Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Mary Hickman, _Rayfish_

VERY NICE AND all that the Academy of American Poets has decided to jump on our bandwagon by awarding Mary Hickman the 2016 James Laughlin Award, but we'll have you know that LLL was on board as long ago as May 30, 2015.  You can look it up.

Rayfish is an undiluted delight to read but daunting to describe.

At first glance, we seem to have fourteen essays, subdivided into six sections, on works of art, largely but not exclusively contemporary, often but not exclusively paintings (Jenny Saville, Eva Hesse, Chaim Soutine, but also Chu Yun, Sally Mann, Merce Cunningham, Kazuo Ohno). So, in one respect, Rayfish is the wild-eyed, somewhat hipper younger sister of Jacques Ranciére's Aisthesis.

However, the book is also streaked with autobiographical episodes--childhood in China, boarding school in Taiwan, near-death experiences--that in an eyeblink resolve into reflections on aesthetics, the ends and means of art. So, in another respect, it is as though we are meeting the scarved-and-hatted transpacific cousin of Dave Hickey's Air Guitar.

Then again--the essays are not essays at all, really. They are poems in prose, quicksilver and agile. They teleport--from one moment to the next, one can suddenly be in a wholly different place from where one thought one was, plucked from the backyard garden chatting with a neighbor and dropped at the Palaz of Hoon. So, in yet another respect, it is as though Ranciére and Hickey magically had offspring that were in turn possessed by the spirit of James Tate.

And then there are the moments that do not sound like anything else one knows, as when the examination of Artemisia Gentilleschi's Danaë and Judith Slaying Holofernes gives way to this:

She dreams. She falls backward. Cloth fills my vision. And I think I'd like to bring, out of the abyss of her figure, all the illumination of arrival. The skin is teeming.  The skin has such great spirit. An entire world of light is at play just under the skin. Your calves become Danaë's calves at leisure, pressed against the grey felt in pleasure, and your bare shoulders could be Judith's shoulders, broad and reflective under skylights. But as my eyes travel up, I realize you wear the wrinkled, gutted cheek of Holofernes's half-severed head. Or you wear the same dropped countenance as the one who watched you. This image denies me body in motion, your buoyant bulk; instead, it offers me a still life of skin, a cap of flesh traversed by color and revealing the threshold of my own body.

The boundary between art and life is soft in Rayfish, sometimes the merest membrane, sometimes not even there.

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