Review of Joseph Ceravolo’s Collected Poems

* this originally appeared in an online issue of Zoland Poetry, which seems to no longer be publishing. the wordpress software I’m using doesn’t maintain the integrity of Ceravolo’s line breaks, but they are close.

Collected Poems

By Joseph Ceravolo | Review by Stan Mir

Wesleyan University Press | $35.00 | 596 pages | hardcover | ISBN 9780819573414

In spring 2005, a friend loaned me a few cassette tapes with readings by poets such as Clark Coolidge, John Godfrey, and Bernadette Mayer. Written on one of those tapes was a name, Joseph Ceravolo, only vaguely familiar to me at the time. The friend said that I should really check it out. He was sure I would like it. The recording, which dates from spring 1968, is now available on PennSound and is only seven minutes and forty-four seconds. Ceravolo’s brief reading, recorded at the poet’s Bloomfield, NJ home, arrested my attention with a voice both dreamy and determined, as the poet read over a stereo playing a range of pop and opera quietly in the background.

Over the next few weeks, I mentioned to some friends my newfound enthusiasm for Ceravolo’s work. One of them said he had a PDF of Fits of Dawn, first published by Ted Berrigan’s “C” Press in 1965. Did I want him to send it my way? Sure. The only caveat, he insisted, was that I could not under any circumstances share the document with anyone else. It did not take me long to realize that this hush-hush tone had been keeping Ceravolo’s reputation alive for quite a few years. Part of the tiptoeing around the work was due in part, so I had heard, from the poet’s widow, Rosemary Ceravolo, keeping a tight hold on the publishing rights. Because of this there has been a small audience for Ceravolo’s work, but it has been a devoted one. Prior to the publishing of the poet’s Collected Poems earlier this year, the only other book of his that was affordably available was a selected poems, The Green Lake is Awake, published in 1994 by Coffee House Press, which focused mostly on the poet’s work from the 1960s. Now the bulk of Ceravolo’s work is in one place, and safe to say, a devoted following will grow.

The Collected begins with a brief introduction by David Lehman who informs the reader of some basic facts. Ceravolo was born in Astoria, Queens in 1934 to immigrant parents from Calabria, Italy. In 1954, he graduated from City College. While in the U.S. Army Ceravolo was stationed in Germany and began to write poetry. Lehman also points out that the poet took his first poetry workshop with Kenneth Koch at the New School in 1959. Less than ten years later, Ceravolo would win the first Frank O’Hara award, sponsored by Columbia University Press, for Spring in This World of Poor Mutts, still perhaps the poet’s most read work. For his working career, he was a civil engineer.

One can see reading the Collected that Ceravolo’s sensibility formed during the 1950s & ‘60s. As the Abstract Expressionists explored the materiality of paint, poets in the so-called New York School did much the same with language. In the book Transmigration Solo, containing poems written in Mexico in 1960 and New York in 1965, the poem “Feast of Visions,” exemplifies the poet’s early explorations of language as material:

Seizure! blue wailing

questionnaires of noonday

under the rotting trees.

Gracias mis amigos,

the river holds much mud

and he works for el gobierno

de Mexico

guarding trees,

riding a bicycle.

Ceravolo delights here in the sounds of both English – “Seizure” and “questionnaires” – and Spanish – “Gracias mis amigos” and “el gobierno.” Worth noting is that Transmigration Solo was published in Ceravolo’s lifetime, but not until 1978. By then, Ceravolo had already published a few books. The editors of the Collected, Rosemary Ceravolo and Parker Smathers, have made a wise choice here to arrange the poet’s books chronologically rather than by publication date. This decision allows readers to develop a more sophisticated view of Ceravolo’s evolution as a poet.

