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Jennifer Clarvoe
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In January, I flew to see the Vija Celmins exhibition at the Met Breuer – the last flight, the last exhibition, as it so happened, of the year. Here's the closest thing to a "Self-Portrait" in Celmins’ work: a meticulous drawing/collage of a tiny envelope addressed to herself (from her mother), with separately drawn stamps: a house, waves, clouds—but also fire, explosion. It reminds me of Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "In the Waiting Room," in which the child (in Worcester, Massachusetts) is suddenly galvanized by the O of pain of her aunt's cry from the dentist's office, an O that somehow is and is not her own. But I felt, you are an I, You are an Elizabeth, You are one of them. Why should you be one, too? A self-address implies a dislocation. When I flew to New York I was suffering with shingles; it flared along the nerve branch from my spine down my arm to my hand—the nerve I felt when I lifted a cup of coffee, or a pen. I had a hunch that Celmins art would teach me something about what nerves are – strands of electrical impulses? Were they the fibers of my being (did my being have fibers?)? Celmins’ astonishing renderings of spiderwebs, of the surfaces of waves, of cosmos after cosmos of (apparently) pulsing stars – the acuteness of her eye, yoked to the patience of that hand: when I stood in the gallery the work absorbed me, helped me to find and lose myself. Art sees you; poems read you. I was not prepared, this summer, for the utter lucidity with which John Ashbery’s long poem, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” reflected back to me the pressure and yearning of shut-in days, even from its opening lines: As Parmigianino did it, the right hand Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer And swerving easily away, as though to protect What it advertises. A few leaded panes, old beams, Fur, pleated muslin, a coral ring run together In a movement supporting the face, which swims Toward and away like the hand Except that it is in repose. Yes, that’s the gesture of the COVID dream in which you reach toward someone and then at the last minute realize you mustn’t and pull your hand away. For me, a miracle of Ashbery’s opening lines is that even as he tells you so plainly what is there, and so precisely and technically how Parmigianino went about making what we see (as Vasari wrote), he is able--as effortlessly as the light arriving--to make a place in his poem to establish a soul: The time of day or the density of light Adhering to the face keeps it Lively and intact in a recurring wave Of arrival. The soul establishes itself. But how far can it swim out through the eyes And still return safely to its nest? The surface Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases Significantly; that is, enough to make the point... Continue reading
Posted Dec 11, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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This is the kind of reader I’d like to be: In the spring, as a way to keep “meeting” during lockdown, my friend Cammy and I would talk twice a week about writing. Because we were having trouble reading anything in a sustained way—the mind would sputter or fizzle or veer away--I proposed (only half-joking) not-reading Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Instead of fighting against it, our reading would tolerate and even embrace interruption, distraction, digression, frustration, etc. The reading would be our zigzagging between. So that, for example, when “The First Elegy” asks (in Edward Snow’s translation), Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angel’s Orders? the answer could come from the jackhammers digging up the pavement half a block away, or the honk band practicing in a neighbor’s yard, or the videos of Italian balconies, or the Berklee School of Music virtual online choir singing What the world needs now is love sweet love, or the blue jay on the branch outside my window, springing up and down, up and down, as if he has read James Wright's poem and knows that “the branch will not break.” Already, I misremember: I am sure that Cammy and I sat together on my back porch (porch for which I have never been so grateful), instead of calling each other, as we did, to read the poems. Sometimes I’d stop to take a picture of the birds on the feeder with my phone; their comings and goings became part of the poem. The elegies themselves seemed more intense, not less, for letting themselves be broken into--and out of--in this way. The last of the elegies, the tenth, offers this wish: One day, at the end of the nightmare of knowing, may I emerge singing praises and jubilation to assenting Angels. May I strike my heart’s keys clearly, and may none fail because of slack, uncertain, or fraying strings. It’s the emphatic repetition of the wish that strikes an echoing