Friday, August 27, 2004

Collaborations between poets & painters have evolved into a genre thanks in good part to the work of Robert Creeley & several members of the New York School over the past half century. More recently, Susan Bee & Charles Bernstein have given the phenomenon an even more post-avant twist with several projects, including Little Orphan Anagram, a volume published with just 35 copies that was jaw droppingly beautiful & prohibitively expensive. Before it sold out & became the domain of book art (as distinct from art book) collectors.

Francie Shaw is a painter whose work may be best known to this audience through her many book covers for language poets, including volumes by Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian & David Bromige (as well as for the first edition of In the American Tree*), though her sets for the San Francisco Poet’s Theater in the 1970s & ‘80s may have been even more awe inspiring. There is in her line a sense of balance & efficacy, a calm confidence, that I think you can find in the written line of many West Coast poets, such as Kit Robinson or Norman Fischer. There is, in fact, a fascinating study yet to be written on the influence of painting & music on Western Langpo, and that study would center on the contributions of the work of Shaw & the Rova Saxophone Quartet.

In Playing Bodies, Shaw and Bob Perelman have extended the possibility of collaboration. Playing Bodies is a book that I don’t think could have been done by collaborators who haven’t been married for 30 years as have Perelman & Shaw. As such, it’s a unique opportuniuty to see & read work contextualized by an almost unfathomable familiarity & intimacy.

There are of course a million ways for any two individuals to collaborate, regardless of the media involved. Shaw began her series of 52 relatively small paintings of blue figures on a white background (in her introduction to the Granary Press edition, Susan Stewart compares Shaw’s paintings to Delft tiles) – their actual size is quite close to what we get in the book. At some point in the process, Perelman began writing responses. It’s not clear that it ever became a true dialog, with Shaw responding in turn to Perelman’s poems – did he ever write ones to which she painted – tho the book has the feel of dialog throughout.

Modeled after toy action figures Shaw had at hand, her paintings involve three recurring actors – a generic dinosaur & two generically gendered humans, one male, one female. In each of the 52 paintings, the dino (who is likewise “of human scale”) is involved or entangled with one figure. The paintings are evenly divided so that the male figure (in a dark oversized suit) appears 26 times, as does the female in a light smock or chemise.

In an afterword, Perelman writes that
In response to my first attempt to write a companion poem, [Shaw] talked about the one that is now #3, telling me that I was just taking the point of view of one of the figures, but that for her both figures formed a single event.
It’s true that most of Perelman’s poems occur in the first person, addressed to the second & if an action is referenced, the “I” appears almost always to be the human figure. But in Shaw’s paintings as well, it is the human who almost always appears to be striving. Because the peopled figures were, in Shaw’s word, “bendable” & the dino of a harder plastic, its immobility gives it a sort of monolithic muteness. Her paintings are very much the tale of a Garbo-esque Dino beseeched by longing humans. The humans wrestle, tumble, climb, lift (and are lifted), snuggle & otherwise harass their beloved, but the dino retains a constant posture, regardless of the position into which it is placed. These are, as Shaw notes, not action paintings but “still lifes of three small figures”

But just as these postures mime action, so also they figure attitude & emotion. The human figures are poignant with longing, the dino blasé with diffidence. The result sets up a collaboration between painter & poet that feels very much like a correspondence, but one in which each is taking the same role. The silence of the dino throughout is stunning.

In the painting Perelman mentioned above, the female figure is reaching out as if about to hug the dino. Their heads touch. To accomplish this, she must stretch herself, so that only one foot touches the ground, the other raised behind her. Perelman’s poem reads

I want it
away from me
and I’ll push
as hard as I have to

It’s wrong
and if it doesn’t back off the wrong spot
I’ll kiss it
right in the kisser

It’s not right
that you’re here
I need you
pushed off the right spot

Where Shaw argues still life, Perelman sees want & need, right & wrong. These dynamics stay in play throughout Playing Bodies. It’s a fascinating, deeply moving tour de force for Perelman & Shaw alike.

A word on the introduction by Susan Stewart. Brief & straight forward, it’s perhaps the most useful preface to a book of poetry I’ve ever read. It’s a model of how to approach what is always a difficult, thankless task, having the first word in a volume that is not one’s own.

*Even if the National Poetry Foundation bungled it by using a matte cover stock instead of the glossy finish that had been promised.

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