Away by Andrea MacPherson: Book Review and Writing Tip

Before, there might have been children playing in the street, / the rumbling of cars and feet, / but now there is nothing. Taut, stretched stillness. Waiting.

“Walking Shankill Road” (29)

Andrea MacPherson travels in Away — and we travel with her through the magic of her poetry. The journey begins in Ireland, a personal quest where sites and family are sought.

This is the one place you insisted I come,
this place where limestone weeps
and children once played between execution sites
and burial grounds.

So begins “here’s to the wings of a bird” (12) and with it an elusive you, someone who has planted the seed of return, a return instead of, as if MacPherson is visiting the memories of another. Throughout, the time of the “Troubles” persists. In “boundaries” (16), she writes:

We anticipated a stop here,
men with guns and strict faces
(tightropes of unsmiling mouths,
eyes that have seen marchers falling)
a checkpoint at least, with flashlights
turning our faces to ghosts.

Instead there is nothing but seamless conversation;
rapeseed fields.
Trading prayer for something even quieter.

With the poet, we ride through countryside, lulled, until Belfast and RUC men… their guns and tanks.

Somehow we have forgotten about the strife
we had prepared to see, more content
with wavering fields a thousand shades of yellow
and ancient schoolhouses.

These places where people once sat.

The “Troubles” are old; the people we meet are old. It is as if all love and youth have left Ireland. MacPherson captures a poignancy that is haunting. In “the backyard faerie circle” (20), we visit an old man, alone:

A grey cardigan coming apart at the seams,
smelling of sheep and skin and age.
A threadbare chair,
imprinted with the memory of the body
thighs and shoulders and hip bones.
This is what his life has become:
wool and paisley just there.

We learn something of him, his youth and love, but now the small patch of wild roses / left untended, / forgotten in the shade.

The family journey of remembrance crosses the Irish Sea and continues in Scotland where we learn MacPherson’s mother’s mother left with only a rose-gold / wedding band, a few porcelain figurines (“blue salt,” 41). In “Caldrum Street,” MacPherson writes: I take photos to enter a past that is not mine (48); yet the poems lack nostalgia. They are immediate, felt, experienced. History – political and personal – continues to dig deep, becoming, as she says in one poem, fable.

MacPherson’s travels continue to France and Greece. In Paris: A streak of blue paint / thick / across a painter’s cheek (“sketches of Paris, 71). Allusions to artists and their art continue. In “La Goulue & Jane Avril” (77).

You write to me from Toulouse
and I think not of you and the red
city you describe, but of the small
deformed man with miniature legs
(childhood breaks that never quite healed)
who drew cabaret dancers
and whores and faceless men.
Smell the absinthe on his stale breath,
the unwashed quality of his hair.
Dark, dense in the spring sun.

Toulouse is nowhere in those photos,
only the possibility of his compressed figure in the corner,
black coat tails, shriveled leg
fleeting.

In “National Archaeological Museum” (85), Greece, archeology replaces the art trope of France:

[The statues] have all been saved from watery graves,
a shipwreck hundreds of years ago in the Aegean.
They might have been home for minnows,
crustaceous prawns, octopuses;
seaweed might have covered the boy’s eyes,
letting him forget he once had limbs.

As the trip comes to an end, she writes: I dream of the places I will go once home: / thick rainforests, yards of lilac and rose bushes…relearn the taste of green (“the geography of bougainvillea” 89).

Away describes a circle, a going out and a return – to place, to self – and it does so with keen observation and insight. This is Andrea MacPherson’s second book of poetry. It is now one of my favourites to be read and reread.

Hints for Writers 

  1. For writers on personal journeys to places of emigration, Away shows how the quest can embrace the stories of generations, the return (almost) on behalf of parents and grandparents but also open doors to others curious minds. MacPherson travels with purpose, but her list of places and people to see does not blind her. She finds ways to draw readers into her poems; she bridges the personal : universal divide. If this is your journey, read MacPherson with an eye and ear as to how she accomplishes the magic.
  2. The author’s voice is consistent throughout the collection, creating cohesion between poems and sections of the book. MacPherson’s voice is intimate/personal but also knowledgeable. We trust her. We also remain open to the surprises and insights that happen along the journey. Think about how she uses the first person to control what we see and feel and then how she inserts the twist that makes us pause and contemplate the awareness or insight or question revealed.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Away

Mechanics of a Gaze by Branka Petrovic; poetry review and reading/writing tips

Inside his studio, a woman awaits // her turn to be myth

In Mechanics of a Gaze, Branka Petrovic strips the paintings of Gustav Klimt—layer by layer—until only the male gaze is left. Petrovic’s interpretation of the man and his work is not flattering. The poems are irreverent, provocative, skillful and mature.

