Being an art dunce, my first thought upon examining my copy of Elaine Bleakney’s engaging new chapbook, “20 Paintings by Laura Owens” (now available from Dog Year, an imprint of Poor Claudia) was, “Does the figure of Laura Owens exist outside of this text?” (You see, I had never heard of the painter Laura Owens before, or knowingly seen a single one of her paintings, and at least at the initial moment of encountering her name, I was determined not to Google her.) The answer to my question, I learned, after pouring over the twenty-poem cycle in question (and after an eventual sojourn with the Internet), was, “Yes and No.”
In order to explore the themes that develop and run through the chapbook as a whole, it’s worthwhile to examine the actual layout of text (and just as importantly, blank space) on the page.
(The first poem in “20 Paintings,” quoted in entirety, blank space included)
Laura Owens. Untitled, 2009, acrylic and Flashe on linen, 18 x 20” [I’m
beginning to feel this for the mountains when I steer the car. Have you ever
lived in the mountains? Sometimes you’re the texture or the bowl; the ridge is
a stain or a drop; the colors aren’t the same today as the day before.]
This juxtaposition of space and text—each poem in the cycle adheres to the same format—creates multiple effects. First of all, and by far the simplest of all possible explanations in my mind, would be that open space creates a field for the reader to imagine the absent, roughly two-dimensional, visual surface that triggers the writing. But a far more interesting explanation, made possible by Bleakney’s aesthetic choices, is that the field created by the space allows the speaker to create a three-dimensional absence which she may fill with her own internal weather, a process in which the speaker becomes the painting’s ego, and eventually even a superimposed alter-ego for the painter herself, who remains mostly absent, in terms of fact. Throughout the cycle—other than a reference to her birthplace, we get very little information about the painter herself—but she remains ever-present through the speaker’s entreaties. The speaker evokes Owens directly, or more particularly, the Owens she is in the business of creating, such as here, in the third poem of the cycle:
Laura Owens. Untitled, 2010, Flashe on linen, 28 x 22’ [I get caught up in
color. The red. What it candles. Then all we could say about support. People
nearby. Strangers. Strange as this study by Laura Owens is to me. Strange as
“Laura Owens” is to me. I ran up the hill tonight in hot pink nikes. This is
what I sang.]
First of all, this is, simply put, beautiful writing. “The red. What it candles,” evokes, at least in my mind, a vivid visual response that slowly leaks into and warms the bones. (This chapbook contains a number of instances of surprising language—for example “so that texture can bleed;” “as the clouds scrape;” “she broke into candy colors,”–that ground the speaker’s associations and questions in the tangible world of the senses.) Second, getting ‘caught up in color’ is an interesting statement here. Certainly it’s appropriate to refer to color when discussing a painting. But the speaker in “20 Paintings,” arguably a work in the ekphrastic tradition, doesn’t set out to merely describe paintings, but more certainly records the moment of response. (This reminds me of Charles Olson quoting Edward Dahlberg in Projective Verse, namely, that “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception.” ) Certainly, a movement from perception to perception occurs within these poems and accounts for an abundance, almost excess, of associative material. In fact, as the series progresses, the speaker connects and alludes to—in other words, has on her mind—among other persons and things, the HBO series Girls and its creator Lena Dunham, Frank Ocean, Basho, Pavement and Stephen Malkmus, Radiohead, a mother figure, conversations with friends or acquaintances, form rejection letters—treasure this, Bleakney nails it dead on and the send-up is hilarious, the Irvine Ranch Company, and Hart Crane. However, these references never overwhelm or threaten to make the work topical. Rather, I believe, they suggest (in a particularly brilliant and cogent manner) something about the way we, as human beings, are wont to approach art, music, the written world, hell, the world in general: namely, it may be impossible to leave the self we inhabit (and all that self has encountered along the way) entirely behind us. Suddenly, these poems are no longer merely about the moment the speaker responds to the artwork in question, but about the moment she inhabits it..
The assertion that it’s awfully hard to leave the self behind begs another question: should we try? “20 Paintings by Laura Owens” offers an interesting answer—an answer involving the concept of collaboration. “On our fridge a post-it from Marcela: ‘thinking about you and collaborations,’” Bleakney writes in one of the poems. Collaboration in poetry is a thriving entity these days, whether between poets or between an individual poet and a visual artist. (The poetry of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge paired with the art of Kiki Smith comes to mind.) For its part, “20 Paintings,” is a serious examination of the poet-artist collaboration despite the fact, perhaps because of the fact, that, as already noted, instead of a visual, we get blank space. Instead of drawing lines in our mind between the speaker’s words and some tangible graphic image, we, as readers, become free to imagine—in other words, bring ourselves to the text—in even other words—become the text’s ego. (What would “20 Poems on ’20 Paintings by Laura Owens’” look like? Each of us would come up with a different answer. And I say this only partly tongue-in-cheek, there’s plenty of space in the chapbook to take notes.) Thus, the truest form of collaboration in “20 Paintings” may take place as the dyad of “Laura Owens” and the speaker slowly but surely becomes the triad of “Laura Owens,” speaker, and reader.
One last note: in the same section of the chapbook that asks,”Why am I tagging your paintings, Laura?” we get the line, “Facebook says: to chat with friends, turn on chat.” A send-up of FB, perhaps, but also a serious statement. In other words, if you want to connect, you have to connect. And connection is key here—it’s what staves off (or may stave off) despair, because we also find references to death in these poems, to the speaker’s own (“Someone hold my death please.”), as well as to the drowning death of Hart Crane. And what is art, if not in at least some small part, but a resistance to death? The last line of the chapbook, which I won’t reveal here, manages to express futility even as it insists upon existence, to be totally random, entirely quotidian, and genuinely whimsical all at the same time. This line, like “20 Paintings by Laura Owens” as well as this cycle of poems as a whole, revels in, flies in the face of all that may come and all that has come before. In other words, it just is.