Fits of Dawn was the first book in Ceravolo’s lifetime to see print. Then, and now, the book is wild, a taste of Stein with a touch of Coolidge, though Ceravolo comes chronologically between them. What differentiates Fitsis the poet’s interest in primeval expression. The original cover of this book, reproduced in the Collected, renders what looks like cave art with a disproportionate sun blazing awfully close to a hairy porcine creature while a lanky stick figured man and a one-legged bird hover to the left. In the lower right, the title of the book and the poet’s name. The accompanying epigraph, by C.G. Jung, reads, “He did not think, he perceived his mind functioning.” Below that: “Dedicated/to the Release/from Suffering.” Book I of Fits begins with these lines attributed to “Bushman”:

Thou son of a great woman

Thy body looks like a cow’s body,

Thou big acacia with large branches

Thou red bull,

Thou son of a red she-bull,

Thou who didst drink my milk,

Thou to whom I did not give my breast slowly

In this passage, Ceravolo harkens back to the prehistoric when, according to Clayton Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse, there was supposedly a shorter emotional and intellectual distance between the animal and the human. Eshleman writes quite eloquently, in that book, about the prehistoric art found within the caves of southern France. In some of the cave art, there are human figures with stag heads, which represents, for Eshleman, a struggle in the movement from wilderness to civilization. Notably, the eighteen-year-old Marcel Ravidat and some friends discovered the most famous of these caves, Lascaux, in 1940. Did these caves actively capture Ceravolo’s imagination? Difficult to say with a book like Fits, yet it is hard to deny their presence in his work.

Much of what happens in Fits lacks coherence in the traditional sense. In other words, the reader feels language as the place of action rather than experiencing language as the vehicle for a narrative:

How I lift yesterday

the maybe pland-o g-dumb

imposable ness hop will

Reach unbade menacuric look

dome it healthy shafe amomry

attack renear close brick benigher

tuyeres ayer hier bare

For readers of Spanish, it is possible to see the last line of this passage as a play on the word “tuyo,” which depending on context is either an adjective or pronoun for “yours.” The end of the word, “tuyeres,” also contains “eres,” which is a conjugation of the one of the Spanish verbs for “to be.” But, the word “tuyeres” is actually a word in English for a pipe through which air is blown into a furnace. What makes Ceravolo’s play more apparent here is the fact that the next word, “ayer,” is the word for “yesterday” in Spanish. ThroughoutFits, the astute reader will notice pure as well as bastardized Spanish again and again. In this regard, the placement of Transmigration Solo before Fits primes the reader for the appearance of Spanish in the latter.

After freeing himself of standard syntax and usage in Fits, Ceravolo went on to publish two additional books in the late 1960s, Wild Flowers Out of Gas, a chapbook from Tibor de Nagy, and the previously mentioned Spring in This World of Poor Mutts. One of the poet’s most well known poems in the latter is “Ho Ho Ho Caribou,” with these as its opening lines:

Leaped at the caribou.

My son looked at the caribou.

The kangaroo leaped on the

fruit tree. I am a white

man and my children

are hungry

which is like paradise.

The doll is sleeping.

It lay down to creep into

the plate.

It was clean and flying.

Throughout the rest, of his career Ceravolo continues to include his family life in his poems, quite often with an energy and eccentricity similar to the passage above. At the same time, the poet’s work shows a deepening interest in Christian spirituality.

After publishing Spring in this World of Poor Mutts, Ceravolo began work in 1969 on a long poem, The Hellgate, which shows the poet continuing his engagement with Christian theology. Until now, the book only existed in handwritten manuscript. In the second section of The Hellgate, “Departure,” Ceravolo includes a playful litany that begins with the following:

O God let me pray for you

O rock let me pray for you

O broken branch

O leaf

O cumulus let me pray for you

With some poets, it may be easy to write this litany off as a received literary move and nothing more. When taking into account Ceravolo’s 1979 chapbook INRI, the Latin for “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews,” the reader cannot simply ignore this interest. The poet Joel Lewis, in a note at the Electronic Poetry Center, has even gone so far as to claim Ceravolo “the great religious poet of our time.”

