Monday, April 30, 2018

Poem: John Yau

I end this month's run of ekphrastic poems with yet another approach to the genre, by John Yau (1950-), a poet whose work has garnered an array of awards over the years but who, I believe, remains still too little known or discussed. A native of Lynn, Massachusetts and a longtime professor of art history and criticism at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, Yau began publishing his work in the early 1970s, and from the beginning, he showed a singular voice with his inventive, playful, humorous poems, drawn from his experience as an Asian American child and young adult growing up in mid-century America, viewing the work of Asian American and white artists, taking in the mass culture of those years, and engaging in dialogue with his avant-garde contemporaries as well as senior figures whom he studied with at Boston University, Bard College and Brooklyn College, including John Ashbery and Robert Kelly. Yau also has published fiction; established and runs a press, Black Square Editions; and serves as a freelance curator, and regularly writes for an online magazine he co-founded, Hyperallergic Weekend. He was the Art Critic for the Brooklyn Rail from 2006-11.

Yau's poetry can range from riffs on popular culture to readings of rarefied art, but his personal, incisive vision and sensibility always come through. By far the best and most subtle reading of Yau's poetry (and of Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge's work, Asian American poetry and contemporary experimental poetics, particularly in relation to the politics of race and form in general) can be found in Dorothy Wang's award-winning scholarly monograph Thinking Its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Asian American Poetry (Stanford, 2014). As Dorothy notes in the opening of her first chapter on Yau, in his work one can find "Film noir, Jasper Johns, Peter Lorre, Anna May Wong, Eugene Delacroix, Boris Karloff, Dashiell Hammett, X-rated movies, German Expressionist writers...." (Wang, Thinking Its Presence, p. 162). Yau has developed a unique means for bringing all of these strands together, even though, as he has said, he aims not to have a particular "style," but to leave open all avenues of experimentation.

Like Ashbery, Yau has written extensive art criticism, and published a hybrid book of poetic criticism, entitled Further Adventures in Monochrome in 2012. The title immediate tips off an astute reader to the book's subject and focus: the experimental genius and proto-conceptualist Yves Klein (1928-1962), whose untimely death cut short a path-charting career across a range of formal experiments. Klein was a painter, composer, sculptor, installation and performance artist, judoka (!), and exemplar of the Nouveau réalisme movement, while also prefiguring Pop and minimal art. And, as I wrote of Frank O'Hara but a few days ago, he accomplished all of this in a very tiny window of time. Perhaps best known for his International Klein Blue 191, the sublime, seemingly infinite blue monochrome that he made the subject of various works--and which is the color of the British edition of Counternarratives, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions!--he also created a number of other works that both critiqued the post-war moment of their appearance and looked forward to whole swaths of art to come.

In Further Adventures in Monochrome, Yau attempts to do more than write about Klein and his art. In 2013, Rachel May interviewed Yau for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and introduces the collection in this way:

The title poem of Further Adventures, written in 15 sections that alternate between poetry and prose, addresses issues central to Yau’s work: his insistence that “painting is not dead,” the materiality of paint and language, language’s plasticity. He takes on the voice of Yves Klein throughout the poem’s 15 sections, and also speaks to Klein’s own writing about painting in 1954, and engages with Baudelaire, Mallarme, Dickinson, Rilke, Trakl, Whitman, Pollock, Warhol, and Johns, among others. The work is sometimes playful, as in the section titled “(Robert Desnos and Yves Klein meet in the sky),” but he’s pushed past what might be categorized as ekphrastic poetry or criticism, to create a form that combines the two. He speaks from or with the art, rather than “about” it. The penultimate section opens in the voice of Klein:

What I wanted from art was impossible. This is what every artist wants. If you settle for the possible, then your failure is ordinary, although, in a few cases, spectacular. I didn’t want what was there for the taking, the images of things that could be named. I didn’t want to add names to the vocabulary.

 Yau goes on to say in the interview that

That’s part of it. In a way, what I learned from painters is that words could be treated as things, that you could put any one color next to any other color. And I thought, in poetry, you should technically be able to put any one word next to any other word. So, looking at painting made me look at language differently.

I’m interested in what language is capable of, and I am interested in collage without collaging. In other words, I do try to put one thing next to another — words, phrases — but I haven’t actually collaged. I haven’t taken it from one place and collaged it next to something from another place.

Here then, is the excerpt, borrowed (as I did with Shin Yu Pai's poems the other day) from Michael Leong's excellent curated selection, "Lines of Sight: Visual Art in Asian American Poetry," at the Asian American Writers Workshop's online site The Margins. I have blathered on enough, so let's read and hear what Yau's poetic speaker--and Klein and his work(s)--have to say.


by John Yau


I dwell in possibility, Emily Dickinson

I dwell in impossibility, Yves Klein

You should understand that I did not want you to read a painting. I wanted you to bathe in it before words domesticated the experience, and you turned to such stand-bys as “illumination” and “transcendent” to describe what happened to you. Painting should not be sentenced to sentences.
Painting is COLOR, I yelled at my first champion and biggest supporter. COLOR banishes words from its domain. When you read a painting, you turn it into language, but there is so much that cannot be turned into language that each of us experiences every day.

Red shadows leak out of rusting cars and collapsed bridges. Green smoke rises from behind horizons and rooftops. The spectrum of your mother’s voice the last time she spoke to you.
Every day there are thresholds that you must cross to reach the domain where words mar every transmission, rendering them intangible. We put our memory of these reverberations aside in favor of what is known and, we believe, knowable. We say we are going to the beach and we will look at the ocean and leave indentations in the sand, but that is not what happens. We go there to ponder a blue parcel cut from infinity.

True poets and artists know where language ends, which is why they go there. Some settle for going beyond the possible into possibility, but others want to dwell in the impossible. I am not talking fantasy here, because that version of the impossible is just a story about a girl named Thumbelina or a boy named Jack. The ones who go to where two roads diverge in a yellow wood are not poets, because they believe that experience can be reduced to a lesson about choices. True poets know that language is neither window nor mirror. The mistake is to believe that the opposite is true, that words (or signs) are arbitrary.

This is my example of why words are not arbitrary. Charles Baudelaire believed that there are perfumes for which all matter is porous. These perfumes can permeate the air of one’s dreams. Our thoughts quiver in the shadows that fall over us; they begin to free their wings and rise in flight, tinged with azure, glazed with rose, spangled with gold.

Azure, Rose, Gold.

I was not thinking of Baudelaire when I made my paintings, but the poet was clearly dreaming of me when he sat at his desk and wrote “The Perfume Flask.”

Can’t you see that this is how I, radiating outward, happened to appear on this planet, this speck of dust? Yves Klein was born because Baudelaire predicted this propitious event by naming colors, which, like all colors, escape the confines of their names, becoming more than an emanation of infinity. Even black can get away from its name, which is why Malevich had to surround it with white. But what is color that isn’t surrounded by another color? What is that boundless world we catch a glimpse of whenever we look up at the sky? Is it so vast that we must turn away from it, afraid that it will swallow us up, which it will? Astronomy, the Greeks believed, was a royal science, which means I am a royal painter. Do not confuse me, however, with a painter of royalty, with Ingres, who used lines to hold and improve the faces of his sitters, who believed in the despotic power of beauty.