The structure of the book leads us from insightful—although sometimes devastating profiles—and ekphrastic poems to historical notes and interpretations by others. In the first section (“His Women”), we meet a selection of the women who were model, muse and sexual object. The poems unmask the erotic within Klimt’s studio, sometimes blatantly and sometimes more suggestively.

Whatever’s semi about this nude, it’s not
the way we enter the sketch,
her swift dialogue of the illicit.

Slipped between the poems are excerpts from postcards sent by Klimt to Emilie Flӧge over their long relationship. They continue throughout, presaging the final section and providing an insight into the Klimt-Flӧge relationship and his character.

Next, the focus is on Emilie Flӧge, the woman who was Klimt’s friend, sometimes lover, and lifelong companion. In a poem called “Gustav & Emilie, Petrovic creates a scene (perhaps from a photo taken at her family cottage at Lake Attersee) but then imagines:

If he were to paint you right now,
the vertical lines of your dress
would leak jonquil, mutate

into a metallic-gold,

backdrop; osmanthus sprouting

from your hands….

…Your air,

a brooding saint.

Petrovic at once captures the essence of Klimt’s art and sexual fecundity as evidenced in “osmanthus.” In another poem, she does this with “Calder,” alluding to movement. Petrovic demonstrates a close reading of both the paintings/drawings and the characters that inhabit (and those who created) them. And in five words defines Flӧge and the relationship.

The third section places the gaze on Adele Bloch-Bauer. (You may recall the 2006 movie “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, which takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting of her aunt from the Austrian establishment.)  In one poem, Petrovic expresses the essence of Adele and Klimt as “a Wittgenstein riddle.”

In the fourth section, “Mankind Drifting,” the perspective broadens to include Vienna and the Secessionists’ art (late 19th through early 20th centuries). The Secessionists led the way from traditional-to-modern art in Vienna. The movement turned conservative values on their head, and Gustav Klimt was in the vanguard.  In this section, Petrovic switches focus from Klimt’s portraits to his controversial work for the University of Vienna’s ceilings: Philosophy; Medicine; and Jurisprudence. It is also here that Petrovic returns to Egon Shiele, provocative protégé (“Disabled Sex” appears in the first section).

The final part, “Catalogue Raisonné,” is where we come to found poems and collages, information gleaned from sources such as Wikipedia and the Internet to reviews and the press from The New York Times to The Montreal Gazette. Petrovic’s innovative structuring of the collection leads readers from her subject—the sexualized gaze—of artist and model to the political subject of Nazi looting. With this innovation, Petrovic pushes the convention of most poetry collections.

Branka Petrovic’s debut collection reinvigorates Gustav Klimt and Secessionists’ art. You will never look at the stale gold and mosaic looking greeting cards of Klimt the same. I find Mechanics of a Gaze as invigorating as was the poetry of Sylvia Plath in the 1960s. My guess is that we’ll be hearing more from Branka Petrovic.

 

Tips for Writers

  1. Relevancy: read the poems as a whole, thinking about their subject and relevancy (see Good News for Poets and Readers). As a poet, what role does relevancy to your readers play in your writing? Is relevancy important?
  2. Read each poem for its ekphrastic insight, asking yourself if Petrovic captures the essence of the art. Does the poem work as a poem?
  3. In 2017, I reviewed The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. Like “Peter Schjeldahl on Gustav Klimt Part 1” and “…Part II” in Mechanics of a Gaze, I have changed my mind somewhat. In that review, I ignored sexual politics and the inherent power of the “gaze.” But after reading The Mechanics of a Gaze, and having witnessed the revelations of the last couple of years, I’ve reread the more sympathetic Kiss. It is Hickey’s fictionalized story of Klimt, written entirely from the point-of-view of Emilie Flӧge. Hickey seeks to get under the skin and into the heart of a woman of the last century. Yet it is all there: the sexualized gaze and acts. Bring your consciousness to Petrovic’s collection. Is Mechanics of a Gaze a feminist collection? If so, does “the message” inform or detract from the work as art?
  4. The Secessionists rejected the orthodox conventions of late 19th-early 20th century Vienna. Their art was rejected by traditional art galleries, so they established their own, a movement toward modernity. Should it be judged/reinterpreted against today’s standards or accepted within its place in history?

