Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Picture This

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Picture This

Article excerpt

Margaret Arwood and Charles Pachter. The Journals of Susanna Moodie. Houghton Mifflin 1997. Unpaginated. $30.00

Steve Gehrke. Michelangelo's Seizure. University of Illinois Press 2007. 88 pp. $45.00 $14.95 (paper)

George Hitchcock. Turns and Returns. Philos Press 2002. 103 pp. $12.95 (paper)

Jeff Humphries and Betsy Bowen. Borealis. University of Minnesota Press 2002. Unpaginated. $19.95

Vincent Katz and Tabboo! [Steven Tashjian]. Pearl. powerHouse Books 1998. 72 pp. $30.00

Basil King. 77 Beasts. Marsh Hawk Press 2007. 160 pp. $ 17.95 (paper)

Richard Michelson. Battles O" Lullabies. University of Illinois Press 2006. 81 pp. $18.95

David Middleton. The Habitual Peacefulness ofGruchy: Poems after Pictures by Jean-Francois Millet. Louisiana State University Press 2005. 67 pp. $16.95 (paper)

Janet Sternburg. Optic Nerve. Red Hen Press 2005. 66 pp. $16.95 (paper)

BECAUSE it was Parnassus, because it was the thirtieth anniversary, because the future seemed uncertain, I accepted the several boxes of books that appeared on my doorstep along with the assignment to write something about poetry and painting as they cohabit on the contemporary literary scene. The magazine, it seems, had been stockpiling books that featured collaborations between poets and all sorts of visual artists, and these numbers were swelled by the fact that-to quote from the letter that accompanied my packages-"The ekphrastic poem is a staple of just about every new book of poetry that's published in America." It was news to me. For someone whose training and inclinations focus on the heritage of the ancients as it streaks across the arts of post-classical, pre-modern Europe, particularly in regard to the relations between words and images, it came as a shock to unpack cartons of (mostly) brightly colored, artfully typeset, earnestly designed, non-mainstream-published volumes, all of which grounded their prospects for success on what is apparently a readerly need to have pictures and poems delivered in a single package. But would I be able to see in this avalanche of hybrid production a sign of grandly ambitious cross-disciplinary artistic achievement? Or was I destined to compose a jeremiad about how the mighty tropes of painting and poetry have descended to what are fundamentally children's books packaged for artsy grown-ups?

In the end, I found myself fascinated by the range of possibilities, between pictures and texts as well as among collaborators, that lay inside these colorful packages.

The simplest scenario involves no collaborator: These are the cases in which words and images have been produced by the same person. George Hitchcock, who has been a creator as well as an angel funding other creators for more than half a century, puts together poems, interview fragments, and color sketches in which Paul Klee meets Art Deco at the seaside. His motive for multi-media production is, he writes, "to discover the extent and geography of my own subconscious." He undertakes this task in a beguiling combination of modes confessional and surrealist, as for instance in "Consider the Poet":

arbiter of waters, nuncio of the wild iris,

Ishmaelite among the tenements of eyes,

you salute each morning the flags

which flutter in the cottonwoods

and bear in your lung the deadly flower

of recollection.

Janet Sternburg, whose polymathic career has embraced theater, cinema, and memoir, envisions what is perhaps a more centripetal relationship between the poetry and photography that she interleaves in Optic Nerve. The poetic words are reflective, the camera shots often embrace reflection, and the language returns insistently to picturing, to snapshots, and to painterliness. Describing the lonely artist-hero of Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer, whose sole companion is his own voice played back to himself on a tape recorder and whose sole speech is the repeated name of the woman he desires, Sternburg writes:

He would get up, go to his painting,

dip his brush into a can,

replay his words

pure and innocent

and try to paint a pure

innocent line. …

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