Monday, November 4, 2019

From the Phillips Collection—The Poetry of the Nabis

From October 26, 2019 through January 26, 2020, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, is featuring “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life—The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant.” The Dresser sensitive to the title of this vibrant exhibition of works promised by the Sants to the Phillips decided to include literary colleagues and poets Margo Stever and Susana Case in this review.

The Nabis were initially a group of art students who came together in the fall of 1888, after seeing a small abstract by Paul Sérusier. For this painting, Sérusier had been instructed by Paul Gauguin about using colorful paints straight from the tube to express what he saw in nature and to elicit an emotional response.
Sérusier’s “Talisman,” painted on the lid of a cigar box, became the flashpoint for this brotherhood that came to include Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Aristide Maillol, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Félix Vallotton. The group named themselves Nabi which is a transliteration of the Hebrew word navi, meaning prophet.

While the works of the Nabis began with Gauguin’s vision of nature, these painters expanded their boundaries to find beauty in the everyday life and the decorative arts (such as screens, stained glass windows, book illustrations, murals, posters, and advertising).

Among the favorite works of the Dresser, Margo Stever and Susana Case is Bonnard’s eye-catching screen “Le Maraboutet les Quatre Grenouilles” (“Stork and Four Frogs”). The screen, which introduces the exhibition, has a distinct Japanese layout except that the color is much bolder and the size of the stork, frogs, and flowers are much larger than what a Japanese painter would have portrayed. Japanese subtlety had no place in the work of the Nabis.

The richly red “Intérieur au lit rouge” or “La Chambre nuptiale” (“Interior with Red Bed” or “The Bridal Chamber”) by Édouard Vuillard caught the visiting poets collective eyes not only for that red bed but also for the patterned wallpaper, festive rug, and sophisticated gray-green chair upholstery with dark, possibly brown or black, irregular splotches. Certainly the three women in the room add energy as well as intimacy as they prepare the room for the bridal night.

The poets lingered over a sobering set of Bonnard works that included a study for “La Petite Blanchisseuse” (“The Little Laundry Girl”) and the actual painting as well as a more full-blown canvas showing the little laundry girl walking in the dusty street at a slight remove from a group of well-dressed high-society denizens. This was one of the few instances in the exhibition of social commentary.

On a more abstract level, the exhibit included a number of works that spoke primarily to design. Two works stood out—one of a tiger drawn with disconnected lines in a landscape that looks more like wallpaper than jungle, Paul Ranson’s “Tigre dans les jungles” (Tiger in the jungle) and the other a young woman reading a letter wearing a blouse that possibly imitates primitive hieroglyphs and which echo behind her in an ethereal backdrop, Vuillard’s “La Jeune Femme lisant un lettre” (“Young Woman Reading a Letter”).

To conclude, the Dresser  asks how does The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life read? Here are two examples. In Margo Stever’s poem “Surfaces,” the poet explores the subtleties of shadow and light—what moonlight or a dark summer storm reveals in the sleeping chamber, what shapes can be discovered like the blanket imitating the body, what sounds are heard such as the paws of the cats tapping out their desire for food until the sea of rumpled covers calm and the cats, and most likely their humans, curl into sleep.

          by Margo Taft Stever

Take possession
of the blanket, the feel
of it, the smooth

and the lean, the lying
down of it, the way it
imitates the body.

This is the promise
I keep—to rest on the
bed under moonlight.

Yet so many cats
knead the surfaces;
their paws tap-dance,

wishing for food.
Th dark summer
storm rips across

the bed, rumpling
covers like waves,
whitecaps against

each other.
Cats’ paws skim
the sheets as if

called by a higher spirit.
Their willowy bodies
curl together in sleep.

In Susana Case’s poem excerpt “No Sign of Activity,” the intimacy of morning between husband and wife turns lethal but also explodes with profound color and intense feeling. Moreover, color in this everyday life is gender coded in the expected way: blue for male and pink for female.

NO SIGN OF ACTIVITY [an excerpt]
                by Susana H. Case

Every day, the shoe factory and then,
one day, inevitably, the shotgun.
Blood blooms more robust
than the flowers stenciled
on the yellow, blue, and white
kitchen linoleum.
Blood stains redder
than the Libby’s tomato juice
next to the Heinz Home Style soup.
A box of bullets sits on a kitchen shelf.
That morning, the weather was so clear.