I am not interested in beauty. I am not Andy Warhol. He longed for possibility, but was afraid of what it might tell him. I dwell in impossibility, and I want to be embraced by what it will tell me. My name is Yves Klein. There is a photograph of me that you might know. I have put on my best suit and jumped out a window. My arms are outspread, but they are not wings. I don’t need them to fly. Nor am I the prince of clouds, Baudelaire’s albatross, fallen from the sky. Screw that fascist Marinetti. My arms are not the wings of a drunkard beating against the wall. Mine are the outstretched arms of a diver. I fall effortlessly through the air, but I never am completely fallen. The cobblestones and I will never meet. I hover in a miracle, which is why you believe in the photograph, even after you have learned how I tricked you. It wasn’t that hard to do. The true magician shows everyone how the trick was done, and after seeing how you were deceived, you believe in the trick all the more. I jumped out the window and I stayed in the air, which is where you wanted me to stay. I dwell in impossibility—that zone that lies beyond here and there, while embracing both.

Copyright © John Yau, from Further Adventures in Monochrome, Port Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2012. All rights reserved.

And here are two of Klein's works, also borrowed from Michael's curated selection:

Yves Klein. Silence is Golden (1960). ADAGP, Paris.

Yves Klein, photographed by Harry Shunk
and Janos Kender. 
Leap into the Void (1960).
Gelatin silver print. 25.9 x 20 cm.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Poems + Translations: Arnaldo Antunes

Last year I had the pleasure of translating a small cache of poems by Arnaldo Antunes (1960-), a Brazilian musician, composer and writer, who is very famous in his home country, but not as well known on these shores. A former member of the rock & roll  band the Titãs (Titans) and an extensive collaborator with the Brazilian singer Marisa Monte (1967-), Antunes has been publishing his poetry since the early 1980s, and, like his music, it has the capacity for being both seemingly straightforward and accessible, while also proving quite playfully complex. One of my favorite of his musical works is Os Tribalistas (EMI/Phonomotor), a 2002 project with Monte and Bahian musician Carlinhos Brown (1962-).

One challenge with Antunes's poetry is the magic he wields with apparently simple elements combines into challenging verbal artifacts. I am thinking for example of a poem I translated entitled "Pedro de pedro," whose title may seem easy enough, but which is actually quite difficult to render into English. Why? Because "pedro" means "stone" or "rock" and that "de," meaning "of," adds layers of nuance, creating in English the following possibilities: "Stone's stone," "Rocky stone," "Stony stone," "Stone made out of stone," etc.

Of course I can't write all of these into the English translation, which demands that I pick one (I did), but I nevertheless want and need to to give a sense of what a native Portuguese speaker would pick up and puzzle over, yet understand, seeing the title alone. The polysemous nature of such poetry, which abounds in Antunes's work, deeply fascinates me, leading me to attempt to translate the untranslatable, but then, isn't that what all translators at some level are up to? Na impossibilidade fica possibilidade, não?

Antunes also has played with concrete and digital poetics over the years. You can find a variety of examples if you search online. You also can view an array of his musical and visual artistry at his personal site. In 1993, shortly after leaving Titãs, he released a collaborative LP, Nome (Name) guest-starring Monte, João Donato and Arto Lindsay, which was a multimedia music-and-poetic project with a computer-animated video that later traveled to various art museums and galleries. He has continued exploring poetry's materiality, and its nexus with visual art and the digital, and after a bit of scrounging about online, I found three examples of his poems, on Brazil Escola and  that merge the poetic and visual, emphasizing language's materiality and multiplicity.

 The first poem feels very appropriate to the political and social situations in Brazilian and US society today:




LI       TA




LI        TY

The second involves a little visual play, with the flying upside down once the wing(s) come(s) out (or off, in which case the upside flying also signifies falling!)--and, I should note, the pronoun-less verb is both (2nd person informal in Brazil) imperative and (3rd person) indicative, so "spread" or "s/he/they spread/open):








This third piece is a quartet (or, thinking of visual art, a tetrych) of poems, one partly in English, one the same in the both languages, the other two in Portuguese, and all together forming a kind of crossword puzzle when viewed from afar:



(Or "Imagigabytes," a neologism, but really what we produce with every creative thought)




This one needs no explication; even if you speak no Portuguese, if you say it aloud it you can here the rhyme, and the inward sound of "dentro" (within, inside) vs. "vento" (wind); is it that "r" that does the trick?




This is quite simple too; my translation misses the visual design of the poem, in which the "blowing" is clearly attenuated; stars are far away, as we know.




With this one I reversed the translations, so that his English becomes Portuguese and vice versa. As we human beings steadily learn, almost anything can be thought, though that does not mean we need to act on it.

All translations and commentary © Copyright John Keene, 2018.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Poem: Frank O'Hara

Alex Katz, "Frank O'Hara," cutout:
oil on wood (double-sided),
1959, Robert Miller Gallery

One of my favorite poets is the late Frank O'Hara (1926-1966), who nowadays needs no introduction but who, I would assert from the vantage point of my own middle age, has deservedly ascended into the upper stratosphere of American poetry in a way that might not have seemed likely at the time of his early death, or even in the 1980s, when I was in college and first encountered his work. O'Hara's influence not just in American poetry--and among LGBTQ poets in particular--but in poetry across the globe is considerable, and akin to that of his friend and compatriot John Ashbery (1927-2017), who is now widely acknowledged as one of the major poets in the English language, controversies about his poetry itself aside. When I was still teaching at Northwestern I had the pleasure of meeting the Slovenian poet Ales Debeljak (1961-2016) and his wife Erica Johnson Debeljak, and when we began discussing poets who'd influenced his generation (he's roughly my contemporary) of Slovenian writers, one of the first he mentioned was O'Hara. In fact, he pointed out to me, O'Hara's influence was apparent in the poetry of poets not just in Slovenia, but in Poland and a number of other countries.

But whereas Ashbery had a long and varied career that stretched for over half a century, O'Hara's ended after a roughly two decade stretch; in barely 20 years (1948-1966), beginning during his undergraduate career at Harvard and continuing through his time at the University of Michigan and his years in New York City working as a museum curator, he published nearly all the poetry that made his name. He also served as an artistic, social and cultural avatar, linking poets ranging from Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) to James Merrill to Allen Ginsberg to Gregory Corso to Diane DiPrima, though O'Hara's closest connections were with the poets and Abstract Expressionist and pre-Pop visual artists clustered around what Donald Allen named the New York School of poetry Ashbery (who wrote a number of major ekphrastic poems, including the sublime "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror)," Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Barbara Guest, Jane Freilicher, Grace Hartigan, Mike Bluhm, Joan Mitchell, Fairfield Porter, and others. A gifted pianist and raconteur, O'Hara not only worked in the art world at the Museum of Modern Art, but wrote regularly about and to artists and art, in his poetry, while also collaborating on a number of projects with figures who would become famous in their own right, including Larry Rivers and Bill Berkson.

