29 August 2014

Mark Rothko & Gregory Orr: From Desolation to Joy

"To be alive.  Not just
The carcass, but the spark."
  - Gregory Orr

Without some knowledge of joy, there would be no poignancy to desolation.  This is mirror to the philosophical point that without some experience of injustice there would be no reason to invent the concept of justice.  The This untitled painting from the Phillips Collection by Armenian √©migr√© artist Mark Rothko (1903-1970) may surprise you but it is a painting where the luminous aspect of Rothko's work is undeniable. Although the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas is better known,  the first gallery devoted to the artist was the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.   Designed by Duncan Phillips himself in 1960, specifically to display four of Mark Rothko's paintings that he had purchased recently, the room was described by Rothko as a kind of "chapel."

“ With their embrace
They chose
Each other,
Which is
To choose death
And all that comes
Before it:
And joys
And infinite
Unintended harms.

Large choice
For such small arms.”
-       To Embrace (from Eden and After)

For Gregory Orr, lyric poetry is “a means of helping individuals survive the existential crises represented by circumstances such as poverty, suffering, pain, illness, violence, or loss of a loved one." Here, Orr refers to the tragedy of his childhood: that he was the accidental instrument of his brother’s death, from, Burning the Empty Nests (1973) to his latest collection River Inside the River (2013).
The book contains  three related sections, beginning with a version of the creation myth from Genesis  "Eden and After". His Eden is static and eventless, a place to escape from,  his Adam and Eve long to speak, to sing, to embrace language and each other. 
Second is "The City of Poetry", where Orr names the poets in whose work he has found refuge in times of trouble, inviting readers to join with Sappho, Dickinson and Neruda. 

“Consider Feancois Villon –
Murder and thief
If half the rumors are true.

My best guess is that he wrote
Ou sont les neiges d’antan” –
“Where are the snows
Of yesteryear” – a refrain
That followed a list
Of famous beauties he once knew.

I don’t claim he was the first
To lament that bodily beauty
Vanishes like melting snow,
But when you think of the city,
Remember Villon.”

In the penultimate section of River Inside The River, Orr with  disarming clarity writes, "I'm an old man / Made young again / By the poems I love". We have the capacity, whether we exercise it or not, to redeem tragedy through art.
Orr writes in short stanzas, making music out of the surrounding silence (visible as space on the page).  He distills language into emotion, as Rothko distilled emotion into paint.

“Like fireflies hovering
Around a summer oak,
Words crowd around
The beloved –
Respectful, yet eager.

They sense her infinite
Possibility; they’re drawn
To his heart, large as a star.

Only some will be summoned,
Only some will be sung.” - excerpt from the final section of River Inside the River

In 1951, Wallace Stevens said “ in an age in which disbelief is so profoundly prevalent or, if not disbelief, indifference to questions of belief, poetry and painting and the arts in general are, in their measure, a compensation for what we have lost.”
Mark Rothko had said something similar already, in 1947, “Without monsters and gods, art cannot enact our drama: art’s most profound moments express this frustration.”

For further reading: River Inside the River by Gregory Orr, New York, W.W. Norton: 2013.
Image: Mark Rothko - untitled,  1968, Phillips Collection, Washington,D.C.

25 August 2014

Emily Dickinson: A Private Spirit

"The difference between Despair
And Fear – is like the One         
Between the instant of a Wreck –
And when the Wreck has been –

The Mind is smooth – no motion –
Contented as the Eyes
Upon the Forehead of a Bust –
That knows – it cannot see. -"
  - a poem by Emily Dickinson, sometimes given the title The Difference 

Dickinson knew what she called her ‘waylaying Light’ was unwelcome to organized religion, alarming to the pious.  “When Jesus tells us about his father, we distrust him.  When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with Grief,’ we listen, for that is also an Acquaintance of our own.”  This from one who defined herself as wicked while still a girl; she knew herself to be bold and incorrigibly open hearted. To this day, people fret over whether Dickinson was religious, even whether she was a moral person.   Her ideas were, and still are, radical.  Those dashes, so characteristic of Dickinson's work, are like signposts that point toward the future.  Like the tides, never static.  And now we are able to read her poems as written by her own hand.

For further reading: The Gorgeous Nothings, a facsimile edition of her manuscripts  by Emily Dickinson, New York, New Directions: 2013.
Beatrice S.Levy - The Derelict, 1914, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.