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Poetics of Still Life: A Collage by Robert Vas Dias (Permanent Press, 2021)

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Poetics of Still Life: A Collage is a sustained meditation on the still life in art. Robert Vas Dias’s new book, which pairs his poetry and art-critical prose—others’ and his own—with artwork, is a subtle discourse on how objects condition our lives in creating an essentially visual field that makes collage possible.

Vas Dias was integral to America’s avant-garde poetry movement subsequent to the well-known anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960. He’s published 17 poetry collections, many collaborations with artists.

Some artworks Vas Dias has chosen, and his accompanying poems, broaden the parameters of the genre. Apples gathered by Paul Cézanne, or bottles on a tray as depicted by James Ensor, are widely recognized as still lifes — but how about Alexandra Exter’s “Constructivist Still Life”(1917, oil on canvas), which art historian Georgii Kovalenko says lacks figuration while possessing “a definite order”? The beautiful inchoate “Lemon”(1967, oil on board) by Louis le Brocquy summons Paul Klee’s “[revelation of] the reality behind visible things.” Comments like these are arrayed collage-like (hence the book’s subtitle) around the artworks Vas Dias has selected, accompanied by his own prose and verse. His curation is chronological and begins with a focus on food.

The “Stele of Princess Nefertiabet and food placed in her tomb”(circa 2565 BC) leads Vas Dias to observe that art has become “the food for millennia.” The “picture reincarnates” (his pun intentional); “matter becomes / image becomes spirit.” The stele’s colors have faded but that “doesn’t matter, / matter becomes immortal.”

Diego Velázquez, ‘Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary” (1618), oil on canvas, (courtesy The National Gallery, London)

Velázquez’s “Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary”(oil on canvas, 1618) is a turning point in this art history. It’s paired with Vas Dias’s masterful poem “How We Lived.” In Velázquez’s “kitchen interior” food’s become the predicate for the painting’s drama;”fish and eggs” are “arranged / on plates on a table” — while “a resentful Martha” is “pestling something in a vessel” and in another, smaller room (in the painting’s upper right quadrant) Jesus is having a “tête à tête with Mary.” The conversation, off-center, is the revelation. Vas Dias closes his poem with this rumination:

We're the kitchen people half our lives, our lives
         depend upon the work we do making
mundane arrangements of the commonplace
         to nourish the soul and body, the things
of vita silente immutable, immortal, the art of
        artefacts telling others of how we lived.

Ingesting the body of Christ is really not the point.

Ben Nicholson’s alluring 1950 abstraction, “Still Life Linear(Goblets)” (oil and pencil on canvas) prompts a very different kind of poem in both style and content. Starting with its whimsical title, “Something there is,” Vas Dias raises the question of the object pure and simple:

eye's pleasure   to abstract
         shapes of every   day

things    from the singular
    shift into    a construct

of objects that is     itself
    an object     forgetting

expectation     befuddlement
    become perception

of an artifice     becoming
art     essence of pleasure
Judith Rothchild, “Quelques-douzaines” (2012), mezzotint on Hahnemühle, (courtesy Robert Vas Diasauthor, © Judith Rothchild)

The poem “Deconstruction Exercise” responds to “Quelques-douzaines,” a 2012 mezzotint by Judith Rothchild. The poem describes her stacked grayish egg crates, and the shadowy eggs residing within their recesses. By listing the image’s evocations, with joyful verve, he documents Rothchild’s avoidance of symbolism:

Besides five paper-pulp egg trays
        stacked, some with eggs,
                  there's little here except

an early 20th-century Art Nouveau
          architecturally innovative facade
                      of a multi-story block of flats,

rows of quaintly dressed acrobats
          stacked and balanced
                      on each other's shoulders,

a mysterious cliff face
           pocked by deep caves
                      hewn by ancient tribes.

an underground Byzantine cistern
            like the Basilica cistern below Istanbul,
                        where pale fish slowly swim,

rows of women and girls wearing the 
            traditional white Breton coiffes that
                         Gauguin painted in Pont-Aven.

At this point Vas Dias shifts to wry comment: “But this, you say, is realism.” It is, rather than:

an excuse for fantasizing
           the interior of wasp nests or

anything else. But nothing is more surreal,
           nothing more abstract than reality,
                     fodder for extravagant visions

of the artist's paper dreamscapes:
           we're always making strange arrays
                     of the real, insistent dreamworld.
Anthony Eyton RA, “Fruit Comes First” (2019), oil on canvas, (courtesy Browse & Darby, London, © Anthony Eyton)

The book’s final specimen is an amazing self-portrait by Anthony Eyton, “Fruit Comes First” (2019, oil on canvas), in which the human figure looks out at the viewer from within the painting. Is this nature mort? The poem starts with factual recognition: “At the far end of the table / ensemble of fruits and vessels // is the maker, regisseur / of the mise-en-scene // of the bursting studio where / he’s the centre of the arrangement[.]” Yet the painting’s narrative is less important than the affect of the paint, how it’s applied, the palette. (Yellow-red orbs on a plate in the foreground are not — fruit comes first? — what’s first noticed). “Still Life,” the only poem that is not about a specific image, serves as the book’s frontispiece and begins,

Arrangement is all:
           how everything falls
                    into its place, the inevitable
                                space that's been made
                                      to receive it 

“The art of our century is that of collage,” Guy Davenport once insisted; moreover, “collage is by genre and by strategy the art of still life.” Vas Dias means to enshrine “the things / of vita silente” in the resonant now. The facticity of objects is set before us. Are they self-evident or metaphysical? The senses, some ancient philosopher whispered in this poet’s ear, are the windows of the soul.

Poetics of Still Life: A Collage by Robert Vas Dias can be purchased online and from booksellers.

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