Friday, June 3, 2011

Eigner and Painting - Installment #2

Almost anyone with even a passing interest in art has seen one or another of Charles Demuth's canvases. They're among the most popular--and accessible--images of American Modernist art there are. Demuth himself had an interesting--if difficult, in many ways--life, and the contradictions in his work mirror to some degree the struggles in his personal life. A man who suffered periodically from chronic poor health (he died at 52 of complications from diabetes), he was also a homosexual who allowed homoerotic imagery to crop up frequently in his work.

Demuth was among the first non-European artists to successfully adapt the qualities of Cubism and Futurism into his paintings, and he is credited with creating the purest examples (along with Charles Sheeler) of a style of representation called Precisionism. Though I've always been a fan of Precisionism, my discussion of Demuth here is primarily in relation to the poetry of Larry Eigner. Eigner's formal approach to composition shares many common cross-media techniques with Modernist painting, and seems in some ways a fulfillment of some of the most fascinating explorations of abstract arrangement, layering, intersection, collage, and illusionary depth--though expressed in a different medium (writing).

Previously I discussed one of Eigner's poems "room/for flowers" [April 25-8 72 # 6 7 5] in relation to a still-life painting by Cezanne of some fruit in a bowl. I tried to show how Eigner's short-hand, stripped-down, minimal notations about flowers in a room "used space" and massing in the same way that the early French Modernist painter had done--Cezanne's discrete "touches" of color merely suggesting form and density, with shadow and weight implied with faint shadings of grey and soft line. I suggested that Eigner's staccato assertions "dimensions // distances // directions"--like compass movements or vectors intersecting the composition, were metaphorical verbal equivalents of painterly cubistic divisions of space (commonly seen in the work of Picasso, Braque, Gris, as well as in Demuth's subtly rendered water-color pieces).

In the best of Demuth's landscapes and industrial or architectural studies, organic form--represented by twisting, bending, sinuous shapes--is contrasted against rigid geometric structures. There's a muscular, centrifugal ganglion pulling Demuth's designs into a unified whole, with tensions drawing jumbled varieties of matter into proximal orders of two-dimensional stasis. Three-dimensional depth is implied, but never seems very crucial to the relationship of the various parts. This deliberate lack of depth is similar in affect to Eigner's lack of grammatical coherence, a deliberate fragmentation of words and floating clauses which may, or may not be joined together either as sentences, sentence-fragments, or as related parts of a narrative of non-syntactic unfolding meaning. Clusters or collages of things drawn from specific landscapes or subjects are posed or posited in a balanced disequilibrium, driven by reading to a variable conclusion. Virgil Thomson famously created musical "portraits" based on specific individuals, whose abstract relationship to their subjects was largely conjectural. But Eigner's constellations of words and things on the page almost demand to be perceived as visual metaphors for the process of discovery or perception across the dimensions of visual, aural, tactile, or in the realm of pure thought (cognition).

William Carlos Williams had insisted that poetry reflect the surfaces of actual things, rather than being bogged down in abstract ratiocination. Imagism had been about finding in things the ultimate metaphors or inherent qualities of specific feelings, meanings or purposes. Demuth--inspired by Williams's evocation of kinetic action in his immediate environment--i.e., big red fire-engines hurtling down streets at night--painted this homage to his friend, a visual representation of the poem, which is nothing if not an abstract metaphor of the original manifestation--a perceptual vortex expanding kinetically, the numerical superimposition replicating itself dramatically towards the viewer, the space an axis radiating outward as tangent vectors.

In writing, the connections which establish the structure of an argument, are expressed through the syntax. Rhetorical strategies and rhythmic ordering enable the writer to sustain a continuous sequence of assertion which builds to a conclusive resolution. In painting, abstraction is a way of dispersing the visual queues without losing tension and suggestiveness; in writing, abstraction usually occurs as a result of the use of words with broad connotative or non-specific reference(s). In the architectural studies above, the constituent fragments of buildings and trees are clear enough, though their precise dimensions and interior relationships aren't specified. In the work of a poet such as Eigner's, the organic metaphor of structure as a growth from a genesis of a coded template is a literal map of the process of the poem's unfolding. It achieves its meaning progressively, and energetically, leaving a trail of impressions and feelings in the mind, demarcated by the visual and aural increments of the individual words and phrases. An Eigner poem exists in time, but the fragments of which it is made have been cut and pasted, ordered and reordered into functional sequences. The process has meaningful analogues in painting.
                                    September 5 74  # 8 8 7
  in air