 

Available through your local bookstore or online: Mechanics of a Gaze

Also, please see blog 14 The Painted Kiss (2005): The Painted Kiss

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Capturing a moment of time and light: the art of Daniel Fobert

Daniel Fobert’s art finds strength in the artist’s ability to tell a tale through his work.

By Kathryn MacDonald

Quinte Arts Council

On a cool afternoon last fall, I met Daniel Fobert at Gallery 121 on Bridge Street East in downtown Belleville, where he was exhibiting two oil paintings.

One of Fobert’s greatest strengths is the narrative in his paintings. In Kensington after the Rain, the foreground is taken up by a man gazing at a cell phone, while two friends look on. Behind them, people go about their daily business beneath colourful awnings. Imagine the story.

In the second painting exhibited at Gallery 121, a colourful nude fills the canvas. Here the oils dance in bright rainbow hues. In Untitled, a portrait of an unnamed woman, we have an example of Fobert’s balanced use of complementary colour.

He tells me that his greatest challenge “is to feel that what I do is relevant in the face of a world where everything is non-representational.”

Kensington after the Rain by Daniel Fobert

 

Abstract expressionism has been a dominant trend in Western art since the 1950s led by artists such as Jackson Pollock. Essentially, it defines non-representation work that strives to show the interior energy of experience rather than the outward image. Fobert adds even “[Jean-Paul] Riopelle returned to representational work after developing his renown in abstract expressionism.”

To compose the scene, Fobert uses photography as a guide to street paintings.

He doesn’t copy them; rather, he says, “I translate the photographed scenes into my composition.”

Daniel’s paintings demonstrate his drawing skill and his strength of composition. He also successfully achieves a sense of atmosphere or mood, a quality that is reminiscent of colourful expressionist artists such as LeRoy Nieman, whose name sports fans are especially likely to recognize for his paintings of athletes and sporting events.

Fobert began painting in high school, which is when he decided to “pursue an art career.” After studying graphic arts at Sheridan College—a wide-ranging program that included such courses as life drawing, print making, and colour theory—Fobert became involved with Toronto-based Screen Art Products.

There he was mentored by the owner, Ira Noble, who had studied with Arthur Lismer of Canada’s famous Group of Seven. Fobert eventually became co-owner of the company with his life-partner Mervin Patey. Among their clients were the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Aga Khan Museum. During this period, Fobert “kept his creative spirit alive” by participating in Artists 25, a non-profit artists’ cooperative in Toronto.

A few years ago, Fobert “came home” to the Quinte region. “Part of my retirement goal is giving back,” he says. He is an active member of Gallery 121, the Baxter Art Centre, and the Quinte Arts Council.

To see more of Daniel Fobert’s work or to be in touch, please visit his website: danielfobert.com. You can find him on Facebook and Twitter as well.

Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath

Readers will be drawn into this novel through the characters and the pace of the writing. Writers will want to discover how McGrath creates the illusion that is the surface story and how he reveals the undercurrent, the shadowed story running beneath the surface, the foreshadowing that is easy to miss.

Do you ever pick up a book just because of its cover? This is how I came to read Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath. Art is one of my passions and the white cover is brushed with colour: orange, yellow, mustard, a blotch of red, another of green, a trail of purple. As it turns out, the story wasn’t what I expected, but I quickly became engrossed and resented sleep interfering with reading time.

The protagonist, Jack Rathbone, is a charming lad, narcissist, and more. His sister, Gin, narrates the novel; she adores him, gives up her painting dreams, and supports him. Vera Savage is the older woman and accomplished artist whom the still-teenage Jack enchants, marries, and runs away with (from London to New York’s art scene, and then to isolated and tropical Port Mungo). McGrath vividly draws each character and slowly reveals the tangled web created through Jack’s ambition, Gin’s illusions, and Vera’s weaknesses. Early in the novel, there’s a hint of Jack’s narcissism and Gin’s lack of insight:

He told me he would never have worked with such, oh—grandiosity—had he not lived in Port Mungo. He found there a reflection of himself, he said, and the meaning of his life as an artist was the effort to translate that identification directly onto canvas. I thought of his repeated motifs, his rain forests and rivers, his serpents and birds, and in particular his gleaming mythic bodies staring into pools—and much as I came to admire the work I never properly understood how he saw himself in those paintings.

