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When you start “Self-Portrait, 1864 Self-Portrait, 1896 Self-Portrait,” the first poem in Ken Babstock’s Swivelmount, you might assume you’re heading into the realm of ekphrasis, a poet writing about a work of art — think Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” or the passage describing Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. But Babstock’s too canny, and frankly too weird, a poet to begin a meditation on Cézanne just by looking at a picture. Instead, he’s following a Cézanne Twitter account (“the bot posting canvases, in no discernible order”) and listing, in an almost epic catalogue, the character traits he shares with the painter, based on the astrological implications of their shared birthday:
stubborn, practical, not given to extravagance, self-reliant, detached, unfussed by material goods, prone to morbidity, patient to the point of inertia, unmothered, emotionally avoidant, driven to infer meaning from context, overly fond of sardine and whites from the sandy Languedoc…
Art-viewing via Twitter makes for strange bedfellows: Babstock has a screen grab juxtaposing Cézanne’s “Rocks at Fountainebleau” (1898) with an Italian football scene and a snatch from Susan Sontag’s diary: “Nothing but humiliation and / degradation at the thought of / physical relations with a man.”
If Sontag was put off by the male sex, Babstock observes, Cézanne was an utter failure at rendering the body in general:
Why did you ever go near the human form, Paul? I mean, your bathers are atrocious, atrocious in your eyes even as you painted their buttocks and lumpy torsos as turnipy, waxen, over-leavened pains de campagne…
Perhaps Cézanne painted human beings, however incompetently, because the “mass and relation” of landscape and still life were not enough, because (as Babstock writes in the opening poem) he “wanted release from the mountain’s chronic / dissembling,” and was “lonely in the face of stone and bough.” Thank heavens for Twitter, where Babstock, the painter’s fellow Capricorn, can find a “supportive community,” “so many subject-slices / you couldn’t have known / in the south.”
That last statement is bitterly ironic: the “subject-slices” of the internet are a poor substitute for actual human connection. “Self-Portrait, 1864 Self-Portrait, 1896 Self-Portrait,” it’s clear, is a “self-portrait” of the poet refracted through his encounter with the painter, a jittery, rambling meditation on how the artist’s — or poet’s — obsession with analyzing, taking apart, and reconfiguring the perceived world can ultimately leave that very world in fragments: “the mountain never / returns whole from having / been worshipped to pieces.”
A number of the poems in Swivelmount interact with artworks: several more Cézannes, the Paul Klee of “Die Zwitscher-Maschine” (the poem referring to the 1922 artwork of the same name), and the very strange poem “Dream of the Cerne Abbas Giant,” in which the ithyphallic English chalk hill figure bemoans his lot (“I am a stick thing”). Babstock is nothing if not an observant, looking poet: “I am present to you,” he writes in “Single Cell” (and in the voice of a temporarily earthbound Greek god), “by thunder / and by cameras on swivel mounts.”
The “swivel mount” itself is arresting. A quick Google search reveals that these days swivel mounts most frequently serve one of two purposes: camera supports (as in Babstock’s line), and brackets for flatscreen televisions. The swivel mount, then, signifies a sensibility that is both active and passive, turning and peering at the world around him, and being fed the images and ideas of a mediatized culture. Babstock’s poems are both high-art camera and, as he suggests in “Velodome, We’re Not Out Yet,” mass-media viewer:
My happiness has always needed a screen onto which its forms can be cast as ghosts.
The visual arts are only a part of what falls under the poet’s gaze. “Category Mistake” is a sonnet for Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006), the journalist assassinated (presumably) for her coverage of Russia’s brutalities in Chechnya: “She died / knowing the risks — or didn’t, and just died. / When the horse rears up, I eat pellets of sky. / When the horse of state rears up, I eat.” “Another American Massacre” is a chillingly bureaucratic tiptoe around one of our most recent domestic mass shootings — which massacre, Babstock does not specify.
Swivelmount is not a collection that revolves around a single set of themes, but rather a set of lyrical meditations, inviting us to accompany the poet as he works through ideas and impressions in impressively eloquent and varied language. Babstock presents a persona that is genial, intelligent, and full of a kind of thwarted passion for the world. One of the poems’ most characteristic affects is a kind of admiring, slightly fearful bafflement — a sense that the whole truth of reality is tantalizingly just beyond one’s grasp. The world is an endlessly fascinating and fearful place, full of joys, horrors, and surprises. Babstock’s language, pivoting around surreal metaphors and far-fetched juxtapositions, captures that fear and fascination, and does so in cunningly crafted explorations of how our language attempts — and sometimes fails — to take account of reality.
Take, for instance, the ending of “Tasked with Designing the Vienna House.” (The title refers to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s design, with Paul Engelmann, of his sister Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein’s severely modernist Kundmanngasse townhouse.)
In Rotterdam I sat in a very narrow folding seat while Tranströmer played ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ which Ravel had written for Wittgenstein’s brother who’d lost his right hand in the war. A vessel burst in my right eye. A vessel leaves port bound for my right eye. Imagine the right feelings.
We begin with a moment of personal memory: Babstock watching the Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, his left side paralyzed by a stroke, playing the piano. “Left” evokes “right,” which moves from denoting the “hand” (Paul Wittgenstein’s and Tranströmer’s) to the poet’s own eye, and then becomes a marker of decorum or rectitude — “the right feelings.” “Vessel” shifts from a blood vessel to a ship. The playing of Ravel’s concerto has become the playing of a particularly slippery “language-game,” to use one of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s terms.
“Selected Inventory” plays the language game of definition, solemnly scrolling down a long procession of items, taking inventory of the human life-world:
A clock, an instrument of measurement, measures intervals. Your face an instrument that measures change. Change measures depletion in the self, floaters in the visual field…
Measurement is key here, space and time parceled out according to one’s perception: “Time is slower at / the top of a six-foot ladder. Between / the rungs are intervals. Measured / by the change of your facial muscle.” Measurement and its cousin, comparison, are at once invidious and inevitable human responses to the world, and the poem registers this tension in the increasing strangeness of its inventory:
Translucent nymphs measure the quotient of evil in a city through choral singing and the rudimentary use of tools. A shark is a tool for testing the veracity of claims for pathenogenesis. Great Whites have been observed off the Cape attempting to eat the sun. Hammerheads, their own faces. Greenland sharks are an analogue for unspoken snags in your emotional geometry left for years to drift silently under layers of surface ice. The pressure is incredible. The sun, also, is incredible.
The poem ends rather like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), whose lapidary last sentence places the ethical and the aesthetic outside the realm of logical argument: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen” (Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent):
There are words worth sharing, after which we should not say more. A candle in the window is a door.
Babstock’s lines, gentler than the philosopher’s, gesture toward the mutuality of language; there are, after all, “words worth sharing,” and beyond them, the possibility of shelter from the storm of ultimately impenetrable phenomena, shelter in one another’s dwellings: “A candle / in the window is a door.” However wry, anxious, bewildered, and sometimes baffled they may seem to be, Babstock’s poems are a row of such candle-lit windows, inviting us to enter and share the poet’s engaging and compelling sensibility.
Swivelmount by Ken Babstock (2020) is published by Coach House Books and is available online and in bookstores.
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