Sometime last century, the British artist Bryon Gysin — himself a pretty interesting poet — quipped that “writing is 50 years behind painting.” The conceptual poet-provocateur Kenneth Goldsmith has gotten a lot of mileage out of that idea, using it to justify a copying-based poetics that name-drops Duchamp’s readymades and Warhol’s mass reproductions. But the two arts aren’t really in a race; if poetry sometimes adopts methods from the visual arts, as in Lesle Lewis’s bold, pictorial, and abstract poems, that’s less a matter of playing catch-up than of using the other’s vocabulary to extend poetry’s reach. And sometimes, as in Lawrence Giffin’s work, a fairly straightforward verbal idiom can help us penetrate the depths of a very abstruse visual language.
Giffin’s latest book, Untitled, 2004, is a long poem that takes its title from Agnes Martin’s last painting, an austere arrangement of horizontal gray bands. The poem, addressed to the poet’s infant daughter (also named Agnes), is about Martin’s painting, but it’s also about art in general and art’s relationship to life. Giffin recalls his encounters with various artworks — camping with a philistine boomer couple near Walter de Maria’s “The Lightning Field,” a memorable drug-fueled experience of Maya Lin’s “Wavefield” at Storm King Art Center and Mark di Suervo’s “oversized / steel-beam sculptures, / phallic only if ‘phallic’ means / insecure” — and thinks hard about what it means to go to exhibitions:
It’s as if the entire purpose of museums
is to keep alive the supposition that
there really is something here to see,
which betrays an anxiety that
someone somewhere surely must
know what’s going on, not simply so
we should not feel abandoned to
ourselves alone (anything but that)
but so we might receive the seal
of their invincibility
to indulge in cruel ranking.
Giffin prefers to see his art in company, to view it out of the corner of his eye or over the shoulder of someone he loves:
Art is whatever you have to turn
away from, turning instead toward a bird
in space or to study a new love’s
unique forms of continuity in time.
Otherwise it’s just pictures of stuff.
As this genial, heartfelt, and at times deeply wise poem unfolds, we learn a great deal about Agnes Martin’s career; about the geometry of spirals; about the history of western landscape painting; even about Talmudic and Kabbalistic interpretations of the opening letters of Genesis. Throughout, Giffin’s voice maintains a remarkable equanimity, rarely rising to lyrical heights but often punctuated with a wry humor, as when he adapts Kant’s definition of the aesthetic (“purposiveness without purpose”) to describe our relationship to our smartphones:
we run to data-driven solutions
which at the very least engage
us in the activity,
purposive but without purpose,
of scrolling through the feeds.
The poem continually circles around Martin’s painting, whose austere classicism is marred by a single smudge toward the right edge. It’s that “splotch” that holds Giffin’s attention: Can it be compared to an instance of “staffage,” the inclusion of small figures in 18th-century landscape paintings intended to “humanize” the landscapes? Is it Martin’s final repudiation of her late aesthetic, or a (perhaps unconscious) acknowledgement of her “failure to the point of defeat” in her struggle with an intransigent art? The splotch comes for Giffin to emblematize the passing marks each life leaves behind. “A / part of no whole,” he addresses his baby daughter, “you are thus in / some sense my life’s splotch …”
The splotch a life
make’s on time’s uneven surface,
like the one in Untitled, 2004,
suggests nothing in particular,
no secret whose
recuperate its splotchiness,
transforming it into a blessed sign
of a once-living presence,
a little ash between the eyes
ready to authenticate the
meaning of life — just that
who or whatever we believed
could have reclaimed us
is no more.
If Giffin’s poem takes Martin’s abstract canvases as the occasion for a bittersweet meditation on mortality, the poems of Lesle Lewis’s Rainy Days on the Farm adapt the very methods of Abstract Expressionism to the verbal medium. Lewis’s poems aren’t particularly concerned with painting per se — though “Uninjured Things” is composed of excerpts from Robert Storr’s Gerhard Richter: Doubt and Belief in Painting (2003), and one of her earlier books is titled It’s Rothko in Winter or Belgium; rather, like Martin painting grids or bands of color, Lewis marshalls her words with an ambivalent concern for a “realistic” representation of some reality outside the poem.
This is most evident in a group of poems interspersed through Rainy Days on the Farm that are simply six-word lines — mostly nouns, though with occasional verbs, adjectives, and other operators — as in “Boxes Curtains Invisible Product Hunger Carton”:
Noon limit Caspian pollination mineral mink
Lake inn wedding coaster plaster melon
Ground Florence field wave cream heavy
Pond dollor absorb foam apothecary pistachio
It’s like a Pollock reimagined in language: you savor the sounds and shapes of the words, enjoying the emerging and retreating rhythms, the echoes of vowels and consonants, the way the crisp enunciation of “Cusp tame yacht magnet baseboard chrome” melts into the rippling waves of “Stripe condition froth scoop haze transformation.”
This is a shaky analogy, though. A blob of paint on a canvas (or a square, or rectangle) is always first and foremost an area of color on a flat field; it’s only through convention that we come to see it as a cloud or a mountain or a descent from the cross. Words, in contrast, have their own specific gravity of sound and weight, but they’re always pointing beyond themselves, always meaning — that’s what words do. Lewis’s poems run the spectrum from almost entirely abstract word-assemblages to almost linear, even “talky” observation; but they generate a continuous energy out of the contrast between the significance of the individual sentences (or words) and the larger, more abstract frames in which they are set. “Another Another” seems to be talking about immediate social and political realities —
The goodness has collapsed and gone.
It’s the same “now” for everyone …
We eat candy and irony.
Deerhunters roam the woods and bad people are in power.
— but it ends with a gnomic reflection on language itself: “The people keep their heads down and walk slowly until they are dead and don’t carry anything. / Just say ‘basket’ or ‘no basket,’ and there’s the basket.”
The “word-grids” of Lewis’s more abstract poems are electric with energy, alive with potential meanings for the reader to play with, rearrange, and revel in. Just as satisfying, in a different but related mode, are her poems of disjointed observation and Zen-like reflection, which set the day’s thoughts and experiences into a kind of collage-frame of awareness and (in “Lunchtime”) even consolation:
We spend long hours in isolated landscapes like two birds in one tree and it’s spring and we are free of our paying jobs.
There is a cherry orchard.
Even if every good moment includes the loss of the last, we host a momentary good fairy …
These are the odds.
We hear November’s hunters’ guns, chainsaws, and terrible, terrible news.
When will it be okay again and will it?
We’ve divided ourselves in order to see more multidirectionality.
“Seeing more multidirectionality” is a nice summing-up of Lewis’s entire poetics, which darts from one word-object to another, one observation to the next, entirely alive to the contingencies and surprises of new experience and new combinations. Would it belabor the analogy to say she has a “painterly” eye?
Untitled, 2004: a poem by Lawrence Giffin (2020) is published by After Hours Editions. Rainy Days on the Farm by Lesle Lewis (2019) is published by Fence Books. Both are available online and in bookstores.