The qualities--in even a quite simple poem such as this one--of touch, smell, taste, seeing--are applied in much the same way that line and shade, color and depth are used in painting. Even the dedication, placed in Eigner's typical fashion, as a descending stepped notation parallel to the text of the poem, has a visual quality, the way signatures on paintings sometimes do--particularly in Asian painting. The apples "float" --literally, in the space (sky) (air) of the page, hanging from the branch, which is moved "in" the wind (wind being a metaphor for the empty occupied space of the page), influencing the quality of the observer's sense of the taste of the fruit--again, literally, moved sideways in the wind. Taste is of an order of descriptive response which occurs at a higher level--it's an intuitive mental interpretation drawn out of the mere depiction which precedes it. In an apple orchard, we can literally "smell" the apples on the trees, and we can even, in our anticipatory imaginative time-sense, taste them, or imagine tasting them, too. Taste is a derivation from direct experience, which heightens and intensifies our purely visual apprehension of organic form (matter). Matter is alive, moving, we can taste what we see, we can feel what we think. The interactive relationship among the separate stanzaic groupings has a physical quality--as the eye moves from step to step, there is a nominal lighting up of each reference; the words become pictorial symbols which can evoke the range of responses in a directed process that is very close to the way we experience reality. The mind can "feel" language in the same way it "feels" sensory data.
But the lack of a framework of narrative completeness--with all the details filled in--is analogous to the two-dimensionality, and the incomplete edges of the Demuth paintings. Like a painting, a poem can only furnish us with an incomplete picture, and therefore must rely on subtle nuances and suggestiveness to achieve the sense of a whole segment of event. The pleasure we derive from paintings such as Demuth's architectural studies involves, I would argue, the same kind and quality of pleasurable apprehension we enjoy in the work of a poet such as Eigner. The principle of a thing (its shape, dimension, mass, position in space, etc.) can be derived and summarized (or abbreviated) with a minimum of verbal (or visual) matter, but that matter can be simply powerful. Modern art's way of taking away the gestalt of a scene, in order to focus reductively on something, also carries the implication of mental starvation. In a previous post about Eigner's composition--"A Working Hypothesis"--regarding the effects of sensory deficits in early mental training--

Dedicated regions of the mind are specialized for given functions. Increased cross-talk between cognitive regions specialized for different functions may account for the many of the kinds of changes we see in an Eigner poem. The experience of seeing objects when thinking in verbal terms may co-activate adjacent recognitions, enabling the altered states of perception which we see in his work. One way of thinking about this might be that a failure to prune synapses that are normally formed in great excess during the first few years of life may cause such cross-activation. In other words, the slowed-down pace of stimuli which characterize a mind starved of experience, along with the frustrated increments (progress) of projection, may engender novel types of connections, the very kind we seem to see in Eigner's poems. I have long thought that the objectified consciousness, and the evocative displacements in certain poetry, are the consequence of special training or reinforcement in perceptual or performance deficit. This might be one way to view Eigner's special gifts as a poet--how he was able to cultivate a super-awareness (of effects) which has been remarked as one of the most magical of poetic skills. Research into the relationship between brain studies and condensed matter (quantum) physics, ongoing now, may yield interesting keys to how poets achieve the super-penetration we associate with high end poetic insights. Eigner's work would certainly be fertile ground for further investigation along these lines.

--I made the point that the choice to focus on one aspect of the qualitative meaning of a scene or structure permits the exclusion of the background, the orientation, and the maker's overt presence. All these may be problematized in favor of a hovering, holographic projection, artificially detached from any grounded context or proximal locus. The freedom such projections imply is liberating; when we are experiencing something, our mind selects the key elements of any scene or movement, "filling in" the rest with presumed references.

In Demuth's Figure 5, the fire engine has been abstracted, so that its literal presence (its shape, its density, its velocity) are all implied instead of revealed or recreated. Only the symbolic aspects of constituent qualities have been retained, reordered in a unified projection which hurtles towards the viewer with propulsive force.

                                January 15 77  # 1 0 0 0
 picture the black window
how cold can it get 
      foghorn clock
       reel creeks
         are there any birds
        I hope the fish are swimming alive
           under the ice
Notice how the nouns function as objects--shorn of their syntactic connection to any narrative grammar--which then are "observed" and bounce off other nominatives--as well as other phrases--to form a constellation of things in a spatial arrangment where qualities can be seamlessly evoked without being saddled with sentimental auras or associations. The "black window"--in a state of absolute freezing cold--midnight blue is like a window in the ice, through which the mind of the poem perceives fish "in the blackness" of deep water (under covering ice). The poem's sentiment, then, is allowed to exist simultaneously with the fact of creatures existing "outside" in nature, unprotected and naked (as are the "things" in the poem--birds, fish, humans (?))--without burdening them down as grammatical receptors of the perceiver's regard. Eigner's discrete atomization of the objects and assertions in a poem forces time and dimension to the outer limits of the frame, in the same way that Demuth's paintings do. Demuth's paintings have vague limits (outlines), because the pictorial edge is not allowed to define the edges of the subjective ganglion of matter. There's a centrifugal twist to nearly every Demuth painting, a circular or triangular torsion which unites the lines, shades and areas into a contracted whole. It is nearly synonymous, in my reading, to the way Eigner gathers the constituent parts of his poems into a gravitational field of relationships wherein each thing orbits to a fixed ratio to each other part.
                                 February 9 77  # 1 0 0 6
so many legs to the caterpillar
      and then it flies

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