chord in me, and my eye keeps zigzagging: in fits and starts, the feeling intensifies. Is it here, the emotional architecture of the poem? may I,-- May I,-- May the tears,-- How will I cherish,-- Had I only,-- How we waste,-- We study,-- Whereas – I try to puzzle my way through the German on the left-hand page, wondering about the wish to “strike my heart’s keys clearly” – Is that a piano? Den klar geschlagenen Hammern des Herzens Are there keys in the German, or only hammers? I can’t tell. While I’m leaning over the page, a little bee – a honeybee, dark, small furry – lands with a tap, precisely on the verb geschlagenen. She stays for a while, just gently vibrating there. Over the spring and the summer, sometimes it surprised us what was easy or hard to not-read this way. Mrs. Dalloway, for example, leapt into focus. Had I never registered before that Clarissa Dalloway is recovering from the 1918 flu? Of course, there were other kinds... Continue reading
Posted Dec 10, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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A poem, a painting, a poem. Dickinson, Vermeer, Stevens. Here's Emily Dickinson's poem, "There's a certain Slant of light" (#258 in the Johnson edition, #320 in the Franklin edition): There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons-- That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes-- Heavenly Hurt, it gives us-- We can find no scar, But internal difference, Where the Meanings, are-- None may teach it--Any-- "Tis the Seal Despair-- An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air-- When it comes, the Landscape listens-- Shadows--hold their breath-- When it goes, 'tis like the Distance On the look of Death-- This poem takes me back to Friday morning services in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, to the columnar quiet and then the first blast from the organ, that pressure: I feel the heft. The clamor that framed -- and punctuated -- our time in that cool space. “Balance” is a verb. Poems perform balancing acts. In the last stanza of Dickinson’s poem, we balance, briefly, with the listening landscape, the shadows holding their breath, between the coming and going of the Slant of light. The poem makes room for that; the sentences make room. Listening space, breathing space. A certain Slant of light streams in the window in Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance, alighting on her face, her hand, the twin pans of the balance, her other hand balancing lightly on the table. In the winter of 1995, I had tickets to see the Vermeer Exhibition at the National Gallery—but the show was closed by a government shutdown. On the last day before my flight away, when the show briefly reopened, I was in the long line waiting in the cold to get in. And the crush! Impossible to linger in front of a painting, to approach it slowly from across the room. That mattered, of course – but it felt as if it didn’t matter, as if the focus and balance in the paintings invited me in. Almost pressed against The Lacemaker (barely the size of a sheet of note paper) I lean with the woman in her toward her pins and bobbins, and the almost invisible strands threading between them. Although her face is towards us, in my memory I’m somehow looking over her shoulder, as if steadying myself to do her work. “Still” is a verb. Vermeer’s Woman Holding a Balance stills us – not by freezing us, but by offering us a balance; we slow down until our stillness matches the stillness seeming to arrive in the painting. A momentary stay against confusion. Our breathing could unsettle the golden pans. Less than ten years before Vermeer painted this painting, an immense explosion (90,000 pounds of gunpowder, stored in a convent), devastated Delft. I don’t think his paintings shut that explosion out; instead, I think their fragile balancing acts are performed humbly, aware of the threat of chaos they might counter. The reader in Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm,” leans... Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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It's James Thurber's birthday today. In his quasi-fairy tale, The Thirteen Clocks, time is frozen; the warm hand of Saralinda can do nothing to set the clocks ticking again. I've always loved its strange mix of logic/magic, as when the Golux offers this instruction: "If you can touch the clocks and never start them, then you can start the clocks and never touch them." "Hold your hand this far away," he tells Saralinda. "Now that far. Closer. Now a little farther back. A little farther. There! I think you have it! Do not move!" That space between the hand and the clock, like the distance between the poem and the work of art. * Ten years ago, my students were reading poems about Caravaggio's painting, "Conversion on the Way to Damascus." It offers a fantastically foreshortened view of Saul/Paul on his back on the ground, almost under the feet