Work such as Ceravolo’s bucked the Eastern spirituality trend in the 1960s and 70s, exemplified by poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, and the founding of the Naropa Institute in 1974. With this in mind, it is no stretch to wonder if Ceravolo’s selected, The Green Lake is Awake, published after the poet’s death, did not include much of the work after the 60s because of its more obvious Christianity. Possibly, the work from the 70s and 80s is ignored because of what seems to be a decrease in Ceravolo’s experimentalism through the 1970s, and not from the increased religious content. Whatever the case, the Collected provides the range of the poet’s work for the reader, if one wants it.

In addition to The Hellgate, the Collected contains the previously unpublished Interior of the Poem from 1971. As editor Parker Smathers points out in his Editor’s Note, the backstory for the poem is unique. Ceravolo dictated the poem to his wife one weekend while painting their kitchen. Here is the first stanza:

My hair is black, my eyes are black,

I am the dictator of the poem.

The poem is in front of me

I am writing on its face.

The soul of the poem

is inside the soul

which is inside the poem.

There is no mystery to me

because I can be seen.

The poem continues for just over five pages. Along the way the reader gains further understanding of Ceravolo’s relationship to his poetry: “Where do I end/and where do I begin?/The poem is talking, I am not./When will it stop/so that I can talk?” In Jungian fashion, just as with Fits of Dawn, Ceravolo lets his unconscious shape the poem.

The last book in Ceravolo’s lifetime to see print, in 1982 by Kulchur Foundation, was Millenium Dust. Many of the poems in the book are interrogative, showing concern for the fate of man and his soul. For instance, “Cross Fire” ends with this question:

What have I gained

by lying in this abyss,

waiting for the masonry

to show a little slit

for my soul to get through?

In this book, Ceravolo also moves away from the fanciful wonder that many would associate with his earlier work. In its place, there seems to be a sense of resignation, but instead is actually a wonder grounded in what one can know and what one cannot, as seen in the first two stanzas of “Longer Trip”:

I found out

that the ducks on the ocean

are ospreys resting

on their longer trip.

To where? I don’t know.

My son said

a kite can reach the full moon,

and a sea gull can,

and a bullet can,

but he wasn’t kidding.

The Ceravolo of the 1960s most likely would have not included the last line. Tonally, and this grows more apparent the longer one spends with Millenium Dust, the poems are richer than the early Ceravolo. Does this mean that one period of the poet’s work is more rewarding than another? No. Ceravolo’s concerns changed, as anyone’s would over the course of a life. Just because the nature of the poet’s fancy changes does not mean the poet has lost his stuff. Complexity is not static. And neither should the poet be.

If one needs further proof that Ceravolo was kinetic in his work, the editors have included Mad Angels, which like The Hellgate was in handwritten manuscript until now. This book contains poems written in the last twelve years of Ceravolo’s life; he died September 4, 1988 from bile duct cancer at midlife. Where the poet may have been oblique with story in his early work, he does not shy away from directness in these late poems. “Darkness Ode,” from March 26, 1986, begins with a narrative of remembrance:

He was in his 70s then

and he told me that 25 years

before then the doctors told him

he had only a year to live.

As the poem progresses the reader learns that Ceravolo knew this man, a black custodian at CCNY, when the poet was 19 or 20. While “Darkness Ode” may feel as if the poet was eulogizing his own life, this is largely coincidental, as it seems that his death was not imminently expected. Ceravolo goes on in the poem to call the custodian “noble and one of the great men.” In the details that follow are possibly Ceravolo’s preoccupations, embodied in this man:

I remember him as if he were here

leaning on the dust mop

every word relating to life.

I think it was he

who got me through the first 2 years.

Remember him in the daylight

as he reaffirmed my feeling that there was spirit.

