Wednesday, July 11, 2012

`A Number of Thoughts, All Inconclusive'

Two poets in the summer-fall issue of Umbrella (“A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose”) write about commonplace objects of dismissible beauty. Wendy Drexler’s “Still Life with Glasses and Tobacco” concerns a 1633 painting of the same name by William Claesz, and Basil Rosa has three poems about seashells, each named for its species –  "Anomia Simplex," “Crepiduia Fornicata” and “Mytilus Edulis.” 

Claesz’s faithfulness to the visual surface of the world is a form of reverence. His thrown-together-looking still life of walnuts, half-peeled lemon, olives, a pewter plate and long-stemmed pipes is, Drexler writes, “Tethered to the halter of the real.” In the goblet, Drexler sees a reflection of the painter. I don’t, in online reproductions, but I trust her. Why is it we find paintings of mundane household scenes so poignant? Part of it is the knowledge that the objects, once carefully arranged by the artist, ceased existing four centuries ago, as did the artist. Claesz’s painting is unpeopled but entirely human, as though someone had just left the room. Used objects acquire a patina of significance and carry traces of the men and women who handled them. Drexler sees in the clutter “a pas de deux with death, / whose momentum rumbles under this abundance, / this decay.” The painting refutes the already dissolving scene it depicts: “Artifice, this art.”

Rosa’s seashell poems are more fanciful, devoted to “common washed-up treasure.” Of Crepiduia fornicata he writes: “It reminds me that to be common is to be broken, / dinged-up, past one’s prime like so many others.” This might be Drexler writing of Claesz's lemon peel and broken clay pipe. Paul Valéry concludes his essay “Man and the Sea Shell” (Aesthetics, 1964) with these words:

“Just as Hamlet, picking up a skull in the rich earth and bringing it close to his living face, finds a gruesome image of himself, and enters upon a meditation without issue, bounded on all sides by a circle of consternation, so beneath the human eye, this little, hollow, spiral-shaped calcerous body summons up a number of thoughts, all inconclusive….”

[See also in Umbrella a new poem by Len Krisak, "Sighted."]

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