We often talk about a poet with a painterly eye. In Naked Clay: Drawing from Lucien Freud, we find a poet, Barry Hill, with an eye for the painterly. Hill explores six decades’ work by the late Lucien Freud, the premiere figurative painter of the twentieth century. Through Freud, Hill engages the solid fact of the flesh, the harrowing translation of the classical human into the merely material, and the many complex states of nakedness. In Freud’s work, paint becomes flesh; in Hill’s, flesh becomes paint, then words.
In his conversation with Freud’s work, Hill both adheres to the conventions of ekphrastic poetry and dispenses with the need to describe or interpret the painter’s work, ranging instead into art history and theory, the minds of both painter and sitter, meditations on nakedness, and family drama. Fortunately, we don’t turn to poetry as our primary commentary on other artists, a task better accomplished by the essay or interview. The ekphrastic poet appears to honor the work of others, but we read the poems for themselves.
Ekphrastic practice, by re-representing the representations of perception, places the poet in a position of profound alienation, at several removes from the original experience. This position, however, is not necessarily disastrous, for in profound alienation comes profound imaginal freedom. Especially in Modern and postmodern poetry, the dialogical demands of ekphrasis provides a way of establishing the poet as an authority who simultaneously occupies the role of naïve beholder and sovereign of the imagination. Thus, the poet is freed to explore the work of art without significant danger of reifying the imaginal.
Hill seizes this possibility to behold nakedness (in the paintings of Freud) and to dwell in the emotionally charged field of nakedness in its many manifestations. In a Griffith Review essay written while he was wrestling with the material in Naked Clay, the poet comments that “most of us know nakedness from the various experiences of loving and being loved”—a raw and unexpected definition of love: exposure. “Nakedness involves more than a sense of exposure, of being looked at. . . . Nakedness has weight. Gravity becomes us, in our bodies. We descend, maybe condescend, to be touched.” As Hill writes in “Getting to Grips with Naked,” in the presence of the naked there is “[n]owhere to look. / Nowhere to go.” Just as Freud’s work can be seen as exposing the complex fusion of painter, sitter, and viewer, Hill’s poetry displays an erotic symbiosis of poet, painter, and reader.
For Freud, especially, the naked body is an emblem of an almost erotic mortality. He paints the ghastly hues and decomposing textures of the corpse. This mortal “skin sense” finds expression in poem after poem in Naked Clay:
Flesh is elastic, tinted and tuned
oiled for drying
is spring and welcome
You thicken looking, you return to earth
the clay of the brow
is someone’s touch.
It’s a mess, a birth, a death—
your prime self
ready to fire.
The nakedness that Hill engages in Freud’s work is charged with the erotics of death, the ultimate exposure for which “there is nothing to celebrate and nothing to be anxious about.” This understanding culminates in the book’s final poem “Magnanimity,” a lengthy meditation in which Hill, having engaged the weighty nakedness of Freud’s work, pays tribute to his mother and father. Death has turned the living into earth; Hill turns the memory of the dead into word-painting. The result is not an objectification but a reanimation of the passed/past and a celebration of the material reality of his own flesh and blood:
Things at regular intervals deliver themselves:
marrow in bone, flesh on the bone, skin on the flesh—
the meat that is lugged in common, known to all
just as you know
at each turn of the wheel—
a smile, a spasm, a new bruise, and then
suddenly its spring again, spring with its mystery
of how you can feel so. . .egg-shell blue. . .
and looking is a kind of invitation
to be spread on the wheel
and touched all round, delicately.
In his astonishing fourth book, Enigma and Light, David Mutschlecner, like Barry Hill, takes ekphrasis into new territory. Each poem develops from an unlikely pairing of visual artists, writers, philosophers, and religious figures. Mutschlener’s titles indicate something of his process: “Robert Ryman/Nicolas of Cusa,” “Joan Mitchell/Charles Olson,” “Marc Chagall/Alexis Palmaffy,” “Georges Rouault/Robert Motherwell.” Combine such allusions with a high-falutin’, metaphysical vocabulary—“phylacteries,” “apohaptic,” “anamesis,” “theophany,” “sapient concatenation”—and references to Heidegger, Gorechi, Aquinas, John Scottus, Martin Puryear, Plato, and Pound at Pisa, and one is left in the potentially uncomfortable position of feeling inadequate to the task of reading. Fortunately, Mutschlecner never lapses into didactic condescension. Dazzling us with his fluency, his “beatific vision” is rendered in a lovely, light language and is made accessible by an element of generous praise. This is poetry in which the language weaves a numinous fabric from the perceptions of others. In a single poem, Mutschlecner draws on, say, Robert Duncan, Dante, Aquinas, Whitman, Statius, and Saint Paul, such that “I become his voice and his becomes mine. / I am conducted to a vision.” We as readers delight in the performance.
Mutschlecner calls his work “theopoetics,” that point “where imagination informs theology.” Although his Catholic faith enlivens the lines, his work is theological mainly in the sense that he equates beauty with God, infinite and transcendental, cutting “across time, to keep us.” Rather than doctrine, Mutschlecner explores ecstasy. To spark a language fit for ecstatic insight, he finds unexpected connections among disparate figures and themes. From “Gertrude Stein / Agnes Martin”:
Martin’s marks are Stein’s
both inter-patterning one another
as they could not
without the clear delineatinon—
each word girded by the grid.
The poem does not so much illuminate either Stein or Martin as offer an opportunity for reflection on “the elegance in pattern,” Poundian imagism, and the making of meaning. These smart moves are as quick and lovely as hummingbirds unzipping the summer air.
David Mutshlecner’s remarkable talent turned to the visual arts provides a neat summary of the postmodern ekphrastic task:
Do these unplatonic colors, impure,
holding reign as by default,
cry down into the unprimed canvas
a place as for some birth unpainted,
unknown—an empty nest holding claim
on us, a place in us we fill and fail to fill?