From Transmigration Solo to Mad Angels, Ceravolo kept returning to life and spirit. He married, had a family, engineered roads, and wrote poems, all these more or less the concerns of a life. All the while, Ceravolo wrestled with suffering and salvation, whether in the imagined primeval of Fits of Dawn or the questioning ofMillenium Dust. These concerns cause Ceravolo to stand a bit apart from New York School compatriots such as Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett. As word of Ceravolo’s work spreads, thanks to the publication of the Collected Poems, it will be interesting to see how much the poet’s spiritual concerns matter to his readers when so much of what has drawn readers in over the years is his playful disregard for typical syntax and the feeling that Ceravolo could say anything and it would sound wonderful. For this reader, the poet cannot be broken into parts. Without spirit one cannot have the concerns of a life.

Robert Creeley at Goddard College May 18, 1973

Over the past two weeks my attention keeps turning back to this reading of Creeley’s. Prior to my accidental discovery of it I had no idea what a treasure it would be and is. One morning I was scrolling through R.C.’s page at PennSound and thought to listen to one of my favorite poems, “The Plan is the Body.”

I clicked on this Goddard reading because this poem leads the set. The first thing that interests me is that there isn’t an actual introduction. Whoever’s doing the introduction trails off after not saying much more than “As you all know,” and then there’s simply a cacophony of voices. The next thing you can hear clearly is Creeley asking, “Can you all hear?”

As R.C. moves along it’s clear that he’s in a joking mood, asking at one point “Do you have a cigarette, man? Just testing the resources of the room.” From there he slips into the poem, but he doesn’t get very far before having to start again, not once, but twice. Before the second time, though, he engages in some chatter with the audience saying “I didn’t make these arrangements. I’m just simply here. Up against the wall, motherfucker!”

All the while the audience is listening, laughing. A bit further in the reading, though, there is a heckler who dislikes one of Creeley’s poems. It’s not really clear what the heckler says, but Creeley replies, “I’m just trying to have an experience.” Eventually, R.C. starts up again. Throughout he shifts from poetry to fiction, chats a bit, and phones ring and babies cry in the background. At one point, Creeley even says “The acid is beginning to work!” Truly incredible!

Meaning is a Change of the Ink - On Arkadii Dragomoshchenko

CAConrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri

CAConrad, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, Charles Bernstein, Stan Mir, Jack Krick, Ryan Eckes, Debrah Morkun, & Carolina Maugeri

Not long after I graduated from college in 2000, I was working in a Border’s in Tucson, AZ and I discovered Crossing Centuries: The New Generation in Russian Poetry. This anthology, brand new at the time, includes poets such as Dmitry Prigov, Aleksei Parshchikov, Ivan Zhdanov, Nina Iskrenko, and Arkadii Dragomoshchenko. To say this book broadened my understanding of poetry is an understatement. Specifically, the poems within this book helped me to come to terms with language as a construction rather than language as inherently meaningful.

At The Kelly Writer’s House last Wednesday night I was fortunate enough to see and hear Arkadii Dragomoshchenko give a reading and interview for Charles Bernstein’s Close Listening. In total, Dragomoshchenko read and talked for nearly two hours. In one of his poems, unfortunately the title escapes me, he says “meaning is a change of the ink.” As a poet, Dragomoshchenko continually explores the fact that language and meaning are constructions. This is not a concept I learned in college. In fact, I don’t think I heard anyone, professors or otherwise, ever mention this to me. Or, perhaps they did and I didn’t listen. Or, perhaps I already knew, but couldn’t articulate it.

In his introduction to Crossing Centuries, editor and poet John High points out that “[p]ropaganda in [the Soviet Union] made language itself suspect.” It’s as if language is a material (or a resource) that can be fought over/for in much the same way countries wage war over borders or oil. Language is the primary vehicle that dictates our thinking, so it would be necessary then to control how it operates. Perhaps Rea Nikonova’s “A Free Alphabet” first pushed me towards the idea that language is a contested resource:

A_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ Z

Jack Krick, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, & Charles Bernstein

Jack Krick, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, & Charles Bernstein

During the interview Dragomoshchenko suggested that hearing and response are the core of authorial responsibility. He then added that the fat cats of poetry have made it a bit more difficult. Who are the fat cats? He never said, but perhaps one ought to insert one’s own fat cat. Dragomoshchenko’s line “meaning is a change of the ink” foregrounds materiality in terms of physical substance while his insistence that hearing and response are crucial to a poet’s practice make clear that meaning operates in interrelated realms: aural, oral, and written. I think Dragomoshchenko put this idea best when he said at another point in the interview, “explain to the page why you write.” As I sit here, I’m impressed with how precisely Dragomoshschenko compresses his ideas into epigrammatic statements not only within his poems, but also within his speech.

