Tuesday, January 1, 2013

G. C. Waldrep on "The Wilder Shores of Love"

The title comes from Lesley Blanch (her 1954 book of the same name) by way of two eponymous Cy Twombly paintings from 1984-85, one of which I viewed at MoMA in December 2011. Twombly is a poet’s artist, by which I mean a visual practitioner who convokes a poet’s sense of constellation and intuitive gesture. It’s not an accident that he, like Joseph Cornell—that other consummate poet’s artist—often included texts in his artworks, phrases, names, bits of ambient myth. I was taken by surprise by Twombly’s midsummer death a few months before, in spite of his advanced age; we shared a home state and landscape, and somehow I always thoughts our paths would cross in person.

Most of my poetic practice is intuitive, and this poem is no exception: I simply sat down on the evening of 12/5/11 (having recently seen the artwork and been thinking about Twombly) and typed it out, almost as you now read it. Some poems are gifts. Revision, for me, is largely a process of re-vision, of trying to understand what such first drafts are doing, or trying to do, and nudging them more securely in those directions. What follows, then, is retrospective, although all these thoughts were in my mind as I reread and tweaked the poem over the past year:

The poem began as a straightforwardly ekphrastic response to Twombly’s work and universe, especially his large-scale, mid-career paintings. But the turn began, as it so often does, with that “you”—Twombly, presumably, in line 6, but then in line 7 we discover it’s the polis that is speaking, addressing . . . who, exactly? Twombly? The poet? The reader? The dead?  By line 13 the “you” has shifted into the register of the contemporary demotic, has even donned the glad rags of the “I”; capitalism has intruded into the intimate space of the speaker and his foil, which is also the space between the poem and the reader. What “felt like a giant / radio . . . ascending / and descending”? Capitalism? History? Art? Death? All of the above?

When they first read the poem, BPJ editors Lee Sharkey and John Rosenwald had questions about the syntactical slippage in the closing lines, which I confessed was intentional, if (I hoped) gentle. Yes, hands full of "strontium, iridium" as well as "little fossil patterns." It's not grammatically clear whether "reciting Keats" refers to something the "we" has its hands full (of), or something the "we" is doing while having its hands full (of other stuff), or even that it's actually the little fossil patterns that are doing the reciting. I wanted that last bit of slippage in particular, because it subtly links the "we" back to being "little fossil patterns." Since the "we" is in fact in the past tense, a relationship that has slipped away in time, this seemed elegiac and appropriate.

Both strontium and iridium can be radioactive or non-radioactive. I intended the radioactive allusion, as well as the pun on iridium vis-à-vis the visual faculty. Both are ingredients in so-called "dirty bombs." Some minerals kill us; some don't. And some minerals are in fact the bodies of the dead: fossil patterns do form in the shale patterns amid coal seams, as well as within coal seams themselves (anthracite or bituminous). "Anthracite" is the reference here not only for the sound and the pun on "anthro-" but also to Emily Dickinson’s 422.

I think Keats is meant here as a palliative or antidote, perhaps ineffective; the poem ends before establishing whether Keats cures anything (as do, alas, our lives: see Twombly, Cy).

Finally, I intended the extra-grammatical moves in the closing lines to echo the extra-grammatical moves of the first sentence (disguised within the "sometimes . . . sometimes" parallelism). This is a slippery, friable landscape—a confirming disquiet, which is also what I feel when I meditate on Twombly’s enormous, myth-driven canvases. The idea that Keats could exist without us, after we are dead, is terrifying—and the certainty of it even more so.