Friday, May 24, 2013

`An Immense Elaboration'

The first poem in L.E. Sissman’s first collection, Dying: An Introduction (1968), is an eight-page, three-part sequence, “Going Home, 1945.” The fifth part of the second section, detailing familiar twentieth-century American landscapes, is titled “The Town”: 

“In this al fresco gallery of Sheelers –
Replete with stack and tipples, ramps and hoppers,
Vents, derricks, ducts, louvers, and intercooler –
I wander lonely as a cloud. Here is the beauty
Of this ridiculous, gas-smelling city.
Not those gilt towers stuck up so proudly
To spell a skyline, not those too loudly
Dulcet and unobtrusively huge houses
Dotting the northern suburbs. No, the heart
Of it is where its masters’ love is:
In the cold-rolling mills, annealing rooms,
Pickling and plating vats, blast furnaces,
Drop-forging shops, final assembly lines:
Wherever angular, ideal machines,
Formed seamlessly of unalloyed desire,
Strike worthless stereotypes out of the fire.” 

The reference in the first line is to painter-photographer Charles Sheeler (1883-1965), a first-generation American Modernist. He was associated with Charles Demuth, Paul Strand and other Precisionists, artists who dovetailed devotion to abstract forms with an eye for the new American industrial/architectural landscape. Critics have called his work “stark” and “ascetic.” I see it rather as clean and free of embellishment. 

Consider Sheeler’s American Landscape, an oil painting from 1930. From the title you might expect amber waves of grain. In 1927-28, Sheeler spent six weeks photographing the Ford Motor Company’s plant in River Rouge, Mich., for a promotional campaign devoted to the Model A. Here’s a photo Sheeler took of the Ford plant in Dearborn during the same visit. (Sissman, incidentally, was born Jan. 1, 1928, in Detroit, while Sheeler was in the city. Sissman’s father was a designer for the automotive industry, working for Studebaker and Packard.) Constance Rourke, Cleveland-born author of American Humor: a Study of the National Character (1931), also wrote Charles Sheeler: Artist in the American Tradition (1938), the first biography of the painter. She writes of American Landscape: 

“[It] contains an immense elaboration: note for example the doweled ends of the rungs in the ladder at the bottom of the picture to the right, and the tiny shadows which the rungs cast upon one side of the frame, and the subtle changes in line and tonal values within these forms by which the ladder is realized. Passage after small passage in this picture may be scrutinized for such yields…” 

The painting, like much of Sheeler’s best work, mingles minute attention to detail (note the lone human figure moving along the tracks between the two sections of train cars) with a celebration of pure geometry. Like some of the best American painters (Porter, Diebenkorn), he seems to have absorbed the lessons of abstraction in order to do something else. American Landscape and other paintings and photos by Sheeler remind me of a passing Midwestern industrial scene in The Adventures of Augie March: 

“We went through Gary and Hammond that day, on a trailer from Flint, by docks and dumps of sulphur and coal, and flames seen by their heat, not light, in the space of noon air among the black, huge Pasiphae cows and other columnar animals, headless, rolling a rust of smoke and connected in an enormous statuary of hearths and mills--here and there an old boiler or a hill of cinders in the bulrush spawning-holes of frogs.” 

One of Sissman’s rare gifts as a poet was the pleasure he took in artful arrangements of detail. Rourke’s observation about Sheeler – “Passage after small passage in this picture may be scrutinized for such yields…” – holds true for the poet. Peter Davison, Sissman’s editor and literary executor, described him as a “master of every curiosity.” Among the abiding pleasures of reading Sissman is the generous attention he pays to the world. He sees things and knows how things work. Count the loving specificities in this “small passage” from earlier in “Going Home, 1945”: 

“There still remain these nights
Of close restraint in heat, a camisole
Of dampness wired for the amazingly
Loud sound of streetcars roller-skating; for
The shocking sight of the electric-blue
Stars overhead; for their galvanic smell
Of ozone; and the unforgettable scent
Of air-conditioned drugstores, where the pure
Acid of citrus cuts across the fat
Riches of chocolate, subjugates perfume
(Evening in Paris), soap, iodoform.”

1 comment:

MMc said...

Speaking of the Precisionists, Do you know of George Ault's work? I didn't learn of him until recently. I find some of his paintings memorable.