JOHN BLOOMBERG-RISSMAN Reviews
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, New York, 2009)
This, publicly, takes a love story and unfolds geometrically in ways impossible to fold. All around: a park. Inside: hollow: The welts show, the granite pedestal moans a bird, it jumps. At night it sings. The story of “what draws me to it, personally” grows in the socket of a mossy eye, a field of I-beams that float, pivot, tap, meow, or triangulate the gravity of healthy problems. Rust meets another wind. Light: a shiver and smile of wire mesh.
This, the first poem in the book, is also the first poem in a series called “Sculptures”. I chose it because not only is it the opening poem, it also includes the book title within it.
It got me to thinking about ekphrasis:
One particular kind of visual description is also the oldest type of writing about art in the West. Called ekphrasis, it was created by the Greeks. The goal of this literary form is to make the reader envision the thing described as if it were physically present. In many cases, however, the subject never actually existed, making the ekphrastic description a demonstration of both the creative imagination and the skill of the writer. For most readers of famous Greek and Latin texts, it did not matter whether the subject was actual or imagined. The texts were studied to form habits of thinking and writing, not as art historical evidence.
Homer’s description of Achilles’ shield in Book 18 of the Iliad stands at the beginning of the ekphrastic tradition. Two things about it became central to the genre. First, the passage implicitly compares visual and verbal means of description, most dramatically by weaving elements that could not be part of a shield (like movement and sound) with things that could be (like physical material and visual details). This emphasizes the possibilities of the verbal and the limitations of the visual. Second, the thing being described comes to seem real in the imagination of the reader, despite the fact that it could not exist.
(Marjorie Munsterberg, “Ekphrasis”, at http://writingaboutart.org/pages/ekphrasis.html Writing About Art)
Ekphrasis is interesting. It seems to move like this: visible > language > internally visible. And it “emphasizes the possibilities of the verbal and the limitations of the visual.” Those possibilities cut in both directions of course, but it’s not odd that writers would emphasize their advantages. Visual artists emphasize theirs all the time, e.g. Barnett Newman’s “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”
In my reading, “(metal work)” is and is not an ekphrastic poem. Certainly, I can get a sense of this sculpture, but I can’t visualize it. I don’t read this as an ekphrastic failure. I read “(metal work)” as a poem that uses an artwork but that is not really (or not entirely) (or perhaps mainly metaphorically) about the artwork itself.
“This, publicly, takes a love story and unfolds geometrically in ways impossible to fold.” “This” could refer to the sculpture – which it does, I think. And it could refer to the poem we are about to read. Which, I believe, it also does. And it could refer to the love story. Therefore both the sculpture and the poem and the love (about which the poem is the “love story”?), “publicly, [take] a love story and [unfold] geometrically in ways impossible to fold.” “Publically”? Yes: the sculpture is set in a park, and the poem is on the page, before me. And the love story is in the poem. How do all these things “[unfold] geometrically in ways impossible to fold”? I think of description of The Shield of Achilles above:
… the passage implicitly compares visual and verbal means of description, most dramatically by weaving elements that could not be part of a shield (like movement and sound) with things that could be (like physical material and visual details). This emphasizes the possibilities of the verbal and the limitations of the visual.
Yes, how can something unfold that can’t be refolded? Well, It’s a very special sculpture; it’s a somewhat non-linear poem … but – I think – it’s really the love story we’re talking about. Two things: first, love is non-Euclidean, to put it mildly; it can’t really be described in terms of the known dimensions of our universe. Second, once love unfolds, it can’t be refolded and put away as if it had never happened. I picture some slapstick routine in which a lifeboat is pulled from a box, inflated, and then Lucy tries (without deflating it) to get it back into the box.
“All around: a park.” The sculpture and the poem and the love story are now geographically situated.
