Mediterranean, seeking color.

In Barques de peche four boats lounge
on warm sands, masts and spars akimbo,
tillers and sails at rest, sea and sky
thinly brushed Mediterranean blue.

In Paysage marin two fishing boats 
with sails filled by Mistral wind
battle a sea of cobalt and black 
cresting and breaking yellow and green.

And just as “At Auvers-sur-Oise July 27, 1890” addresses Van Gogh’s suicide, his “anguished desire for / serenity,” so in “Hard Rain” we encounter Cezanne at his sad end, “Breath / hard, coughs often, mind as empty” as his unfinished paintings.

Ancient chapels – “St. Bernard chapel on the manicured / grass grounds of Fondation Maeght” in “Wood and Glass” and “La Chapelle du Rosaire,” which is often referred to as the Matisse Chapel or the Vence Chapel – and ancient bridges (‘Last Days with the River Arc” and “At Le Pont de Montvert”) are also the subject of poems and photographs. These poems, too, amplify the picture of this lovely region.

“Truffle Market” likewise fills out the picture. The poem, accompanied by a photograph of a hand poking into a basket of truffles, describes the delicacy:

Nosed from under leaf litter
by the snout of hogs and looking
more like turds than diamonds
of the kitchen, these black
tubers most fragrant in winter
sniffed as if Romanée-Conti
by Parisian restaurateurs,
fondled like puppies by women
in Hermes gloves, offered
by old men in threadbare
shirts with hands earth-worn.

“Both Truths” is a short poem accompanied by two magnificent views of mountain quarries, one photograph taken through an ancient stone window. The poem channels Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

Two mountain quarries,
marble and lime rock.

One mined for beauty,
other fired for use.

That is all you need
to know of earth.

“First Snow” and “Unseasonable Winter on the Gard” show the beauty of the region in winter. “Feathered pines on Les Castels / eye gray skies like snowy owls.” Coming full circle, the book ends with a return to the violent history that paradoxically exists side-by-side with the breathtaking beauty. “Stele with Cross of Lorraine” alludes to the Nazi presence in World War Two; it is likewise a tribute to a sculptor.  The statue honors Julien Vignon, a resistance fighter. A photograph accompanies the poem. “Advice more than solace / left for passerby: ‘Courage is to love / life and look on death with a calm eye.’”   

Beneath the Midi Sun is both gorgeous and charming in its own right, but it might also inspire you to visit the south of France.