Perennials on Fire: Ekphrastic Transformations in Adam Vines’ Out of Speech

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Out of Speech
by Adam Vines
(Louisiana State University Press, 78pp., $17.95)

Out of Speech, Adam Vines’ inventive second book, consists of ekphrastic poems inspired by some of the past century’s most compelling works of art. Over several years, the author traveled to art museums in the U.S. and abroad for a firsthand look at the works he admired (see “Changing Perspective: Art’s Influence on Adam Vines’ Poetry” at the LSU Press website), and as a result, the poems in his new book reflect a palpable authenticity. (Unlike the author, I’ve settled for JPEGs and art books as I write this review from Baltimore.) The artists that Vines selects for attention—Picasso, Magritte, Rothko, Wyeth, Hopper, and more—stand squarely at the center of the canon. Although I might have initially hoped to encounter painters less frequently invoked, Vines’ taste is excellent, and the poems show enough ambition and variety to justify his choices.

The best-known ekphrastic poems—Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” for example, or Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar” (which Stevens denied was inspired by any specific Picasso painting)—embody the genre’s challenges and possibilities. Because language alone cannot summon a work of art with much precision, ekphrastic poems often rely on certain assumptions: that readers will supply some visual memory of the work (or look it up), or that the poem itself can function as an independent entity enriched by—but not reliant on—a reader’s knowledge of its source. Poets who dabble in ekphrasis sometimes find that their own unique voice or perspective is enough to reinvigorate the standard strategies. Vines’ challenge, however, is much greater. He can’t keep recycling the usual strategies throughout an entire book-length project, and his sources’ stylistic differences require a flexible approach. In this context, the vitality and variety that Vines brings to these poems are all the more remarkable.

The poet imposes prosodic restrictions that further complicate his task: “Technically, I was interested in experimenting with shorter lines….I wanted to test the lines’ integrity, their tensile strength…[to see] how a rhetorical moment or a phonetic burst could be affected by clipped and frayed syntax and by the visuals of line lengths and white spaces” (LSU Press website). The results are fascinating: poems narrow on the page, generally consisting of one- and two-beat lines (occasionally three) that are nonetheless highly voiced and tonally varied. Partly resulting from these choices, understatement and concision are among Vines’ signature strengths.

Vines’ opening poem, “The Philosophy of Subtraction,” embodies one possible entry into ekphrasis: the non-ekphrastic exposition. A literary traveler staying at the Marriott misses his absent family, “my daughter’s soup getting cold // while she drills her dolls/on subtraction, my wife / lassoing poor conjugations, // slashing l’accent grave et aigu, / the crockpot squatting / behind them…” Edward Hopper’s Excursion into Philosophy joins the poem fairly late as metaphor for the speaker’s longing for his partner. In the actual painting, a middle-aged, mid-century Everyman sits at the edge of a bed placed just outside a square of sunlight; he looks sadly downward, an open book beside him, while, her back to the viewer, a bare-bottomed woman rests on her side. In addressing “Hopper’s man,” the speaker confides, “I, too, / no longer feel the woman / beside me in bed, friend,” though the speaker’s wife is actually absent while the painting’s protagonist, paralyzed by some metaphysical or sexual ennui, sits beside his sleeping partner. Here, Vines offers a poem in which the source painting serves as an ironic mirror, drily humorous yet touching: a way to broaden the exploration beyond one traveler’s autobiography.

Whenever we rely on words to summon an image, we are interpreting and selecting details likely to reveal as much about ourselves as about whatever we’re describing. In ekphrasis, the process is further complicated by the role of the visual artist, the creator whose initial work takes on the secondary role of (momentarily) absent source material. Ekphrastic poems, then, are doubly created—by the artist and by the poet whose language responds to that original. If we further consider the role of readers whose experiences diverge widely, the ways that ekphrastic poems operate offer an even more fascinating (if slightly exhausting) web of interactions to trace.

The poems on Picasso’s Woman Playing with a Small Cat and Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening reflect this doubled creative process. In “The Apostle,” a nine-line jewel, Vines foregrounds a few key details—a “she” with fingers like “curls,” the lap cat jumping for its reward—while leaving out visual aspects inessential to the poem. Metaphor and simile offer the linguistic equivalent of tangible qualities: the cat leaps in “a lap revival,” striking “a midair / hallelujah,” his target the dangled “tuft” that’s “like a liver // lollipop.” “Borders” relies on similar strategies. After questioning the painting’s title (“But it seems / noonish”), Vines focuses on the work’s main elements—the pines, the collie, the couple at the house—as simile or metaphor add color or texture (the background pines are “blue as parrotfish,” for example). Here, Vines is more active as co-creator: he asserts his own viewer’s perspective (moving closer, he revises his first impression of where the sitting man is looking), lends a present-tense immediacy to the painting’s subjects (“She folds her arms / at her waist, leaning / against their white / house”), and projects a storyline onto the image (“She will not / talk tonight. He hasn’t / talked for years”). Even when ekphrasis relies on fairly straightforward description, the author’s artful attention to language is a key co-creative element that provides original perceptions and new perspectives on an image.