Despite its relatively small quantity and the fact that it ceased in 1966, O'Hara's poetry possesses a vitality and vibrancy that often makes it sounds as if it could have been written yesterday. Part of this is its everyday language, not unlike that of one of his poetic forebears, William Carlos Williams; his often casual, jaunty tone, laced with irony and wit; a gift for zany juxtapositions, learned from reading French and Russian Modernist poets; and a queer, sometimes campy exuberance that conveys a delight with being alive and, I recognized early on, a negotiation with the many and difficult challenges of being an out gay (white, upper-middle-class) man in mid-century America. (He is not without his occasional blind spots on race, sex and class.) One excellent example is O'Hara's "Poem ["The eager note on my door said, 'Call Me,']," written decades before Grindr or similar apps, but which details an absurd and tragic urban sexual assignation that would not be out of place even in hypergentrified contemporary New York. He wrote and published this poem in 1957, twelve years before Stonewall, and one thing I often wonder is what kind of poet might have become in the wake of gay liberation, the push for LGBTQ equality, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, let alone the Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements, to name just two. Ginsberg, Ashbery, Schuyler, and Merrill all lived through these waves of social, political and cultural change and approached them (or not) in various ways, so what might O'Hara have had to say?

The focus of this blog post is writing about art, though, so here is one of O'Hara's most famous poems, "Why I Am Not a Painter," which he wrote in conversation with his friend, Abstract Expressionist painter Mike Goldberg's (1924-2007) painting "Sardines," which is as much a poem about writing poetry, as the second stanza makes clear, as it is about creating visual art, inspiration, process, and how life and time shape whatever we do. As I noted above, O'Hara doesn't shy away from those darker notes in life and we see it here when he writes, "There should be / so much more, not of orange, of / words, of how terrible orange is and life." Which is to say that amidst the beauty of the color orange--it is a striking color--there is all the rest of life as well, and orange becomes the pivot through which O'Hara, a poet, delves into the world. I also love the ironic note "It is even in / prose, I am a real poet," underlining his assertion in the opening line, provocatively assessing his prosy, painterly verse here, with its seemingly pedestrian strokes that together create a work of art, and avowing his practice as an experimental poet--he was--working in and against genre conventions, queering them. So much in a three-stanza poem!


by Frank O'Hara 

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be 
a painter, but I am not. Well, 

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
"Sit down and have a drink" he 
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. "You have SARDINES in it."
"Yes, it needed something there." 
"Oh." I go and the days go by 
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days 
go by. I drop in. The painting is 
finished. "Where's SARDINES?" 
All that's left is just
letters, "It was too much," Mike says. 

But me? One day I am thinking of 
a color: orange. I write a line 
about orange. Pretty soon it is a 
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be 
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is 
and life. Days go by. It is even in 
prose, I am a real poet. My poem 
is finished and I haven't mentioned 
orange yet. It's twelve poems, I call 
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery 
I see Mike's painting, called SARDINES.

Here is Mike Goldberg's "SARDINES." You can see "EXIT" and other letters, but "SARDINES"....

Michael Goldberg, Sardines, 1955, oil and adhesive tape on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. David K. Anderson, Martha Jackson Memorial Collection.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Poems: Shin Yu Pai

Shin Yu Pai
(Seattle Review of Books)

Back in 2008, the multi-talented Shin Yu Pai published a book of collected poems entitled Sightings: Poems 2000-2005 with 1913 Press. Comprising a range of formal, material and textual experiments, it also showed her to be both an artist at heart and in her practice. The poems were mostly brief, political, playful, and never repetitive, marking her out as as someone not following the main experimental crowds. After reading Sightings, I added her to my list of poets to follow, and I have, including blogging her poetry several times, once for her baseball poems in 2011 (scroll past the break), and once for a very witty still life poem in 2012. She has since published several more full collections of poems, including AUX ARCS (La Alameda, 2013) and Adamantine (White Pine, 2010), two of whose poems I quote below, as well as limited edition artist books, works on paper, photography, and collaborative projects of various kinds.

In 2015, the poet and scholar Michael Leong curated a collection of poems about visual art, "Lines of Sight," by nine Asian American writers for the Asian American Writers Workshop's The Margins journal. One of the poets he included was Shin Yu Pai, and when I remembered that she was one of the poets--the others were Christine Wong Yap, Debora Kuan, Eileen Tabios, Jennifer Hayashida, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (whom I highlighted earlier this month), Walter K. Lew, O Woomi Chang, and John Yau (whose work will close out the month--I said that I would have to include her here. (Please do check out the entire portfolio.)

Michael featured four of Pai's poems, but to whet readers' interests and encourage that you head over to AAWW's website I'm only going to feature two, both from Adamantine. The first is entitled "Lunch Poem," which immediately made me think of Frank O'Hara (1926-1966) and his eponymous, beloved collection, but when you the photograph her poem is in conversation with, her poem's title becomes clearer, shaking off (a bit) the New York School avatar's influence. Instead, we are exploring Indian artist Subodh Gupta's hanging sculpture, a shiny excrescence whose surface appears to be both bumpy--all those fissures between the pails--and, from a short distance, a silvery, pulsating button.

In this poem, Pai plays with the lunch pails and boxes the image invokes, the vast world those pail carriers index, opening with a statistic about how rare it is that they "[go] missing." It is brief enough to be a poem she might have thought up and mulled over during a lunch-time exploration of it, whether it hung in an art museum or a wall near wherever she was spending any time. The poem itself bells like a vessel--a bit plumper here than on The Margins site because of my lack of kerning tools--that has been filled, or, by its end, by author and reader, like the lunchtime diner, emptied.


by Shin Yu Pai

(after Subodh Gupta)

             to one: the delivery that

        goes missing – a lunch pail that fails

        to arrive @ its destination; domestic

       articles bear homemade offerings produced

    by housewives & dadi jis for their men-folk –

        fleet-footed dabbawallas dispatch, carry,

    & collect steel boxes by the thousands packed

         lunch boys sport starched cotton nehru

         caps pilot familiar passages – the son

       of a railway guard solders stainless-steel

              tiffin carriers a new class

                     of metalwork

Subodh Gupta. Untitled, 2008,
Stainless steel, Houston Museum of Art.
(Photo: Deena DeNaro-Bickerstaffe.)

The second poem is entitled "Bell(e)," and speaks to an actual ornamental bell, by the late Japanese-American artist Toshiko Takaezu, produced in 1997, and one of many she produced during her career. Pai's title injects a bit of polysemy through that final "e," making the word French as well as English, and highlighting the beauty inherent in Takaezu's sculpture, with its patinated surface color and graceful, parabolic form. That silent "e" also embodies the silence and latent sound to be released, once the bell sounds...its beautiful sounds.

"Bell(e)" tells in swift strokes about how such a bell might have been handled "in centuries / past," but now it hangs in what looks like a greenhouse, "a museum / of curative plants." Where the poem goes is beyond description to an evocation of the bell(e)'s potentiality, as I note above, showing the reader its anticipation--and ours--of its "stillness & / gathering before / the shudder / of first sound," that is, when it finally is rung or struck, how it dreams of the sounds within sounds that will come, or that reappear, as part of and after that reverberation, like the poem itself.

