Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Steve Gehrke, _Michelangelo's Seizure_

A GREAT IDEA for a collection -- poems about painters and paintings -- but an idea that easily could gave gone oh so wrong. But not here. This is a good book.

The poems are at times ekphrastic, but take frequent detours into the life of the painter, into his (all the painters are male) circumstances and his memories, into the conflicts and disasters of the painting's historical moment, and into the physical act of depositing and moving paint on a canvas.

Gehrke's syntax makes this work. The long, unscrolling, sentences, as rhizomatically elaborated as Proust's, drift associatively from past to present, concrete to abstract, near to remote, suggesting by their sinuosity the multiple points of origin that can end in a single work of art.

"The Raft of the Medusa" is a case in point. It begins by evoking the horrible event the painting later depicted, bends into GĂ©ricault's visits to morgues to make studies for the painting, shifts into his recently-terminated affair with his aunt, then concludes with the painting's becoming an expression of discontent with the recently-restored French monarchy. This happens over the course of 13 5-line stanzas and just seven sentences.

In this sentence -- the sixth -- the image of GĂ©ricault at his canvas unfolds into imagery of the shipwreck of the Medusa due to its incompetent aristocratic commander, the mutiny that occurred on the raft, the affair with its aunt and its end, and the betrayals of another older-male-authority-figure, the king:

Still, there's something unfinished in the scene,
something not quite said, until, later, in his uncle's
bed, floating on the buoyancy of hips, he
and his aunt rowing towards completion, her body

splashing up through the bottom of his own, he looks
down into the smoke and oil of her eyes
and feels something like mutiny rise up inside
of him, so that he understands he really
could leave his uncle weeping on the floor, overthrown,

though, all at once, he feels marooned when he has come,
his aunt turning away from him again,
dressing quickly, sighing, "What have we done?"
so that watching her smooth the covers
with her palm, the canvas remakes itself inside of him again,

the scene shaded now with all the broken oaths of France,
lives cut off by the velocity of guillotines,
the constitution unrolled like a carpet for the King
to walk across on his way back to the throne.

The loose blank verse feel here is typical of the book as well -- all in all, there's something of Browning here, with third-person-interiority substituted for first person, the allusiveness a little less recondite, the syntax a little less baroque, the rhythm a little more supple. Is Gehrke the new Richard Howard? I have no idea whether he would like the idea, but Michelangelo's Seizure has a lot of what made Untitled Subjects a favorite of mine.

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