More often, this poet’s restless curiosity draws him toward surprising epiphanies and unusual connections. “Cranes Arcing Like Static” features a synthesis of several key techniques, among them, the impulse to interpret a painting through narrative, the impulse to examine successive narrative possibilities, and the tension between inferring the artist’s intent and projecting the viewer’s preoccupations. The source painting is Pierre Bonnard’s Young Woman Writing in which the titular figure, her face hidden, bends closely to her task, a stack of paper within easy reach; scattered over the rest of the long dining room table and red tablecloth lie several discarded pages. What is happening, and why? For Vines, the possibilities multiply: she is scribbling formalities—“Regrets, Thank Yous”—or else “a thread of ink / suturing a lover’s wound.” Or perhaps, Vines suggests, the pages are “poems she will // fold into origami: cranes, / 1,000 of them, Sadako, for healing.” (Here, Vines refers to Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima victim diagnosed with childhood leukemia, whose obsessive paper-folding reflected a folk belief that folding a thousand origami cranes would grant a wish—in this case, to survive her illness.) Narrative options fascinate us because our experience of visual art is so often personal and idiosyncratic, and rightly so: we all seek stories in what we see, and a painting’s stillness often invites us to fill the silence with language. Even so, we’re aware that Vines the poet is imagining the young woman as a poet—perhaps projecting, as most of us do, our story onto a favorite image (and isn’t doing so part of the fun?). Also subtly present is the impulse to revise or, in some way, imaginatively alter the visual art itself. The poet remarks, “I wish to see her knees, /her legs more stable / than the chair // she leans out of”—or perhaps he just wants to enter the painting’s world. And what of the poem’s winningly obscure title? Vines seems to refer to the “arcing” of migrating cranes who collide with power lines—an analogue, perhaps, to the woman’s frantic emotional state? Or a reminder that even paper cranes connect to a living creature—that a kind of magic arcs back and forth between language and life? (The poem concludes by imagining an animation flip-book made from the young woman’s discarded pages.) This sort of provocative play between description, narrative, and free association is one of the book’s consistent hallmarks.

Bonnard’s Young Woman Writing or Hopper’s Cape Cod Evening may be experienced as a unified whole even as we break down their constituent elements or consider aspects of composition; but a work such as Balthus’ The Street is so crowded with figures and forms that we’re drawn to respond to its separate parts. Here, the author must decide which material will receive attention without regard to whether the resulting poem will represent the original work overall. “Four Moves to the Focal Point” features only two of the characters that inhabit Balthus’ street scene of nine figures: the male and female at viewer’s far left. Vines offers a narrative: “His knee is too far / up the back / of her skirt. /…his hand // clutching her / entire forearm / as if it were a pipe wrench.” For Vines (and for audiences who saw the painting on its 1934 Paris debut), the image is of sexual assault: an older male, “his voice pulsing // from bellow shake / to a sharp tremolo,” forces himself on a prepubescent girl, pulling her back and away from the child playing beside her, and from childhood itself. The poet’s title acknowledges the unusual composition and implicit commentary: none of the other seven figures seem to notice or care about the struggle taking place in plain sight at the margins of their view—the literal margin of the painting.

Balthus’ Nude Before a Mirror, the source for “Re-Stroke I,” leads Vines to reinvent both viewer and subject as active participants in a creative/destructive process. Her face hidden by her arm as she lifts up her long brown hair, the nude in question appears to be a girl, not an adult woman. Initially, the poet looks beyond the painting, imagining the artist’s process: “The perennials must be on fire / outside”; “The lavender water pitcher / must have been an afterthought.” Suddenly, there’s the wish for action: “I want her to snap off its handle,” the speaker asserts, “and slip it over her veiny wrist / like a Bakelite bracelet.” The speaker continues, “I want to re-stroke”—that is, revise and repaint—“the canvas,” one which the girl should then grab and toss through “the open window / where Balthus crouches.” The girl’s agency is essential here as she transitions from passive subject into a protagonist who defies the artist’s observing eye—indeed, one who upends the very distinction between creator and created. For Vines, this painter’s eye is both creative and invasive, and while the verdict on Balthus’ body of work remains up for debate (Sabine Rewald’s Balthus: Cats and Girls [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013] offers an even-handed discussion of his achievement), the poet’s viewpoint is clear: a fellow artist, he admires the painting, but as a human being (and father), he rejects its objectifying gaze.

A truly exhaustive account of Out of Speech would run much longer. Some poems (“Overheard,” “Iconoclasts,” “A Study of Intergroup Reconciliation,” “Having Bummed a Smoke Outside the National Gallery, Though I Have Quit”) apply the author’s observations of museum-goers and/or of the museum environment to examine audience conceptions of the canon and its creators. Others (“Muliercula: Homunculus as Daughter,” “Noon Mass at Sacré-Coeur”) adapt and vary the use of non-ekphrastic exposition in resourceful, satisfying ways. (I’m especially fond of the latter in which nuns shush tourists who inadvertently interrupt Mass, putting the speaker in mind of the “Three Shades / of Death in Rodin’s / Gates of Hell” who “offer gifts / for the damned / drowning in their sins.”) Some (“Mimescape,” “Social Capital and the Introduction of the Vanilla Egg”) rely on the subjunctive to widen the possibilities of what viewer, creator, or subject are able to contemplate or envision: “If I carved // with my pen the front / leg of Yellow Cow / for brisket would // security let me be?” (“Social Capital…”).

“My View from Here,” a standout that opens by describing the organic surrealist forms of Yves Tanguy’s Les Vues, connects the tumor-like shape at the painting’s center to the type of cancer endured by a stranger who shares a diagnosis with the speaker’s “best friend / and fishing buddy of forty years.” The resulting elegy is among the most powerful poems in a book notable for its intelligence and emotional scope. In all, the range of effects that Vines brings to the project is extraordinary, especially against the backdrop of the poet’s self-imposed restrictions on syntax and line-length. As a whole, Out of Speech brims with ingenuity and the pleasures of an original mind in response to essential artistic and cultural touchstones. We may turn, as Adam Vines does, to the creation or experience of visual art when we are “out of speech” and in search of an aesthetic experience free of the approximations and limitations of words. But it is also “out of speech” that we articulate that experience, and out of language that the sharp, smart, touching poems of Adam Vines’ Out of Speech, a vivid and luminous book, emerge.