After the reading and interview had ended a bunch of us decided to head home rather than heading out for a drink. Fortunately, we all talked and lolly-gagged long enough at KWH to change our minds and luck into having a drink with Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko at Bridgewater’s Pub in 30th Street Station. They were both catching a train to NYC that night. As we drank and talked, I asked Dragomoshchenko about contemporary Russian poetry and whether or not he feels aligned with poets such as Ivan Zhdanov and Aleksei Parshchikov, poets whom the editors of Crossing Centuries refer to as Meta-Realists. He said, no he doesn’t, but that’s not to say they aren’t his friends. In fact, he said he feels connected to French poets, not Russians. He didn’t say which French poets. And I didn’t ask because he was talking and I didn’t want to interrupt. The one American he feels similar to? John Ashbery.

As we were all about to share a toast with our last drinks before Bernstein and Dragomoshchenko’s departure, Ryan Eckes said, “We say cheers in the U.S., what do you say in Russia?” Reluctantly, Dragomoshchenko said, “We say na zdorovye (to health), but no one says it anymore.” “Okay,” we all said, “then what do you say now?” At first, he said, “Nothing.” But, then he surprised us. “Now, we might say,” as he demonstrated by raising his glass, “I kill you.” We all chuckled at Dragomoshchenko’s black humor. But, now I see his ability, perhaps his predilection, for epigrammatic statement at work once again. In one brief moment Dragomoshchenko demonstrated to all of us at the table that what we hear about contemporary Russia is true. In other words, a culture of vast inequality, an oligarchy in Russia’s case, breeds murderous competition. Not one for killing, “Na zdorovye, Arkadii, na zdorovye.”

is spread out evening when: on sarah dowling’s line

Friday night over dinner Carolina and I were discussing Sarah Dowling’s new book, Security Posture, which was recently published by Snare Books in Montreal. Sarah’s book is the winner of the 2009 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, an award for emerging Canadian writers. Originally from Regina, Saskatchewan, Sarah now lives in Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, Chris & Jenn McCreary published some of Security Posture in the most recent Ixnay Reader. That excerpt really interested me, so it’s great to read the work in its entirety now that the book is here. I should say, by the way, that the size and feel of the book is fantastic, too. It’s small enough to fit within a pocket, and the blue, black, and white of the cover is sharply done.

In the conversation with Carolina, I had mentioned to her that I found myself reading the book quite fast the first time around. Once finished, I immediately began again until about halfway through. I can’t remember what stopped me from going all the way to the end this second time. Perhaps tired eyes, or an interruption, but no matter, really. Part of the reason why I read fast was because the book moves, I mean really moves. Sarah has such a strong sense of the line, particularly the short line. Her skill in this regard is especially interesting because the book deals with erasure in many ways. That is to say, the book is filled with repetition, but it’s fractured repetition. Or, as Jena Osman puts it in a blurb “[the poem] takes on adaptive choreographies.” I put in the word “poem” where Osman actually says “we,” but it seems a fair enough leap to suggest the we is the poem. To choreograph short lines the way Sarah does, it seems to me, would be a challenge, because how is it possible to maintain the sense of the rhythm when words are vanishing? Sarah makes it happen. The book’s title, Security Posture, certainly indicates what Charles Bernstein says in his blurb when he writes: “In these exquisitely reserved poems, the relation of person to body, stare to reflection, touch to sight is incised in a poetic dry point that cuts deep.”