Here is a short paragraph about Takaezu from Wikipedia (linked above):
Takaezu treated life with a sense of wholesomeness and oneness with nature; everything she did was to improve and discover herself. She believed that ceramics involved self-revelation, once commenting, "In my life I see no difference between making pots, cooking and growing vegetables... there is need for me to work in clay... it gives me answers for my life."[5] When she developed her signature “closed form” after sealing her pots, she found her identity as an artist. The ceramic forms resembled human hearts and torsos, closed cylindrical forms, and huge spheres she called “moons.”
The bell pictured below is an "open" ceramic forms, but its capacity for "self-revelation," and its connection to nature are both aspects that Pai discerns in her poem.


After Toshiko Takaezu


in centuries
past, sunk
beneath soil

to draw earth’s
vital force, inert
vessel of

sound + light,

in a museum
of curative plants
the moment of

stillness &
gathering before
the shudder

of first sound

the shake of chime
hum &

g o n g

Toshiko Takaezu. Bell (1997). Seattle’s Volunteer Park
Conservatory. (Photo courtesy Myra/Flickr.)

Both poems, Copyright © Shin Yu Pai, from Adamantine, White Pine Press. Buffalo, NY 2010. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Poem: Tomas Tranströmer

Tomas Tranströmer
(World Literature Today)

In 2011, Tomas Tranströmer (1931-2015), a highly regarded but perhaps not widely known Swedish poet, translator and psychologist, received the Nobel Prize in Literature. I wrote a short blog post about him and featured some of his poems. I did not, however, delve into a discussion of his biography, since it was up at the Nobel site, and I was somewhat indifferent to his selection. Given some of the bizarre Nobel literature choices (save Alice Munro) since Tranströmer, and the ongoing scandals linked to the Swedish Academy, which awards the literature Nobel, Tranströmer's honor looks like a recent high-water point for that organization.

His poetry certainly holds up; a lyric poet to the core, he has a gift for creating mystery and drama out of observations of everyday life, and a skill for utilizing metaphor to suggest great depths below and beyond the surface of the visible world. There is something charged and spiritual in so many of his poems that while I think it might be wrong to call him either a metaphysical or a religious poet, he is, I think it fair to say, a poet of the spirit and, conversely, of immanence. In the three poems of his I quoted back in 2011, you can see this most directly in "Strophe and Antistrophe" (I love that title), when he is describing both reality and something within and beneath--beyond--it: "Sudden change: beneath the float of heavenly hulls / glide the tethered ones. / Stern high, at an impossible angle, / leans the carcass of a dream, black / against a pale red strip of coast."

The sensory and sensuous apprehension of the world pulses dialectically in these lines, which paint a picture, but not a verisimilitudinous one. Instead, it is painterly in the stricter sense, of capturing what lies in in the mind, before the eyes and fingertips, while being interpreted and transformed by them. As it turns out, Tranströmer was alert to how other artists might be engaging with the world around them, and in "Vermeer," his short poem about Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), the Dutch Golden Age painter, whose exquisite intimate portraits had to wait several centuries before they received widespread acclaim. Careful, slow, deliberate, with an exceptional eye and gift for depicting light, he is now praised as an Old Master.

In "Vermeer," beautifully translated by Samuel Charters and which I am borrowing from the Painters and Poets blog, Tranströmer is chattier than usual, and appears to have devised a formal game for himself, which entails repeating "wall," one pictorial element that appears in the first of the images below, in nearly all of the stanzas. One way to read this repetition apart from being a result of observation and description of the paintings is by noting some of its possible metaphorical meanings; a wall of time separates us from the lifeworld and vision of Vermeer, and no amount of research can make him, his process or his perception of the world fully knowable. (David Hockney created a stir when, a few years ago, he argued and demonstrated the several of the Old Master painters like Vermeer, may have used optical devices, including special lenses and camerae obscurae, to produce works of such pinpoint precision.) That has stopped writers and even Hollywood from trying, though; Vermeer's iconic "Girl with a Pearl Earring" (one of its many names) spurred an eponymous 1999 historical novel, by Tracy Chevalier, which then became a belauded 2003 film starring Scarlett Johansson--as well as an allegedly dreadful 2008 play, which I've never seen.

Yet what does a work of art--a poem, a short story or novel, a play--about someone from the past do but allow us another means to "know" that gone world, to access, imaginatively, its vistas, its landscapes, including of feelings? Like a filmmaker with magic powers, Tranströmer is taking us into Vermeer's scenes, his world--"straight through the wall into the bright studio / into the second that goes on living for hundreds of years"--captured and preserved for posterity in these paintings, aware of course that in so doing, it can disorient us--"it hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick / but it is necessary"--but, as so many of these poems have shown, that defamiliarization is salutary in the end. A new sense of language, of time, of space, of ourselves and others, however brief and temporary, is important, so that, like the "emptiness" and against the nihilism, we can say as the paintings--and something within them--say, "'I am open."


by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Samuel Charters

No sheltered world . . . on the other side of the wall 
        the noise begins
the tavern begins
with laughter and bickering, rows of teeth, tears, 
        the din of bells
and the mentally disordered brother-in-law, the bearer
        of death that everyone must tremble for.

The great explosion and the delayed tramp of rescuers
the boats that strut at anchor, the money that creeps
        into the pocket of the wrong person
demands piled on demands
Cusps of gaping red flowers that sweat premonitions 
        of war.

Away from there and straight through the wall 
        into the bright studio
into the second that goes on living for hundreds 
        of years.
Paintings titled The Music Lesson
or Woman in Blue Reading a Letter --
she's in her eighth month, two hearts kicking 
        inside her.
On the wall behind her hangs a wrinkled map of 
       Terra Incognita.

Breathe calmly . . . An unknown blue material is nailed
       to the chair.
The gold upholstery tacks flew in with unheard-of speed
and stopped abruptly
as if they had never been anything but stillness.

The ears ring with either depth or height.
It's the pressure from the other side of the wall
that leaves every fact suspended
and holds the brush steady.

It hurts to go through walls, it makes you sick
but it's necessary.
The world is one. But walls . . .
And the wall is part of yourself --
Whether you know it or not it's the same for everyone,
everyone except little children. No walls for them.

The clear sky has set itself on a slant against the wall.
It's like a prayer to emptiness.
And the emptiness turns its face to us
and whispers,
"I am not empty, I am open."

Tomas Tranströmer,"Vermeer," from Painters and Poets, originally in Art and Artists: Poems, an anthology of ekphrastic poems by Emily Fragos, Knopf, 2012. Copyright © Tomas Tranströmer, Emily Fragos, 2012. All rights reserved.

Here are a few Vermeer paintings that Culture Trip's Lani Seelinger recommends you see if you are unfamiliar with his work. Tranströmer's poem explicitly references the first two, I believe.