She thought she was a good wife,
set the table for breakfast the night before,

dusted around the easy chair
where he usually reads the newspaper—
this is a gendered household:
blue and pink, blue and pink.
In bed, blood pooled beneath her,
she wears a pink nightgown
under a pink blanket.
On the floor, next to her, is the husband,
face down, in blue pajamas
on a blue comforter.

As the exhibit displays, the Nabis were commissioned to illustrate books of poetry by such prominent authors as Paul Verlaine and André Gide. Collaborations among artists deepen the audience experience. The Dresser thanks her poetic colleagues for the light, color, and contours they added to the experience of seeing “Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life” and to the writing of this review.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Showboat: A Cavalieri Odyssey

Whisper loudly that, with this review of Grace Cavalieri’s long poem Showboat, her 21st collection of poetry, the Dresser has phoenix-ed the Scene4 Magazine blog The Dressing.

Grace Cavalieri’s Showboat has arresting wires to The Odyssey, the Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, the mythological tome that tracks the hero Odysseus’ dangerous trek home from the fall of Troy. Cavalieri’s sets up her story of being a US Navy pilot’s wife with three quotes that speak to her subsequent approach which mixes low and high art. No where in these lines by American country singer Dolly Parton, German mystic poet Angelus Silesius, and the multi-award-winning American poet Bob Hicok has she tossed the reader a hook alluding to The Odyssey. However, the back cover of this chapbook pulls one up short with this stanza from the poem:

Asleep in the dark whatever may happen
He’s flying over a postage stamp
Landing on a dime without a light
The phone rings   a voice says
I know your husband’s gone
I know you’re alone
I’m watching you

Cavalieri’s stanza 34 echoes how Penelope, who was true to her husband Odysseus and worried for his life, had to deal with unwanted attention from would-be suitors.

At stanza 28, Cavalieri readies the reader for the more overt Greek epic poem connection when she reveals that while she is waiting for the return of her larger-than-life, war-fighting pilot husband, she is reading—to her young daughters, no less—Kazantzakis, the Greek author who wrote Zorba, the Greek and who was nominated nine times for a Nobel Prize without winning one. Something Cavalieri, who has promoted  thousands of poets through her remarkable 42-year-old radio program “The Poet and the Poem” without a whiff of prize recognition, might be willing to speak to.

How to be selective    to live till age 50
My hair up in a barrette
For the mailman
Shelley eats chocolate ice cream
Colleen vanilla with chocolate syrup
Cindy paints on small chairs
Angel listens as I read
         Teilhard de Chardin
Her first steps toddle to the French masters
          Running with Kazantzakis

At stanza 73 out of a total of 75, the poet questions, “How could I a frightened/ Traveler be given so much/ should I list his love…” as well as “How could he be dead/ If his clothes/ Hang in the closet and every day/ I lay out a clean shirt in/ Case it’s needed”. While Penelope busied herself with weaving a shroud for Odysseus' elderly father Laertes to ward off the Suitors, Cavalieri ever true to her husband Ken continues to lay out his clothes for the man who came home alive and whole from his life as a Navy pilot, grew old with her (he too as artist--metal sculptor), and then died. Women have always been associated with fabric as a metaphor for relationship, as the way women take care of their men.

Cavalieri opens and closes her epic poem by setting the telling of the work in a retreat house in New Hampshire. (She in fact has become the Traveler.)  The precursor stanza, appearing alone before the poem starts (call it Stanza 0), reads like a mysterious proem where birds stand in for the jets Ken flew and the poet is “Pressed against the pane” (or should we read "pain"?),  a line that seems to refer to stanza 30 “Women have windows/ From the beginning/ For good reason Mary Ellen and I flew…”. At the end of Showboat, the poet re-evokes New Hampshire and the window pane, writing it is “cracked from the course of time/ It’s just the brink of the abyss/ follies of stained glass”. No reason to stop here, Dear Reader, other themes abound in this surprising, pointillistic poem with artwork by Dan Murano and Cynthia Cavalieri.

Grace Cavalieri is Maryland’s tenth Poet Laureate and Showboat is her 21st collection of poetry. Goss183, an artist collective, has published Showboat.