What follows is an excerpt from pages 38 - 40, which is roughly the middle of the book. It’ such an amazing moment, which is why I want to emphasize it here, but it’s also the reason why I feel I shouldn’t do so. Admittedly, I take the selection out of its context, but as I’ve said, I’m particularly interested in Sarah’s adeptness with the line, and this selection demonstrates that understanding. Perhaps you ought to check it out for yourself. I will reproduce the excerpt here and you should check it out, how about that? One last note, where you read [page break] is my insertion to clarify where the pages break, and therefore where lines and stanzas break, too.

from Security Posture

sky, the against
is spread out evening when
I turn over
there I turn
myself, like

soft white walls
you are my assurance
you, everyday
turn, pass her delicate may I

pool I leave it
turn you’re what
like stones f
the against like

[page break]

like against the
f stones like
what you’re turn
it leave I pool

I may delicate her pass, turn
everyday, you
my response are you
walls white soft

like, myself
turn I there
over turn I
when evening out spread is
against the, sky

[page break]

f like f what it
I everyday, f my control walls
stones like, turn over when against

against stones you’re leave
may you are white
myself I turn evening, the

the like turn I
delicate you you soft
there I out sky



To Paint the Mouth Like Monet Painted a Sunset - On Bacon & Halpern

Head VI

     On Sunday morning, Carolina and I woke up early and got on the bus to NYC so that we could see the last day of Francis Bacon: A Centenary Retrospective at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. For some reason, we hadn’t heard there was such an exhibit until Justin Audia mentioned it to us on Friday evening - thanks Justin. 

     Before leaving for the bus, I decided to bring Rob Halpern’s Rumored Place. Last March, Halpern read for Moles Not Molar, a reading and performance series Justin co-curates with Emily Abendroth. Halpern’s work turned out to be appropriate preparation for a day in the museum looking at Bacon’s paintings. An excerpt from one of Halpern’s prose pieces in the book, ”BESIDE THE FUNERALL OF JOHN DONNE,” haunted me throughout the visit: 

“Snap the fuck out of it he screams and slaps me rocking like some autistic on the bed. Each touch returns like a sentence can’t be parsed. Posts animate wrists. Thoughts spindle down from better brains than this compose you in me. He was gentle with leather. Power’s not a metaphor he says whacking me with the backside of his hand and then quickly asks me if it hurt. A moan rimmed with teeth buried deep in gum mimes the only meaning. Why are you always reaching for your wrist like that. To see if I’m still here. A soft chew floats the room in a nibble where I locates itself inside your mouth. So concentrated a location opens the flow in a bedpost or between. Where we is this brush this friction this abrasive rubbing of unfit worlds without which there’d be no fiction no love.”



     Fragments of Halpern’s lines above were reverberating in my ears all day, and Bacon’s work only amplified the volume and intensity. For one, Bacon continually works the trope of the mouth. In an interview with David Sylvester, and in this BBC documentary on Bacon’s work, Bacon mentions that he “always hoped in a sense to be able to paint the mouth like Monet painted a sunset.” I think Bacon and Halpern suggest that the mouth’s actions shape the world, whether those sounds be, to borrow from Halpern, ”A moan rimmed with teeth buried deep in gum…”, or verbal statements from politicians and religious leaders as in Bacon’s Head VI (pictured above) which derives from his various studies of Diego Velazquez’s Innocent X (pictured below), the pope who reigned from 1644 - 1655. In both cases, the mouth more directly participates (or suffers) in systemic power structures, while Monet’s sunsets deal more with the powers in/of Nature. With this in mind, it’s interesting to see how Bacon’s interest in painting the mouth like Monet painted sunsets begins as an aesthetic move and becomes political after the fact.  