The Little Street (1657–58), oil on canvas,
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Music Lesson or A Lady at the Virginals
with a Gentleman, c. 1662-65, oil on canvas,
Royal Collection, Buckingham Palace

View of Delft, 1659-60, oil on canvas,
Mauritshuis, the Hague

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Poem: Lorna Dee Cervantes

Lorna Dee Cervantes
One of the poets whose work appears in the PINTURA: PALABRA portfolio is Lorna Dee Cervantes (1954-). A major late 20th and early 21st century American poet, Cervantes has long been a leading figure in Chicano/a and Latinx literature. Her first book, Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981), which explored her upbringing and experiences as a Chicana growing up in California, and dealt with themes of self-recognition and self-expression, familial and other forms of violence, and the development of a feminist vision, received considerable praise and won the 1982 American Book Award, bringing her to wider attention. She has gone on to receive numerous other awards and publish four more volumes of poetry, found several literary journals, and teach, both inside the university system (she was a professor at the University of Colorado for nearly 20 years) and outside it. Throughout Cervantes has remained an advocate for

Her PINTURA: PALABRA poem that I reproduce here is entitled "Night Magic (Blue Jester)." It carries the epigram "After Federico García Lorca," but it was not until I started to read it that I recalled the great Spanish poet Federico García Lorca's (1898-1936) poem "Romance Sonámbulo," with its opening gambit of repetition, "Verde que te quiero verde. / Verde viento. Verdes ramas," or in English, "Green, how I want you green. / Green wind. Green branches," and the subsequent dreamscape threaded through with dark and disturbing elements. If this is the García Lorca poem she had in mind, Cervantes begins by riffing on the Spanish poem's repetition and its citation of color, García Lorca's green becoming her blue, a direct response to the dominant color in the late Chicano artist Carlos Almaraz's (1941-1989) painting, from which the poem draws its title.

All these "blues" produce a kind of blues, embedding them in a dreamscape that is akin to but distinct from García Lorca's and Almazar's, yet also in conversation with both, especially the latter, an urban night scene in which the Blue Jester's magical, looming presence sparks and channels the positive and negative associations and events Cervantes details in her poem. The poem's syntax and pacing allow no stasis; the prevailing mood is one of anxiety, coupled with awe. The incantatory cadences feel especially appropriate to the dream-space that the painting and poem present, and also have echoes, particularly in the rhymes and swift shifts in imagery, of popular songs, spoken word poetry and hiphop. The effect is a poem that feels both very contemporary and out(side) of time, that is substantial and yet as evanescent as dreams or nightmares; as the poem reminds us at the end, after our journey through this world, the night, the dream, the poem itself "blew."


By Lorna Dee Cervantes

   After Federico García Lorca

Blue that I love you
Blue that I hate you
Fat blue in the face
Disgraced blue that I erase
You lone blue
Blue of an alien race
Strong blue eternally graced
Blue that I know you
Blue that I choose you
Crust blue
Chunky blue
Moon blue glows that despise
You — idolize you
Blue and the band disappears
Blue of the single left dog
Blue of the eminent red fog
Blue that I glue you to me
You again and again blue
Blue blue of the helium
Bubble of  loveloss
Blue of  the whirlwind
The blue being again
Blue of the endless rain
Blue that I paint you
Blue that I knew you
Blue of  the blinking lights
Blue of  the landing at full tilt
Blue of  the wilt
Flower of  nightfall
Blue of  the shadow
In yellowed windows
Blue of the blown
And broken glass
Blue of the Blue Line
Underlines in blue
Blue of the ascending nude
Blue before the blackness
Of  new blue of our winsome
Bedlam Blue of the blue
Bed alone: blue of the one
Who looks on blue of what
Remains of cement fall
Blue of the vague crescent
Ship sailing blue of the rainbow
Of  wait blue that I whore
You — blue that I adore you
Blue of the bluest door
Blue my painted city
In blue (it blew.)

You can read the rest of the PINTURA : PALABRA portfolio in the March 2016 issue of Poetry. All images in this portfolio are courtesy of and with permission from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Night Magic (Blue Jester) by Carlos Almaraz, gift of Gloria Werner © 1988, Carlos Almaraz Estate. Source: Poetry (March 2016)

Night Magic (Blue Jester), 1988, by Carlos Almaraz

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Poems: Kenneth Patchen

Kenneth Patchen in 1957 with a collection
of his painted books, taken on the rooftop
of photographer Harry Redl's apartment
house in San Francisco. (Photo: Harry Redl,
Kenneth Patchen (1911-1972) was an exact contemporary of Robert Hayden, whose poem "Monet's Waterlilies" I posted yesterday, yet a very different poet in aesthetic approach and vision. A poet and novelist, Patchen also played with the visual aspect of his poems, sometimes painting or drawing them and collaging in musical verses drawn from the American popular and jazz traditions, and during the 13 years of his life, when he was mostly bedridden, he extended and refined his experimentation, which had included concrete poetry, painted book covers, and silk-screen texts, to created his famous "Painted Poems." Patchen's visually vibrant works invite the reader to multiple possibilities for poetic reading and interpretation, while also functioning overtly as works of visual art.

I had seen some of his Painted Poems before, but I was delighted when I happened upon via Professor Vaughn B. Anderson's former undergraduate comparative literature online course site, "Painting with Words: Exploring Poetry and Image," which he taught in 2013 at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. He included the Patchen poems in his "Visual Poetry" module, and they are that and more. Out of the dozen that he posted I have selected four, all of which remind me of William Blake's illustrated poems, but updated for the 20th century and, considering the moment of post-Pop Art and post-modernism, the 21st. To quote Patchen, "I don’t consider myself a painter. I think of myself as someone who has used the medium of painting in an attempt to extend."

The Academy of American Poets website describes these works as
free verse poems with whimsical imagery using pieces of Japanese paper and common construction paper, glue, tempera, watercolors, casein, crayons, ink, pencils, cloth dyes, cloth string, and coffee and tea (used as dyes). The idea for the painted poems, Patchen’s wife Miriam has said, emerged from his fascination with sheets he received from John Tate, a botanist. The sheets, once used in France to press botanical specimens, became the backdrop to the painted poems, which were bound and published in the collections Hallelujah Anyway and But Even So. Emitting both joy and grief, the painted poems depict the ways of the world—its cruelty included—with mature resignation and playful humor. His last work, Wonderings, contains reprints of his silkscreen pages along with abstract and figurative drawings. Patchen died in 1972, a year after Wonderings was published.

To put it another way, FoundSF says of these works that, "They are celebrations of everyday playfulness as well as realizations of the sadnesses, humor and limitations of the body and mind. Also they are personal protests, insights into the institutionalized notions, both spiritual and political, that corrupt community and creativity."


Monday, April 23, 2018

Poems: Shira Dentz + Robert Hayden

Shira Dentz

I first saw some of Claude Monet's (1840-1926) "Waterlilies" paintings on a school trip to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was junior high school. The trip was memorable--and I have written about it, in condensed form, in Annotations--not just because of the visit to the art museum and my encounter with examples of some of the finest European art of the late 19th and early 20th century, but also because of an unexpected moment, when my classmates and I spied a sailor making love to his girlfriend in a nearby window. This was before cellphones or even inexpensive cameras (beyond Polaroids) and video cameras, so it was a scene that, like the water lilies, I and they committed to the sole repository available: memory.