Jack and Vera’s fraught relationship does produce (besides art) two daughters. The elder, born in Port Mungo grows wild, a shocking child in Gin’s mind. She invites Jack and Peg to visit her in New York where she has moved. The first visit goes well, but the later second reveals tension between father and adolescent.

Port Mungo is not a story for everyone. It begins with innocence and ambition, but the lives of the characters veer into murky waters. I found it distressing and upon completion decided not to write a review. Then I changed my mind because McGrath has written a compelling story that drew me in and kept me reading. And the fact that a story stays alive after the reading of it…well, isn’t that the kind of story we would each like to write.

For another story of a sister’s love and compassion for her brother, read The Gathering by Anne Enright: The Gathering. And for one about obsession, see Obsession by A. S. Byatt: Obsession.

50 Port Mungo

Available through your local bookstore or online: Port Mungo

Been traveling: Cuba’s Oriente

Journal map sketch-1 LR
One of my sketches showing the area of my recent visit where many adventures unfolded.

 

I’ve just returned from nearly a month’s stay in the eastern tip of Cuba where I explored nature, history, the unique Baracoa style of art and its many studios, and so much more. It was my third trip to the area and each visit opens doors to new experiences and insights.

Cuba’s eastern tip, known as Oriente, offers

  • one of the few rain forests in North America (although most of us think of Cuba as Caribbean, and it is that too) where Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction but didn’t dispel the indomitable spirit of the people;
  • the tallest waterfall in the Caribbean (the 20th tallest in the world) and many lesser ones with their own special beauty;
  • a semi-desert in the region of Maisi (say My-see) and the Terraces that step up from the lowlands to the sea with breath-taking twists and views (and for geography buffs, the Maisi lighthouse on the Windward Channel is only 80 kilometres from Haiti);
  • the Farola Highway, which creates passage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, is known as an engineering marvel, not to mention an adventurous ride (and on the south shore where I set off on foot to the site of poet-revolutionary José Marti’s famous landing in 1895, which set off a revolution that aimed to free Cuba of Spain’s rule);
  • Baracoa — a provincial city with a two-kilometre-plus-long malacon, that brims with art galleries, parks, and the friendliest people you will ever meet. It’s the biggest city in the area and the starting point for numerous day-trips to places like Rio Yumuri, Rio Toa, Rio Miel, each providing its own unique experience and ambience — and Alejandro Humboldt Nation Park, a United Nations designated site to touch on only a few places to enjoy a boat ride or to hike.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting photos and stories; click below to follow my many adventures in one of the most varied and beautiful landscapes in the world (and this is not hyperbole).

 

Existential Travel (Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel)

“…we thrive or wither depending on how nourishing our environment is.”

The environment of Beatrice and Virgil is anything but nourishing. The landscape is bleak. For the most part, two characters hover around a tree in barren space.

Panned by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, I found Yann Martel’s story haunting. It slips into waking moments and has entered my dreams, which is a bit unnerving but says volumes about the power of the story.

Reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: there’s neither plot nor action to speak of. But unlike Beckett, Martel’s characters are animals, not tramps – the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil. Martel also alludes to Animal Farm among other literary references. Perhaps, too, he’s evoking the dark side of his very successful Life of Pi. Yet another aspect toward understanding Beatrice and Virgil is the obvious allusion to Dante’s Inferno wherein Virgil guides Dante through hell and Beatrice accompanies him through Paradise. However, in this story Paradise is absent. Yet, there’s still one more curve: he’s explicit about the Holocaust, making this story an allegory.

Martel is a philosopher and a writer. As he did with Life of Pi, Martel frames his story, creating a story-within-a-story. In the beginning, his protagonist philosophizes: “A work of art works because it is true, not because it is real.” This fictional author proposes two stories to his publisher, each with a front cover, a “flip book.” One side would feature an imaginative novel about the Holocaust, while the other side would provide a factual essay. Readers would have “a choice…when dealing with upsetting matters.” Hold the book one way: creativity; the other: historical fact. Given the subject, the publisher wants only nonfiction. Henry makes a ploy for including the creative story:

Fiction, being closer to the full experience of life, should take precedence over nonfiction. Stories—individual stories, family stories, national stories—are what stitch together the disparate elements of human existence into a coherent whole. We are story animals.