of the horse he's fallen from, his arms wide apart as if forced open by the light. Behind the horse and under Saul's back, everything is black. It's a great, strange painting. But when I tried to show it to them, the projector blew its bulb. Blank wall. Had I been waiting for that to happen? We were not in rural Ohio, but--for that lucky semester--in Rome, a twenty-minute walk from the Piazza del Popolo. We get up, go out, and hit the cobbled pavement. Elizabeth Bowen, in A Time in Rome, insists that "knowledge of Rome must be physical, sweated into the system, worked up into the brain through the thinning shoe-leather." We sweated our way along the crowded sidewalks of the Via di Ripetta, eventually spilling out off-axis into the wide piazza. Across the way, there's a billboard half the expanse of the church wall: just a line of writing and a tiny car. Avvicinati di piu, it says. "Come closer." Does it matter what it's selling? That's what we've been trying to do--come closer to the painting. We cross the piazza, but just as we arrive at Santa Maria del Popolo, the doors are closing for a service. It's not for so long that we've missed our chance for the day. Just enough to make us wait. We sit outside on the steps and re-read that morning's poems: Thom Gunn's "In Santa Maria del Popolo" (1958), Stanley Plumly's "Comment on Thom Gunn's 'In Santa Maria del Popolo' Concerning Caravaggio's The Conversion of Paul"(2000), and Paul Otremba's "Surfing for Caravaggio's Conversion of Paul"(2008). In all three poems, getting close to the painting is crucial to feeling what it wants us to see. Gunn's poem sets the scene in the narrow chapel where the painting hangs: Waiting for when the sun an hour less Conveniently oblique makes visible The painting on one wall of this recess By Caravaggio, of the Roman School, I see how shadow in the painting brims With a real shadow, drowning all shapes out But a dim horse's haunch and various limbs, Until the very subject... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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I am thinking these days about one of my favorite ekphrastic poems, Alice Fulton's "Close," the first poem in Felt (W. W. Norton, 2001). It responds to Joan Mitchell's "White Territory," but I hadn't seen the painting when I fell for the poem. What I love about it is the way it tries to get me close to the painting, how it makes me feel the tricky, charged intimacy of that encounter. Right-justified, the lines run right up to the edge of the page, as if pushing us to see what isn't there. The poem opens like this: To take it farther would mean dismantling doorframes, so they unpacked the painting's cool chromatics where it stood, shrouded in gray tarpaulin near a stairwell in a space so tight I couldn't get away from it. I could see only parts of the who, I was so close. I was almost in the painting, a yin-driven, frost-driven thing of mineral tints in the museum's vinegar light. To get any distance, the canvas or I would have to fall down the stairs or dissolve through a wall. It put me in mind of winter... I miss being that close to paintings in this pandemic winter. Scale, proximity, lighting, relation to the human in the room. One of the last actual exhibitions I went to see, roughly a year ago, was at the Princeton Art Museum, of Helen Frankenthaler prints, room after gorgeous room. The show was called "Seven Types of Ambiguity," after William Empson's essay on reading poetry. The prints were all glass-faced, so my photos bring back my own floating through the rooms: I gave up long ago trying to avoid reflections in the glass; I like their memorializing the visit, my having been with the art, the way the prints began to transform the space I moved through, behind my back. Fulton puts us "in mind of winter" to conjure not only Mitchell's scumbled whites, but also to invite the company of Wallace Stevens' "Snow Man," who must have a mind of winter not to think "of any misery in the sound of the wind." The snow man, who, ...nothing himself, beholds Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. Some of the most powerful non-representation art makes us confront this: the x-ing out of the human in the scene, a conversion into radically negative capability. How can one enter into what is happening here? The ending of Fulton's poem returns to Stevens, shifting from where we've put the painting to where the painting puts us. It's not, whatever the winter, a cold response: You put me in mind of winter where I live, a winter so big I'll have to dismantle myself to admit it: the always winter and its consolations of flint. This is not an illustration. It's what I saw when the airbag opened, slamming me with whiteness like the other side. I came to consciousness on braced arms, pushing my face from the floor in... Continue reading
Posted Dec 7, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
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Dec 6, 2020