I am not suggesting that I associate Monet's "Waterlilies" paintings solely with this experience, but there is a sensuousness, a tinge of eros, in Monet's great Impressionist series of flowers and water and light and space, the colors and brushstrokes vibrant and shifting, the Giverney landscapes so alive that the paintings themselves seem to come to life, casting a spell over the viewer.  Over the years I have been discussing and occasionally writing about visual art, I have encountered opposition about particular artists I love (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, Lois Maillou Jones, Adrian M. S. Piper, etc.) and art works, like Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" or Francis Bacon's portraits, but I have never heard a negative word about Monet's water lilies. (I have read some critiques, of course.)

Today's poems, then, summon Monet's late masterpieces. The first poem is by Shira Dentz, a poet I have known since my 20s; my friend the fine poet Amy Lemmon introduced us. Shira is a gifted poet as well and the author of four books, including Door of Thin Skins (2012), my favorite and a formal hybrid that manages to surprise and delight from start to finish. Her "Monet" poem appears in her 2010 collection, Black Seeds on a White Dish, whose title, as the poem below make clear, is drawn from this poem.

The title isn't literal, as Shira's poem shows; instead, as her work often demonstrates, it serves as a marker for a complex psychological exploration, in lyric form, that the reader pieces together. That "lilypad" is a metaphor she employs and plays with, the poetic speaker's relationship with her mother linked to their history together "that began before" the speaker was born, and continuing like the "tough rubbery vine" of which the lily pad is but a synecdochic, superficial component. Monet's waterlilies will not redeem things, but they serve as a means of understanding this relationship.


by Shira Dentz

We’re in a gray tree (you and I).
Lunging into an orange—not eating it.

I’d like nothing better than to come to another kind of
mostly, though, we just don’t come apart.


a single contractual mark 
to possess and to withhold (contractions),
and the dialogue within the dialogue that began before it.

Black seeds on a white dish                     
…………………………… (pores)

The sound of your voice has always been a fragment

                     organized as a flower,
              a tin can cling-clanging upstream,

 the spaces between my heartbeats
              lengthening (like shadows);

You a part of the tough rubbery vine that expands on the
                                          skin of the pond.

Previously published in Black Seeds on White Dish (Shearsman, 2010) and Letters to the World: Poems from the Wom-Po Listserv, Leslie Wheeler, Rosemary Starace and Moira Richards, editors (Pasadena: Red Hen Press, 2008).


The second poem is by a different kind of lyric poet, Robert Hayden (1913-1980), whom I also hold in high esteem. One of the most important African American and American poets of the mid-20th century, Hayden produced a wide-ranging body of work, with noteworthy lyric and narrative poems, including one of his most famous, "Middle Passage," a masterful marriage of politics and poetry. "Monet's Water Lilies" also combines the political and lyric with concision and elegance, presenting the poet's encounter with one of Monet's beautiful works, which amidst the national and global strife, the violence and oppression produced by state-sponsored racism and wars of colony and empire, returns him to a state of grace, a recognition, despite our inability often to see it, of (our common) humanity.

Hayden is seeking balm in the midst of tumult, a social and political one producing emotional distress, but the paintings are not, as he indicates, a means of escape, but quite powerful sites of spiritual connection, restoration and transformation. "The seen, the known / dissolve in iridescence, become / illusive flesh of light"--the painting embodies this spirituality depth and transfiguration--"that was not, was, forever is"--that never existed because this is only an artistic image, that was the world that Monet painted, that will remain as long as the painting hangs and Hayden and others have the opportunity to see it." I particularly love the final stanza, where, through tears, Hayden is reminded of the auratic power of the artwork--pace Walter Benjamin--and in this exquisite human-made image of the natural world, "the shadow of" the "joy" of that world that we have lost.

Robert Hayden


by Robert Hayden

Today as the news from Selma and Saigon
poisons the air like fallout,
I come again to see
the serene, great picture that I love.

Here space and time exist in light
the eye like the eye of faith believes.
The seen, the known
dissolve in iridescence, become
illusive flesh of light
that was not, was, forever is.

O light beheld as through refracting tears.
Here is the aura of that world
each of us has lost.
Here is the shadow of its joy.

Copyright © Robert Hayden, from Collected Poems, New York: Liveright, 1996. All rights reserved.

And here are the Art Institute's two paintings from Monet's water lilies series; the first comes from the third set, when he ceased to depict a horizon at all, peering instead into the water itself.

Claude Monet, "Water Lilies," 1906, oil on canvas, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, Art Institute of Chicago.  

Claude Monet, "Water Lily Pond, "1917/19 oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Harvey Kaplan, Art Institute of Chicago.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Poem: Anne Carson

Anne Carson

If you were to list the iconic works of American visual artEdward Hopper's (1882-1967) "Nighthawks," with its unforgettable glimpse into the clear panes of a brightly lit all-night West Village diner, would most certainly have to be included. "Nighthawks" (1942) is in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, which describes its history and backstory like this:
Edward Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” but the image—with its carefully constructed composition and lack of narrative—has a timeless, universal quality that transcends its particular locale. One of the best-known images of twentieth-century art, the painting depicts an all-night diner in which three customers, all lost in their own thoughts, have congregated. Hopper’s understanding of the expressive possibilities of light playing on simplified shapes gives the painting its beauty. Fluorescent lights had just come into use in the early 1940s, and the all-night diner emits an eerie glow, like a beacon on the dark street corner. Hopper eliminated any reference to an entrance, and the viewer, drawn to the light, is shut out from the scene by a seamless wedge of glass. The four anonymous and uncommunicative night owls seem as separate and remote from the viewer as they are from one another. (The red-haired woman was actually modeled by the artist’s wife, Jo.) Hopper denied that he purposefully infused this or any other of his paintings with symbols of human isolation and urban emptiness, but he acknowledged that in Nighthawks “unconsciously, probably, I was painting the loneliness of a large city.”
Jeremiah Moss, who started the Jeremiah's Vanishing New York blog, chronicling hyper-gentrification's dramatic transformation of New York City over the last two decades, and who last year published a companion volume, Vanishing New York: Now a Great City Lost Its Soul, devoted several posts back in summer 2010 and again in 2013 to figuring out which buildings in Manhattan might have served as a model for "Nighthawks." He concluded that there was no diner, and that Hopper had drawn more upon his imagination than anything else.

I have to say, though, that although there may have been on strict model at the spot or spots Hopper stated, or where Moss conjectured the diner might have stood, I can attest to having walked past similar spots, late at night in the late 1980s and especially in the late 1990s, on my way back from NYU, and unconsciously picturing an analogue to Hopper's scene. It captures a fundamental truth, transformed into a memorable image (would we call it a meme today?), about US urban life, especially during the mid-20th century, the isolation amidst connection, in a commercial space, outside the constraints of conventional normative time.

