Each page of Cole Swensen’s collection of essays Noise That Stays Noise (University of Michigan Press, 2011) offers insights that can productively reorient and refresh one’s relationship to literature; it’s a book that one reads, in large part, by looking up, blinking at clarifications that feel at once precise and incendiary. The essays range in focus—from translation (Swensen’s thoughts about “intentionally ‘foreignizing’” and about the translation of timbre are wonderfully sensible and expansive) to concrete poetry to the work of Charles Olson, Susan Howe, John Taggart, and others. But many readers might be most interested in Swensen’s discussion of ekphrastic writing, since many of her recent books treat subjects including gardens, ghosts, and the human hand with an attention to perspective and form that writers often reserve for museums.
Ekphrasis—the writing about art—can seem trendy; it’s easy for a creative writing teacher to send students to a gallery for a day, copies of Auden’s and Williams’ poems about Bruegel in their pockets. And it’s easy to be skeptical of poets who shawl themselves in ekphrastic missions, aligning their poems with work that, in Swensen’s phrase, “has already been judged to be a work of art.” Perhaps the “about-ness” of those projects helps poets who feel anxious that contemporary poetry is really about, gorgeously and overwhelmingly, life and language in all their hugeness? Swensen doesn’t suggest such world-shy motives for traditional ekphrastic work, although in her essay “How Ekphrasis Makes Art” she does note that “there’s a different sort of ekphrastic poetry emerging in the work of some contemporary poets, an ekphrasis that, instead of looking at acknowledged artworks, constitutes the gaze that transforms an object into art.” This gaze “changes the object’s context, aestheticizing it,” using poetry’s “ability to speak literally, figuratively, abstractly, and concretely all simultaneously” to frame a subject and reveal the relationships it is a part of.
This ekphrastic turn, which locates the significance of ekphrasis not in its relationship to well-known artworks but in a mode of perception, seems as consequential as the epistemological turn one learns about in an introductory philosophy course (usually on the same day that poetry students read poems about Bruegel). As Wikipedia reminds me, that turn shifted inquiry from metaphysics to knowing itself; an ekphrastic turn, similarly, shifts poetic attention from looking at art (with the implied desire for one’s poem to earn a place beside the urns in the classical wing) to the art of looking. I’m tempted to suggest that this shift connects to approaches that are at the heart of some recent work in documentary poetics, ecopoetics, and conceptual poetry—their ways of looking at landscape, language, and poetry itself—but I’ll leave that diagnosis for someone else.
That’s because I’m more interested, for today’s blog post, in how the poems in Hadara Bar-Nadav’s spectacularly affecting second collection, The Frame Called Ruin (New Issues, 2012), attend to art. They apply the kind of attention that Swensen describes, rather than offering the “direct, often one-to-one relationship to a work of art” one sees in traditional ekphrastic writing, and also move farther afield. In poems that often respond to paintings, sculpture, and even a geodesic dome, Bar-Nadav focuses on the art of looking but also, as one can see in Swensen’s own poetry, shows the ways in which seeing becomes perceiving, and so anything one observes is quickly involved in a rangier response. Is the walk I take away from the gallery also ekphrastic? Is the motivation that drives me toward art, unsure of what I will see, feeling that artworks may offer the most authentic way to access my own life? Bar-Nadav’s poems suggest so.
This sense of life rakes itself from the aftermath in “Still Life (with Death”) (“We were burned, and we were blind. / We wanted to record the occasion of us”) and it’s acted upon by every perception in poems like “Let Me Hold the Kaleidoscope” (“So the sun splits and / splits us again”)—to be thus acted upon by the world seems like an intent mobilization of ekphrasis, the pupil artfully dilating with every breeze and hue. Often in these poems one has the sense, as in Beckett, of a voice that knows little except its own speaking, and so knows the urgency and desperation of that speaking. What do we have but a blur of shades suggesting, perhaps, color, and the faith that if one is talking there might be someone who can hear?
But these poems keep looking; they remind one that the art of looking is tied to a larger artfulness of being, that looking at once extends from a distinct perspective and projects away from it. The power of seeing in these poems can seem to suspend a falling home (“The basement drops first, too heavy, to lift…The living room refuses / to land”) and enliven “the corner of sky and lamppost” at which one awaits a tryst (“I will look for you so wear your eyes”). “What’s holding us up anymore?” one poem concludes. “Close my eyes, / try to recall.” It’s a difficult lullaby that asks another to shut your eyes, and in poems of such vision—raptly straining, willful and receptive—one shudders to realize that the visible, however closely beheld, isn’t always enough and is, in any case, hard to separate from the imagination.
These musings aside, Bar-Nadav’s poems can be disquieting, though they are also shot-through with pleasure that edges lithely through the dreamlike, the mythic, and the grotesque (one could as easily consider the relationship of these elements to politics as to art). They can seem to posit potential artworks, as though preceding installations they respond to, as in one poem that ends with a sharp and intense calm that brings Plath to mind:
My whites crust to yellow
my silver peels to rust.
The tide slats the wreckage
The foam and crest like milk except
for the acidic suck and seethe.
This is subtle and wrenching work. “Each poem is a gem,” Swensen notes in one of the book’s promotional blurbs. A warm gem, I think. And one feels at once comforted and unsettled by that heat, but in any case charged by the heat.
This post is the third in a series of brief blog-reviews I’ll write this month. The first post in the series discusses works by Jena Osman and Yevgeniy Fiks. The second discusses Kevin Goodan’s Upper Level Disturbances.