“The page is operatic,” Ruth says.
“It is animal, memory, rock scrawl, grace & light.”
“Art is mesmerism,” Ruth says. “Collage is nerve art.”
“I shower with the moths.”
Book of Ruth is artist Robert Seydel’s envisioning / creation / dreaming of the inner life of his aunt and protagonist, Ruth Greisman. Through visual collage, poem collage, typed journal pages, portraiture, picture postcards, fairy tale, and dreams, we are privy to Ruth’s (or Seydel’s) construction of self and memory. Ruth, depicted as banker and Sunday Painter, lives with her brother Sol in Queens (a veteran from WWI, who “retreated into must and porcelain”). She is in love with Joseph Cornell (who lives just down the street on Utopia Parkway). Sometimes Marcel Duchamp shows up on the scene.
In a texturing of word and image, Book of Ruth pieces together different time periods, materials, and moods. In its compellation, (a disparate gathering on the page), a new space is created where memory, truth, imagination, and contemporary experiment can be housed in one moment. Here, Ruth says, “nothing finishes.”
In these collages, vintage portraiture dominates: tintype photographs of Victorian women appear in white, high-necked dresses, ruffled up like swans. Men stand broad in their vests and watch chains. But unlike Cornell’s collage, they don’t land on a romantic past. It’s how Seydel alters the images. The faces are often rubbed out, or replaced with coins, or masks, or old advertisements of shining women from the 1920’s with perfect, permanent waves. The eyes might be taped over, or covered with foil or newsprint. A man in uniform wears a watermelon on his head, another man wears the face of a hare. The images are beautiful, playful, strange, and unsettling at the same time. One wouldn’t be surprised to find Lewis Carroll’s Alice on these pages, with her standard blonde hair and sweet pinafore dress, except Seydel would have inked out her face first, or perhaps replaced it with a bottle cap or a bird’s head. The images bring up questions of exposure and disguise. We are also led to consider the workings of a past that is caught up in our present, and then by contrast, to consider what has been, and what will be, lost.
The book’s poems at times appear embedded within the pages of visual collage. They also appear as the type-written journal entries Seydel creates for Ruth. The middle section of the book, entitled “Formulas & Flowers,” is the only moment of straight text—white page, black print. What is interesting though is that these poems also feel like collage. Written as (mostly) disconnected single sentences, double-spaced on the page, the lines feel like aphorisms (or Ruth-isms). These quote-ables are sometimes enigmatic, sometimes quirky, wise, or plain and direct, as in “Only Imagination counts”; “Birds elope in my hair”; “My dreams have a rope-ish quality”; I’m naïve in my navy pants”; “A rabbi is nearly a rabbit.” Our understanding of Ruth is achieved through a slow gathering of the bits and pieces of her.
The overall effect is vibratory, a testament to the power of art and imagination. Through Ruth’s eyes, even mundane experiences can be seen fresh. On one morning, perhaps just before work, Ruth types in her journal, “The morning a pale fruit. 9am & one bird caw. My head a clean tremor. Coffee like bitter nectar, which I shld quit.” Her transformative gaze is necessary in a world where “so much is asleep in the kitchen & the bank.” We are reminded that it is less circumstance, and more our vision, how we interpret our experiences, which creates our world. It is what Ruth/Robert Seydel calls “healing imagination.”