“Inside: hollow:” We seem focused here on the sculpture (yes, poem-cameras are allowed to jumpcut and move around). Perhaps the love story is between the author / narrator and the sculpture. We don’t know and I for one don’t need to. Maybe by the end of the poem I will. If we are talking about the sculpture, it is not a solid, it is an “open field”, defined by the I-beams and wire mesh, etc we are about to encounter.
But wait a minute. Maybe we’re taking about love. There are many ways to think about love being hollow; first, it could be false, two, it too is an open field, defined by … well, that would be an essay in itself.
In any case, “The welts show.” Yes, we could be talking about love, here. We could also be talking about welds, which hold the sculpture together, and which could be considered welts. We could be talking about chips in the paint, dents in the surface … I think the ambiguity is intentional.
“the granite pedestal moans a bird, it jumps. At night it sings.” Is this a strange locution for “there is a bird on the pedestal”? Or is the pedestal somehow bird-shaped, or at least reminiscent of a bird? And what is the “it”? A bird? The pedestal? I don’t know. But this, along with “welt” carries an affective charge: somehow there is a spooky aliveness to this pedestal. Which could be related to the love story. Whether there’s a person or the sculpture itself that’s the love-object.
“The story of “what draws me to it, personally” grows in the socket of a mossy eye, a field of I-beams that float, pivot, tap, meow, or triangulate the gravity of healthy problems.” This sentence is packed. Loaded. Non-geometrical. Except for the triangulation bit. The “it” is certainly ambiguous. Though the present tense of “draws” kinda makes me doubt that we are talking about the love story qua human-to-human love. I mean, by this point in the reading I’m beginning to believe that there are two love-objects: one, a human (fail); two, a sculpture (succeed). Perhaps the love objects are sequential: After my failed love, my love for the sculpture comforts me. What leads me to this reading? Two things; first, the sculpture seems “alive”: it has “the socket of a mossy eye, a field of I-beams that float, pivot, tap, meow”. Second, it “triangulate[s] the gravity of healthy problems.” Which leads me to believe that somewhere there are contrasting unhealthy problems …
The poem ends with “Rust meets another wind. Light: a shiver and smile of wire mesh.” Another wind? This is slightly confusing (after all, what other wind might rust meet? Rust is caused by oxidation …), but it is affective, in that the author / narrator is buffeted, so to speak, by the “unhealthy problems.” As for the light: is it dawn? Perhaps. Maybe the dawn is the “source” of the “other” in “other wind”?? In any case, in this light, the sculpture does seem to be greeting him. With a smile. Something he probably wouldn’t get from the source (whether another human, the human universe, him/herself, whatever) of the unhealthy problems.
Perhaps this is a poem about how an art object can bring comfort … Perhaps the only love involved is his love for the artwork, because it offers something found nowhere else in this world. No matter how non-geometrical the work might be.
This reading, as with all readings, is more or less tentative. I may well read this poem differently in an hour, or tomorrow. But I’m ok with that now. I think of the title (only the title) of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition. There is only difference, in the sense that it’s always a new now. Repetition is only for those who have ceased to pay attention, for whom the new now is the old now, today’s reading is unnecessary because they read this yesterday … Pound wrote “Make it new.” No need. It always is.
[Editor’s Note: This is one of 50 reviews written, mas o menos, in 50 days. While each engagement can be read on a stand-alone basis, there’s a layer of watching the critic’s subjectivity arise in a fulsome manner if the reviews are read one after another. So if you have insomnia and/or are curious about this layer, I suggest you read the 50 reviews right after each other and, to facilitate this type of reading, I will put at the bottom of each review a “NEXT” button that will take you to the next review. To wit: NEXT. And an afterword on John's reading process is also available HERE!]
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards middle of In the House of the Hangman, the third section of his maybe life project called Zeitgeist Spam (picture Hannah Hoch painting over the Sistine Chapel) The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, which he is editing with Jerome Rothenberg. He is also deep into two important collaborations, one with Richard Lopez, one with Anne Gorrick. By important he means "important to him". Anyone else want to collaborate? He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.