Henry continues to argue for the flip book idea: “But behind serious nonfiction lies the same fact and preoccupation as behind fiction—of being human and what it means—so why should the essay be slotted as an afterword?” He wants two perspectives and two front covers. He loses the argument and slips into writer’s block. Then we get into the longer middle story—the creative interpretation.

An amateur playwright (also called Henry) becomes the antagonist; the setting is his taxidermy shop where he practices his craft and displays dead animals, many in diorama, including the donkey Beatrice and the howler monkey Virgil. Taxidermist Henry has asked author Henry for his help in writing a play and the writer Henry visits and listens to excerpts read by the tall, gruesome taxidermist. It is not a happy experience, yet he’s drawn to the man, his shop, and the “conversation” between Beatrice and Virgil as excerpts from the script are read to him. Their situation is stark and as gruesome as their creator. Near the novel’s end, the author Henry reflects: “Once you’ve been struck by violence, you acquire companions that never leave you entirely: Suspicion, Fear, Anxiety, Despair, Joylessness.”

After more horror and some healing, author Henry muses about the donkey and the monkey and what his lingering memories mean: “All that remained now was their story, that incomplete story of waiting and fearing and hoping and talking. A love story, Henry concluded.”

A bleak love story, but should we ever be faced with the dystopian reality of Beatrice and Virgil, we could hope for the kind of love they shared.

Beatrice and Virgil is not a story for everyone, but for those who like puzzles and allegories and the “theatre of the absurd,” I recommend Martel’s book to you.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Beatrice and Virgil

Book Review: Fictional Fact – Imagining Klimt (The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey)

In this imagined look at the life of the Gustav Klimt, we glimpse Vienna and the bohemian lives of artists in the city during the turn of the 20th century. In The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey, we meet Klimt through the eyes of Emilie Flöge, a young, upper class bourgeois girl attending a parade with her father and sisters:

 “…our father was talking to a man we didn’t know. The man was wearing a threadbare sack suit and a pink daisy in his buttonhole. We had never seen a man wearing anything like that. He was not tall, but broad-shouldered and strong-looking. He was tan like the woman selling ices. He was carrying a leather case in one hand and what looked like a toolbox in the other.”

Emilie sneaks away to watch Klimt paint. Later he comes to the house to paint the daughters and Emilie convinces her father to allow her to take painting classes. Emilie grows into a young woman. One thing – as you can imagine – leads to another, and eventually to “The Kiss.” Emilie is believed to be the woman in the painting. The man is purported to be the artist Klimt himself. But Hickey’s story ventures past Klimt’s death, taking Emilie as far as the Russian invasion of Vienna near the end of the Second World War. Emilie and her niece have taken refuge at an old summer home that abounds with memories of Klimt’s visits. Emilie toys with the idea of travelling back to Vienna to see her city house, but resists:

“I am not ready for the accounting, not yet, the tally of buildings lost and buildings saved, paintings burned and paintings not. In my mind Vienna is still whole, I can see it. When I am stronger I can go back and face the losses. When the war ends I will go back.”

Hickey feeds the images we have in our minds about Vienna, about the sub-culture of artists, about the war and how it changed the lives of countless people. Despite the obvious research required to write creatively about such a well-known figure and period, Hickey keeps the story lively, not letting it droop into art-history mode for which I give her kudos. However, the book in many ways is a light romance, an easy read, which may be the perfect book for a lazy holiday weekend for those of us who like to snoop into artists’ (imagined) lives.

Notes about Klimt:

Most readers will recognize the art of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), since images from his “gold period” pop up everywhere on greeting cards and posters. One of these, the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” was confiscated by the Nazis during WWII. In 2006, a movie called “The Woman in Gold,” starring Helen Mirren, takes the point-of-view of Maria Altmann who reclaims the painting from the contemporary Austrian establishment.

While talking with an artist friend about Klimt’s style, she asked if I’m familiar with the work of Margaret Macdonald Macintosh. Macintosh’s work was shown in Vienna in 1900 at the “Vienna Secession.” Klimt was also one of the exhibitors. Some believe that her influence created the famous shift in Klimt’s style that occurred after the show. Others suggest Klimt “stole” the style. Don’t you love when serendipity and a bit of artsy gossip slip into your life?

13 The Painted Kiss

The novel is available through your local bookstore or online: The Painted Kiss