After teaching a class at Ghost Ranch, I was invited to stay in Taos at the Mabel Dodge Luhan Retreat, where I will be teaching next May. I was walking with Marguerite in downtown Taos when we wandered into the Ortenstone Delattre Gallery. Neither of us had ever been there, or ever heard of Pierre Delattre. He was sitting behind his desk and stood up to greet us– shining silver hair, shining eyes. In retrospect, it is like the archetypal stories where the children lose their way and find themselves inside a magic castle or enchanted forest. I was instantly spellbound, and wanted to see everything that was in this gallery.
The first painting I saw was Nancy Ortenstone's, Cloudburst. I said: Octavio Paz wrote a beautiful poem by that title– and he said he knew Octavio Paz when he lived in Mexico. In the stories we heard in the next hour, while sitting on his couch, I realized he had met several of my heroes– including Joseph Campbell, the Dalai Lama, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There wasn't any falseness or inflation about him– he is a natural storyteller and poet, a guide across the waters. Here was someone else who wanders between painting and poetry, with much more experience than I have– who lives inside a poem as it becomes a compelling image on canvas, board or paper.
He led us over to a table where he had beautiful prints of some of his paintings that are no longer available in the original. I fell in love with his work, with his gentle brightness and genuine countenance. His painting, The Silver Apples of the Moon, is in response to the poem The Song of Wandering Aengus by Yeats– which he proceeded to recite by heart, followed by Sailing to Byzantium– a long poem also by Yeats. He said he could remember by twirling to the left and igniting the right side of his brain– it was spell binding to watch him turn like a dervish without stopping, while offering us an epic poem.
We heard stories of his experimental coffee house "The Bread and Wine Mission" in North Beach, CA, where he became known as "the beatnik priest". The coffee house became a gathering place for poets, musicians and seekers of the Beat era, and was featured in Time and Life magazine. Delattre was an editor of Beatitude, a San Francisco poetry magazine, begun in 1959:
"I had only to walk down the street and gather poems in my shirt."
He said when he found himself with other spiritual teachers at the "top", he felt like a fraud. He chose the simpler path. His desire to be authentic has perhaps kept him from being more famous– and allows his work to remain honest and alive. He too is inspired by Chagall– who insisted on timelessness and immediacy in a painting, and colors that belong, that make each other sing.
"I believe that the divine is in the ordinary, the sacred in the commonplace." –Pierre Delattre
I wish I could describe this experience of being transformed by presence, of meeting someone far ahead on the road, radiating possibility. Borges said, for the artist this world is a dream.
The Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
William Butler Yeats
Pierre Delattre is a writer, poet and painter: http://www.ortenstonedelattre.com/Pierre/