In the painting the figures are all white and could be viewed as a quasi-community or family, though all appear to be operating in semi-separate spheres of existence; but they aren't a heteronormative nuclear family, they aren't sitting down to dinner with kids, and three of them, at least at first glance, are not at work. Or are they? (The man behind the counter is.) There is a timelessness (outside of daily time) to the painting's image, a feeling almost outside of time, and, speaking of feeling, a tone of loneliness, perhaps even sadness, hovering over everything. And yet the diner's bright lights suggest a harbor amid the surrounding darkness.

Poet, European Classics scholar, artist, and performer Anne Carson might not be the first person who comes mind to be writing a poem about "Nighthawks," since he focus so often are stories drawn from the European Classical storehouse, but she included the one below in her collection Men in the Off Hours, whose title seems also to gesture towards Hopper's painting. There is a sense of "off hours" being depicted, not just in the painting but in the poem. Carson's poem is operating on multiple levels, with paralleling throughout, from the stanzas' ladderlike appearance to the mirroring of the end words, or teleutons, with rhyming when the words are not exact. "Shadows" and "widows" connect figuratively as well.

Carson has created a story about at least two of the figures, the flame-haired woman and the man sitting beside her, and the brief poem shares this narrative. One could imagine others, but Carson emphasizes it with her repetition of the lines, suggesting a passion that has taken the participants out of time--"off hours"--providing a foundation for this reading this by breaking through the poem's chief voice with the disorienting quote from St. Augustine's Confessions. "Time...were not" as the lovers have run away and figured out what their relationship meant, yet the distances have found them--this (homeo)stasis preserved, for all time now, in Hopper's painting and in Carson's poem.


by Anne Carson

I wanted to run away with you tonight
but you are a difficult woman
the rules of you—
Past and future circle round us
       now we know more now less
            in the institute of shadows.

            On the street black as widows
       with nothing to confess
our distances found us
the rules of you—
so difficult a woman
I wanted to run away with you tonight.

Yet I say boldly that I know that if nothing passed
                              away, time past were not.
And if nothing were coming, time future were not.
And if nothing were, time present were not.
                         (Augustine, Confessions XI)

Anne Carson, from Men in the Off Hours, New York: Vintage Contemporary Poetry, 2001. All rights reserved.

Hopper's painting:

Edward Hopper, "Nighthawks," 1942, oil on canvas 84.1 x 152.4 cm (33 1/8 x 60 in.) signed l.r. "Edward Hopper" Friends of American Art Collection, 1942.51, Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Poems: giovanni singleton

A few years ago, when her first book appeared, I shared two poems by giovanni singleton, a poet I've known and been a fan of for years. giovanni's collection ascension deservedly won the California Book Award and garnered a great deal of praise from fellow poets and critics, some of whom noted her ability to utilize silence to great affect, and the cumulative power of poems, which, once they set the book down, continued to fizz in their consciousnesses. I wholeheartedly agreed. To this day, I can remember the effect a very short, seemingly simple but powerfully erotic little poem entitled "the chair" had when I heard her read it years ago.

Another direction giovanni has taken, related to those earlier poems, was in exploring poetry's material and graphic qualities. In her most recent book, American Letters: works on paper (Canarium Books, 2018), she reproduces a number of poems that are as much works of art in a visual sense, which is to say, drawings in language, as they are poems made of language. This is not ekphrastic poetry in any of the ways I have presenting it. It is poetry as art, akin to concrete poetry and textual performance (think of the poems I shared by Doug Kearney).

In the case of the second poem-artwork below, it also seems related to asemic writing, though giovanni's calligraphic poem's words are real and do mean something, individually and together, even as they challenge our ability to read them, and bar any easy interpretation. American Letters' poems' sources include African American spirit writing, sacred sound, Tibetan meditation practice, giovanni's study of Japanese language and calligraphy, and the multiple traditions of visual poetry.

The first poem was featured during last year's National Poetry Month by Colorado State University, and as soon as I came across it online, I found myself studying it. One need not read the words to see what giovanni is up to, and yet it is necessary to read them--you can enlarge the image by clicking on it and pinching your trackpad or screen, depending upon what you're using, or even download it, to get a fuller sense of what the poem is doing. Note also how the title, with the marker "Untitled," is similar to many works of visual art.

Poems like "Untitled (Bird Cage)" and the second poem below, from American Letters: works on paper, raise the question of what kind of language is appropriate to discussing the poem, and how to read it. Or rather, it organizes our ways of reading it first, and we have to come to terms with it and how it resets our expectations. That is what poetry and art does, it seems these poems keep reminding us. We can't hear this enough, though.

and from American Letters: works on paper (II):

Source: Poetry (December 2016),

Friday, April 20, 2018

Poem: John Keats

John Keats

If there is a perennial pre-1900s poem about art from the Anglo-American literary tradition, the English Romantic poet John Keats's (1795 - 1821) "Ode on a Grecian Urn" would be it. Keats, in contemplating the Greek artifact, sets a standard for how to write about it, and art in general. The "tl;dr" version of this poem would be "Art lasts, life is brief, the beauty in seemingly dead, antiquated art provides deeper truth." Our mortality is assured, and the art work's instructive and illuminatory qualities will outlast us, a sentiment that would not have been lost on Keats, who died very young from tuberculosis, his health rapidly declining after he published his first book of poems in 1817. This poem's argument pretty much agrees with many of the poems I've posted so far in as much as their argument interrogates the relationship between art and life, between artifact within the moment it was created and the moment, millennia later, in Keats's case (and ours), in which an art lover, a connoisseur, a viewer looks at and tries to understand it, to gain something from it.

The "Grecian urn" that Keats's speaker is viewing--or thinking of--has not been cracked or chipped, unlike so much of what people bring these days to The Antique Roadshow, eager to learn the financial value of some heirloom or family treasure, or a painting, poster or dresser they picked up at a garage sale or church fair; it would not be out of place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, given its pristineness. Its specific references also remain somewhat opaque to a viewer like Keats. We would assume that a scholar of Hellenic pottery would be able to grasp what the urn's images depict, what "leaf-fringed legend haunts about" the urn's curves and sides, who those "men or gods are," "what maidens loth?" (I love that "loth," though there is no conceivable way to weave it into contemporary conversation or prose.)

Akin to Friedrich Nietzsche's notion of the Apollonian and Dionysian, in The Birth of Tragedy, Keats assesses the tension between the "cold pastoral" (punctuated by an exclamation point) the urn's form and still imagery embody, and the "wild ecstasy" the urn depicts, its record of human and deific pleasure and excess, and how what we cannot know from experience but gain from the art work can delight us even more, just as we take pleasure in the very act of trying to figure out what the urn is showing us. It will survive and a new generation will come along to try and figure out what the urn's images mean, what its function was, just as some four centuries later I am reading and interpreting Keats, and finding knowledge and truth in his poem.

