Archive for the ‘Painting’ category

Ripples in the Stillness: Reading “Refuge”

April 8, 2012

 (“Refuge” can be found on p.  24 of heart speech this, ISBN 0982530943)

Sometimes the simplest, smallest poems have the most impact. “Refuge” is the poem the French poet and filmmaker Pierre Alferi read silently on a balcony in the Swiss Alps, then shook himself slightly, looked up, and said with some astonishment, “That’s good.” Why did this poem catch his attention?

A vase filled with lilies in water: a pretty, somewhat conventional still life for an artist, or a decorative touch adding grace and beauty but not much twisting of the mind or senses when viewed. Why make this the subject of a poem? There’s a good challenge in making experiences blur and yet seem real. The pathetic fallacy (acting as if an inanimate object has human emotions) has a place in poetry and magic realism if the writer can persuade her audience to share the illusion.

“Refuge” is the title of this poem. What seeks or has safety here, and what causes the need for protection? The “ruby-throated lilies” and the “supplication of green” suggest pain in speaking and the surrender of youth and vibrancy. Speech and silence are threaded throughout “Refuge,” and the flowers that cannot speak (think of the mute “tongue” the lily’s anther-laden stamen resembles). The vase, in its “containment” paired with the tranquil “depth of blue” suggest a stillness at odds with the “murmur…wave…spill” and finally “mutter” that crack its “porcelain” surface, which is both steady (“stone”) and fragile (easily broken pottery).

The lilies themselves reflect the image of the vase, rising upward with open mouths, colored differently internally than externally, just as the body is red and moist inside, variously hued by genes and sun on its outer surfaces. Just as the vase and the body contain water to nourish and detoxify their contents, the lilies also hold water within their stems, exchanging fluids for food even when rootless, even when wilting towards death.

Once cut, flowers lose their potency. Bees and hummingbirds will find no fertile pollen to cling to their legs or nectar to drink for its sugar. Yet in the minutes and hours before their stems split and curl and their petals brown and drop, lilies release an intense desire of color, shape, and texture. Vases have a subtler sensuality. Perhaps the refuge lies somewhere between these expressions, one seeking a longer and more protected beauty, the other borrowing the possibility of change and greater allure.

Does the poem suggest all or any of these things on first reading? Perhaps not. There is a sensuality and despair here, a recalling of the lush sorrows of Li Qingzhao (1084-c.1151) waiting for her husband to return, describing her hairpins and cosmetics with the same intensity as her tears. And a modernity in the confusion of intentions and emotions with objects rather than simple description.

For me, this is a poem of permission to feel more than one emotion at a time, to be complicated and yet simple, and to dream of restfulness in the midst of dangers. It allows me to think about the beauty and uncertainty of the small and ordinary and their placement, their movement, in a beautiful, uncertain, and violent world.

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Matrimony: Chrome, Utility, and Vision

February 26, 2010

“Matrimony” can be read on p. 117 of heart speech this (Atropos Press, 2009, ISBN 9 780982 530948)

He photographed his wife’s hand splayed across the hubcap of a tire, his wife the painter’s hand spread to cover the core of an object rather than to reveal the shape and movement of exposure. The deliberate layering and tension of light on the black gloss of the car, on the chrome between and beyond fingers, on the back of the hand that seems to be its own source of light—Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz are not necessary, yet the photo would not exist without their interplay and intention.

I was in Dubuque, Iowa, helping install an art exhibit, “Moved by the Machine,” curated by my dear and extraordinarily talented cousin Josephine Shea. Two Steiglitz photos were on display, accompanied by art devoted to the American (and in some cases, European) fascination with the automobile. There had been a cross-country road trip in which I picked up and delivered Shannon Goff’s cardboard “Dashboard”, six feet of cardboard sculpted into a larger than life, yes, dashboard, from Boston to Detroit, then collected the curator and more art and drove through Chicago to Dubuque to the museum. Two days later, I was helping to finish the installation and write labels and vinyl text while I soaked in the interplay of sculpture, painting, photography, video, and bird calls. And O’Keeffe’s hand in Stieglitz’s image hummed in me.

What did he do, drag her by the wrist from her easel and canvas out to place her hand on the car? She must not have been painting: nothing is caught in her knuckles; nothing clings to her cuticles. Yet what impatience must she have breathed to be pulled into his work when so much of her own remained to be done!

Yes, projection, projection, projection. And yet, imagine the push and pull so often written about, these two visual artists with such different creative compulsions, generational assumptions, married in spite of their individuality, partnered in spite of each wanting to lead. And so, “Matrimony”: competing arts, visions, and perceptions of the hand. For one an object to portray as an image, for the other, a tool to create images. And for both, this tension of relation between man and woman, man/woman and machine, the viewer and the viewed. The placement of the represented to be presented. What we look at tells us so much about who we are.