In Defense of the Elliptical: New Smoke: An Anthology of Poetry Inspired by Neo Rauch (Off the Park Press, 2009)
Going through my Valparaíso graffiti photos again (see Sunday’s post for some examples), I was struck by how one image in particular (the figure’s cradling posture, the oversized and cartoonish hands) reminded me of Neo Rauch’s Vater, a painting from his 2007 Met exhibition entitled “para”—and the fact that New Smoke was one of the few books of “pleasure reading” that I brought along with me to Chile surely abetted this perceived similarity.
New Smoke is a slim, 78-paged anthology containing poems by the Off the Park writing collective (which is comprised of Gale Batchelder, Susan Berger-Jones, Judson Evans, Vivian Eyre, Eileen B. Hennessy, Boni Joi, Ronna Lebo, Catherine Shainberg, and Marian Brown St. Onge), and its very title, which playfully anglifies the East German painter´s curious name (Neo Rauch -> New Smoke), emphasizes the fact that ekphrasis is an act of translation which, while ostensibly dependent upon an originary source (notational ekphrasis is an exception), produces something surprisingly new.
What kind of poems are these? In his brief introduction, John Yau explains that these poets “should be applauded” for choosing “[s]lipperiness and instability” over an illusive sense of “security.” These terms made me, again, think of Stephen Burt’s provocative “New Thing” essay (Boston Review, May/June 2009) in which he claims that the pendulum of the contemporary scene is now swinging away from the “slippery, digressive, polyvocalic” poetry of “colorful fragments” (which he had famously diagnosed as “elliptical” in 1998) toward a poetry that is sincerely invested in reference, that focuses on “concrete, real things” (think Williams rather than Stevens). Yet aren’t paintings also “real” and “concrete” things even if they are, like Rauch’s representations, uncannily “unified and divided, seamless and punctuated with tremors and ruptures” (to use Yau’s apt words)? And how does ekphrasis fit into a New Thing schema which so much depends upon the primacy of description?
If the poems of New Smoke can be considered examples of “showy insubstantiality” (Burt) or “soft-surrealist cotton candy” (Jon Woodward), the best of them offers not smoke and mirrors but rather, like smoke signals, alternate modes of communication. Indeed, the elliptical mode of slipperiness and instability seems exactly the right choice to respond to Rauch’s rich and perplexing paintings.
One of my favorite poems from the anthology—a riff off of Rauch´s Jagdzimmer (Hunter’s room), 2007—is by Marian Brown St. Onge. In particular, I find her phrase “landscape / of migraines” especially appropriate to describe Rauch´s hallucinatory and hermetic scenes (migraines are sometimes preceded by visual hallucinations called “auras”). If New Thing poetry represents a shift (as Burt claims) from lyric as fleeting song to lyric as crafted and chiseled artifact, then St. Onge´s poem shows us how a somber artifact such as Jagdzimmer can indeed “swing…to music.”
“In this Hunter’s Room”
The air is stale
You can almost smell the men’s
Their drooping shoulder holsters
The glaucous pflucker caught
in the middle
The near absence of blues is electric
A map speaks watery urgencies
but no one notices
Du willst feuer, mein alt es?
The doors yawn
These are no great-blooded outdoorsmen
given to vermilion discussions
Luscious purple moors
This is an autumnal bunker
What we’re looking at is a landscape
The weight-bearing beams must have
Why else would the hunters ignore
the pretty yellow scribbler
stuck in the corner?
Their friend who’s swatting at
the pasted-on dancing ladies?
The blasphemous schriften of birds
The swinging to music