Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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Must we make recourse to cornfields? In front of such massive canvases, color and depth, form in formlessness, the experience of vertigo and, in my case at least, awe—at scale and what it inspires, a sense of perspective and infinity, transcendence. I’m standing before a painting that is more or less red-orange, like a living thing, pulsing with my own perception, the blood in my eyes, my breath. Maybe this is no way to start a review, but this is a book of poems linked to paintings by Mark Rothko, and so I ask, when we contemplate such paintings, must we make recourse to cornfields, must we say, fire or planets, gates or antennae, surf or barn or fog or “a woman / lies in the sun” and “The woman licks / his neck”?
“We are for flat forms because they destroy illusion and reveal truth,” Mark Rothko wrote in a letter to the New York Times, 1943. He was then still wrestling with myth, which is to say with narrative; the stories of Agamemnon and Cassandra and Clytemnestra, for instance, find treatment in the faces of masked choral performers, the heads of birds, the heavy stone feet of ancient monuments. Look upon my works, ye mighty: yet the subject even then in those theatrical tableaus, below the birds and omens, was death, the reality with, as Lacan would have it, a capital R. Death: ubiquitous and impending; death: alien yet ever-so-intimately personal and personalized. Which is maybe another way of saying the Impossible, or transcendence, visceral awe, pulse. I only have so many words in my sack: but standing in front of this searing, soothing red-orange thing, a Rothko in Chicago, I wonder, why would we make recourse to “A god has poked holes / in the sheets / above the sky”?
But what kind of review would this be if it attacked the very project? Rock is doing something beyond seeing, feeling, beyond meditation or immediate response. He’s linking poems, somehow, to paintings, treating them more as sigils or altar pieces, signs. He links to them, which is not moving from or to; he takes each Rothko piece, reduces it to a black-and-white schematic (so much empty space and so much filled, rectangles within a rectangle, etc.) and then offers a poem, below, in mystic resonance. “Heavy iron bars / come down hard on a swollen foot, / & behind the bars, shadowy figures hide,” he tells us. What we have here is not Rothko, but a counter-world offered up in correspondence with some core of Rothko’s early wrestlings and linked to these glyphs derived from (but resolutely not, these boxes in boxes, these pale sketches, colorless and tiny and still) Rothko’s paintings. So there is myth: the crash of surf and rumble of bulls’ hooves. So there are citations of Borges, allusions to Carl Sagan, the Vedas, and creation tales native to the Pacific Northwest. Decontextualized, a notion from Safed, from Japanese medieval conceptions of almost-hell-realms, becomes here—we know this from Eliot, fire and last orders—so much spice and ornament, a little color on the pale page. Rock mentions a mushroom cloud, a color, an insect, a pigment: he works around readings of Rothkos as if they were Rorschach blots and readings into Rothko’s influences and references to his own interests and storylines and here and there some mention of color, because to invoke Rothko without invoking color would be very odd indeed.
“[U]nder the Prussian-blue sky / rests a box / filled with letters,” Rock writes. Linked to the layout of a painting: a cityscape. Linked to a formal reduction of the visual, into bands and clear shapes nestled inside shapes: “There are two of us in the room. // Or there is one / & we are cut in half / by the bending of light // in gallons of paint.” Linked to the idea of an image: beaks and planes, “an expanse of beach,” a golem, guns, a forest, a duck.
I write this in a room of sculptures by Cy Twombly. Plaster and scrap wood. Some of them look like junk, or all of them do, at first. Only upon contemplation does the dream mean something; likewise, these pale clots and lumps, the broken oar, the stains of the altar, the cityscape. I find myself entering, here in this room of small yet monumental Twomblys, the mindset of Rock’s book. The mythic, from I guess inside me, and an imagination defined by reference and analogy, just swells up, speaks. Thus, I experience ruins and the rustic, fragments of old tales, foreshadowings and hints. This is what Rock gives us, on the page. To link Earth & Green, 1955, with “Here is a mass grace tunneled / through collective childhood: // In the red pit a transparent woman / searches serenely for the other half // of her face, her torso a misshapen turkey, / plucked for eating.”
My initial reservations about this slim book were that I don’t see or want to see Rothkos in this way. They strike me as too effectively free of reference: pure feeling, no words. Twombly scrawls words all over his works, but Rothko moves away (as in, ultimately, the Chapel pieces) from all of that. With Rothko we don’t have stories; we have the thing itself. That said, Rock’s project is a fascinating one, of thought-provoking possible use to writers interested in seeing and thinking. Must we make recourse to cornfields? I think not, though such a move—from fields of layered pigment to fields of rustling stalks—exemplifies something essential about the literary endeavor. One need not write poems in response to or about an experience such as viewing a Rothko, but Rock gives us a deep and organic example of how we might, showing us what such a move away from the visual and into the mythical might resemble. If flat forms reveal truth, as Rothko stated, so too might these accumulated fragments, these strands of reference, these frayed ends of signification that Rock curates for us under signs for that painter’s most powerful works.
Official Martin Rock Web Site
Official Brooklyn Arts Press Web Site