Innocent X

Innocent X

     To turn to Halpern again, “Power’s not a metaphor he says whacking me with the backside of his hand and then quickly asks me if it hurt.” As I was arranging that last sentence, I was reminded of a phrase I overheard another viewer say in one of the galleries — “I feel hurt by it” — but I have no idea if the viewer was referring to Bacon’s work or to something else altogether. With the violence of Bacon’s work surrounding me, it was easy to assume the viewer’s comment was a response to the paintings. In Bacon’s and Halpern’s hands the relationship between power and pain takes an inherent hue. But, Halpern, in “RECONCILIATION, UNDER DURESS,” the final piece in Rumored Place, unlike Bacon (at least the Bacon I’ve seen), points to a place beyond where we are: “So where’s this ‘rumored place,’ he asks, and I’m pointing out beyond the docks, out to rock on the horizon as if the thing out there were already in here with us, screaming — something I’m not doing — ‘there, O there!’” It’s a “rumored place” Halpern’s speaker points to, but it’s “to rock (italics mine) on the horizon.” I can’t help but notice the firmness of the rock when juxtaposed with rumor. I’m not sure if Halpern’s commingling of the concrete with the abstract in this example suggests alternatives to power, or alternative forms of power. Either way, the “as if” in that phrase suggests that the specificity of the “rock on the horizon” may already be with us, or as Halpern says, “in here with us…”, if we would only acknowledge it. Interestingly, Bacon’s work of the late 1970s and 1980s uses arrows, as in a painting like A Piece of Wasteland (pictured below), to focus the viewer’s attention on what’s happening now, because for Bacon, as an atheist, there is only here and now. To be clear, I don’t think there is anything particularly religious about Halpern’s work, so I don’t mean to imply that one can’t point to or suggest alternatives to power without religious faith. Rather, there is simply a difference in attitude towards social engagement. It seems for Bacon his work is akin to saying, “This is what’s wrong.” For Halpern, “This is what’s wrong. Is there an alternative? Yes, I think there is.” Or, perhaps my reading of their work is restricted by my desire for art to more obviously make suggestions. 

A Piece of Wasteland

A Piece of Wasteland

     What ultimately connects Bacon and Halpern, right now anyway, is their visceral response(s) to socio-political struggle(s). With that in mind, perhaps Bacon’s work does point, in Halpern’s words, “out to rock on the horizon,” but without saying, “Look over here.” Rather, Bacon says, “Look here, you bloody fool.” And by looking here, if we’ve a mind to look with, we should know the “rumored place” is possible, and if not possible, then certainly desired. Bacon’s 1950s Man in Blue paintings refer to a social criminalization of homosexuality in England. The notion of a “rumored place” surely must not have been far from his mind. So, for me to suggest that Bacon’s work avoids suggesting alternatives misses the point. In a painting like Man in Blue IV (pictured below), Bacon illuminates the hypocrisy of authority and masculinity as it becomes clear to viewers who are aware of the cultural repression of homosexuals that the painter is perhaps making a political statement regarding the lack of civil rights protecting sexuality. Bacon need not point to a “rumored place” because it’s clear from the suffocating feeling of the blue in the painting that an “actual place” is necessary. Both Bacon and Halpern are invested in finding that “actual place,” but through different methods of suggestion.  

Man in Blue IV

Man in Blue IV


Obviously, there’s a lot to consider in terms of Bacon’s and Halpern’s work, and I’ve only skimmed the surface. One thing’s for sure, as I’ve literally and figuratively worked on this post over the past few days, I’ve become much more conscious of how I’m reading what’s around me, and not just paintings or books, but the conditions that make up my day to day. As I write these lines, I’m becoming more aware how “the visual” works and how “the verbal” works. Of course, the printed word is both visual and verbal, but there are, it seems to me, clear differences in how a visual work makes suggestions, i.e Bacon, and how a verbal text like Halpern’s performs that same task. The visual (most of the time?) chronicles what’s here, and it’s up to the viewer to decide where to go with the depictions and ideas in the work. Now that I think of it, much of documentary poetry (Mark Nowak and Jena Osman are two examples) does just that. The verbal has a tendency (oftentimes?) to more consciously point to alternatives, i.e. “rumored places.” I don’t know if I wholly buy the distinction between the visual and the verbal I just made above, but I do hope to further this line of thinking, either here or elsewhere, about how and why visual and verbal texts work the way they do.