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Laziness. Or Synecdoche. Palimpsest.

August 12, 2009

So, I started to write about the poetry project and instead deviated yet again into the litany of my discontents. Yeesh.

Did I forget to say how much I’m enjoying Jesse’s poems?

The main challenge in working from poems is that I’m so literal-minded, it takes me a while to get past the most obvious, pure illustrations that first spring to mind, to something a little more interesting, elusive, allusive, oblique. It’s a fun challenge, though, in associative thinking.

When I wrote something to that effect to Jesse, he wrote back:

i think i know what you mean about the impulse toward the literal.  for me, when i’m responding to some other work (a painting, a poem, often a movie), i often start with some detail (not necessarily a primary one) and then spiral out or away from it, feeding more off of the state of mind into which the original work pushes me than off of further details in the original. and in the end, the original detail might disappear. other times i take several details and rearrange them in different ways and then look at the blank space on the page that now needs new connective tissue.

And that seems like a great way to approach making paintings as well as poems, especially for me:  to practice being more flexible and letting things go, once in a while. I hope that some of these paintings end up being completely different from the way I had envisioned them at the beginning, even if it means that when they’re finished one can no longer trace the thread that connects them, Ariadne like, to the original poem.

Here is one of the poems that I’ve been working with:

What They Wanted

I wanted to want—  what they wanted

To dig a pit and stand at its overhang

To wait for gusts—  lean when they did not come

I might have believed in palimpsests—  beneath
my skin

A part of me wished to measure out my other parts
and scatter them—

so long

suckers

—in the wind

A part a part a part a part

___________________

I don’t know that I can write specifically about what I am drawn to in poems, but it is usually an inchoate pull towards certain words or phrases, rather than the poem as a whole. One of the very few things I have retained from my many years of studying Latin is the rhetorical device synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is substituted for the whole. (A contemporary example of this would be the use of “wheels” to mean a car.) Anyway, I’ve decided that my own approach to poetry (and novels too, actually) is fundamentally synecdochic:  certain parts of the text come to represent the whole text, in the congress of my mind. It’s a kind of selective vision:  my brain only really focuses on the parts it likes the most, and sort of ignores the rest. You could justly say that I’m a lazy reader, and don’t take the trouble to integrate the work as a whole, as the author created it. But I’m going to call myself an interpretive, nay, a synecdochic reader.

Anyway. I just decided after I wrote this paragraph, re-reading What They Wanted, that it’s even appropriate for me to read the poem that way, viz. the last line:

“a part a part a part a part”

So I feel fine about my reading habits.

The image that came to mind after reading this poem was of a kind of whirlwind, pieces eddying in mid-air, a cloud of undoing. I’ve explored a similar image before in the painting Atalanta.

Atalanta

Atalanta, for me, was about the process of making or unmaking yourself, caught in an ambiguous moment between creation and dissolution.

But that painting is kind of a squishy whirlwind. This poem makes me think of a person cut up into pieces, like a flesh-colored paper doll. Sharp edges. Angles. Discrete pieces of paint.

For the first time ever, I’ve been using tape to make hard edges and straight lines.

(The irony is that in creating an image of pieces blowing apart I’m actually carefully building the painting. Painstakingly constructing an image that’s supposed to be about deconstruction.)

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This painting is a funny size, I forgot to write it down exactly, but something like 19.5” x 26.5″.

Also, since the canvas is going to be stretched over board when it’s finished, I’m playing with the idea of having a shaped canvas, because I can cut the underlying board to whatever shape I want with my jigsaw. So the white areas are places I’m thinking of cutting out. We’ll see if this actually turns out to be something that fundamentally, structurally enforces the idea of the paintings, or is just an extraneous “cool” idea.

I’m thinking of making a bigger version as well, maybe 4’ x 3’. This poem, this image, really resonates with me.

I also very much like the line:
“I might have believed in palimpsests— beneath
my skin”

I love the word palimpsest. It’s the perfect metaphor for paintings, and for life. Coming from more medieval times, when there was no paper and parchment was so expensive that it was habitually scraped clean and then written on again.  All paintings are literally palimpsests, of course, layer over layer, the final image a thin surface crust over the history of its own making. And our bodies palimpsests of the years of our lives, although never scraped clean but only perpetually overwritten. Every new experience lying atop the accumulation of previous ones, so that we can only make out our past through the scrim of all that has come between. The illegible sum of our parts.

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