As for "beauty" being "truth" and vice versa, reading this too simplistically is a problem. Scientific considerations of symmetry, the role of mathematical order in nature and natural systems and so forth set to the side, I don't think that Keats is necessarily saying that something "beautiful" is intrinsically "true" (or good, for that matter). The relationship between the two that Plato explores is, we know today, much more complicated than a facile reading would imply. The beautiful can be quite false, and fake things can beguile us far more than something intrinsically beautiful (by various criteria). Yet, as Keats seems to be saying, there is something lasting in truly beautiful art, something that compels us generation after generation, even taking into account the effects of the social and political,  cultural shifts and changes, and so on. And we can learn something from that lasting beauty, those art works that do survive. That is all "ye" need to know, or at least something we should not forget too quickly.


by John Keats

 Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, 
  Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express 
  A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fringed legend haunts about thy shape 
  Of deities or mortals, or of both,
    In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
  What men or gods are these? what maidens loth? 
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
   What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard 
  Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d, 
  Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave 
  Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
    Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, 
Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve;
  She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, 
    For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed 
  Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
  For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love! 
  For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
    For ever panting, and for ever young; 
All breathing human passion far above,
  That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d, 
    A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? 
  To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, 
  And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore, 
  Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
    Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn? 
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
  Will silent be; and not a soul to tell 
    Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede 
  Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed; 
  Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
  When old age shall this generation waste, 
    Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
  ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’—that is all 
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Below is an image of the Sosibios vase, which Keats sketched and which inspired his poem, along with his drawing below it:

Sosibios vase, image
from the Louvre
Keats's drawing of the Sosibios
vase in 1818, his annus mirabilis

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Poem: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
(Kelsey Street Press)
It was only a matter of time before I posted a poem by Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (1947-) during this month's ekphrastic/art poem cavalcade; she published a marvelous new and selected volume entitled I Love Artists: New and Selected Poems (University of California Press) in 2006, and has collaborated extensively with her husband, the highly lauded painter and sculpture Richard Tuttle (1941-) over the years. In fact I am a huge fan of her work, and this post marks the third time I have featured a poem by Berssenbrugge, and the other two also could be said to deal with aspects of art and poetry.

This poem, however, explicitly explores the work of two poets Berssenbrugge knows, Kiki Smith (1954-), perhaps best known for her sculptures, figurines and prints, which have explored human bodies and our excreta, feminism, and the AIDS pandemic, among other themes, and Bruce Nauman (1941-), the conceptual artist whose work crosses a range of media, including the televisual.

"I Love Artists" is one of many favorites in the 2006 collection, and I was reminded of it again when I happened upon it on the Painters and Poets blog, which for a number of years focused on the very topic I am posting about this month, poetry and visual art. The organizers of that blog created a real treasure, and stopped blogging last year, but the archives are still up at the link above, so be sure to check it out. They also offer their distinctive takes on Jorie Graham's "San Sepolchro" and other poems I've posted about here.

In the poem below, Berssenbrugge references Smith's drawing "Blues Stars on Blue Trees," a 2006 work, using ink and silver leaf, on Nepal paper, and Bruce Nauman's video piece, "Mapping the Studio 1 (Fat Chance John Cage)," from 1981, which appeared at Dia Center for the Arts back in 2001-2. It was, I can say as someone who went to see it, extremely dull, but, in the way that Andy Warhol's extended cinema could also be, quite fascinating as an idea and in practice. (It lacked the minute-to-minute excitements and spark of other extended works like Christian Marclay's The Clock.)

One thing to consider when reading Berssenbrugge is how she plays with the poetic persona in her poems, and how she shifts from observation and description to more abstract thought, sometimes within a single sentence, thereby shifting the reader's perception of what you are reading in the process. (I should note here that I have had to wrap her long lines, since they go a bit haywire on Blogger, especially when I use the formatting command <pre> which allows me to present poems very close to how they originally appeared.)

In the third stanza, she mentions "Bruce," the mice that were at the center of his video project, and very soon thereafter, we get the line, "I realize my seeing is influenced by him, for example, when we change form and become light reaching into corners of the room." We have left the human plane altogether, in a sense, and are now something more spectral, presence and immanence themselves, reaching into the spaces that we cannot but which is exactly where our minds, like the video, can take us. That is, the spaces poems and films open up for us.

As the poem concludes: "Creation is endless." But poetry it is rarely so simple or simplistic. Good poetry, that is. The poem charts a journey that I urge readers to take. And then please do take a look at Smith's and Nauman's images, for good measure.


by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge


I go to her house and talk with her as she draws me or
    knits, so it’s not one-on-one exactly, blue tattooed stars
    on her feet.

I pull the knitted garment over my head to my ankles.

Even if a detail resists all significance or function,
    it’s not useless, precisely.

I describe what could happen, what a person probably or
    possibly does in a situation.

Nothing prevents what happens from according with
    what’s probably, necessary.


Telling was engendered in my body and fell upon me,
    like a battle skimming across combatants, a bird hovering.

Beautiful friends stopped dressing; there was war.

I’d weep, then suddenly feel joy and sing loud words
    from another language, not knowing my song’s end.

I saw through an event and its light shone through me.

Before, indifference was: black nothingness, that
    indeterminate animal in which everything is dissolved;
    and white nothingness, calm surface of floating,
    unconnected determinations.

Imagine something, which distinguishes itself, yet
    that from which it distinguishes does not distinguish
    itself from it.

Lightning distinguishes itself from black sky, but trails
    behind, as if distinguishing itself from what espouses it.

When ground rises to the surface, her form decomposes in
    this mirror in which determination and the indeterminate

Did you know, finally, there was not communication between
    her and myself?

Communication was in time and space that were coming anyway.

I may suffer if I can’t tell the agony of a poisoned rat,
    as if I were biting.


Bruce leaving for the night makes space for his cat to enter.

Mouse (left) exits door and returns

Moth and mouse on sculpture exit (left), noise.

It’s an exterior relation, like a conducting wire,
    light fragment by fragment.

I realize my seeing is influenced by him, for example,
    when we change form and become light reaching into corners
    of the room.

Even now, we’re slipping into shadows of possessions that
    day by day absorb our energy.

I left my camera on to map unfinished work with shimmering
    paths of my cat (now disappeared), mice and moths (now dead).

There’s space in a cat walking across the room, like pages
   in a flip-book.

The gaps create a reservoir in which I diffuse my embarrassment
    at emotion for animals.

I posted frames each week, then packed them into suitcases,
    the white cat and her shadow, a black cat.

I named her Watteau, who imbues with the transitory friendship
    we saw as enduring space in a forest.


A level of meaning can be the same as a place.

Then you move to your destination or person along that plane.

Arriving doesn’t occur from one point to the next.

It’s the difference in potential, a throw of dice, which
   necessarily wins, since charm as of her handcrafted gift
   affirms chance.

I laugh when things coming together by chance seem planned.

You move to abandon time brackets, water you slip into, what
    could bring a sliding sound of the perimeter of a stone?

You retain “early” and “walking” as him in space.

When a man becomes an animal, with no resemblance between
    them, it feels tender.

When a story is disrupted by analyzing too much, elements
    can be used by a witch’s need for disharmony.

Creation is endless.

Your need would be as if you were a white animal pulling
    yourself into a tree in winter, and your tears draw a
    line on the snow.

Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, from I Love Artists: New and Selected
Poems, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Here are the two art works:

Kiki Smith, "Blue Stars on Blue Tree," 2006, work on paper, ink and silver leaf on Nepalese paper, Pace Gallery

Bruce Nauman, "Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage)," 2001, video, Dia Foundation, New York.