The art that excites me the most has always had both a railing and wild river in it... Timothy Donnelly, March/April APR, 2012
Back in January when Elizabeth sent me her half of The Color of Lightning (see our latest recording here—the first we had to do remotely, not side by side in her yard or my woods) the prospector in her poem crying “Eureka,” inspired some general rummaging before I wrote my half. I discovered Asteroid 5621 (co-orbital with Mars) bears the name. And came across something of Edgar Allan Poe’s I’d never read titled, Eureka, A Prose Poem, which it turns out, is anything but a poem. But how clever of Poe to dodge scientific critique by calling his treatise on gravity a poem. I also like his dedication, which reads in part, “…to those who feel rather than to those who think -- to the dreamers and those who put faith in dreams as in the only realities…”
Out of the blue (without knowing I was writing about Poe), my brother visited several weeks later with a copy of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination under his arm, which he left as a gift for me. The illustrations are Harry Clarke’s (scroll down to the eleventh image here on 50 Watts to view the image I'll be discussing below; thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for the reference).
I love Clarke’s illustration for Descent into the Maelstrom which confronts us with a funnel of delicately layered Morse Code reminiscent lines mixed with repeating blurred comet tails and long dashes and dots of white in tightening rings. But even as the rings choke inward, the amount of black space the artist employs between rings grows. You immediately assign the location to the sea because of the vessel circling midway down the vortex, deck nearly parallel to the opposite side of the funnel. You (viewer) find no rim of sky; you are placed at the outer rings of the gyre looking at a slight angle down at the funnel whose tip you are not allowed to see (thus the secret fathoming of its genesis or end made worse, left to root in the imagination’s darker surmisings).
Once you stop thinking about that boat on its side spinning towards oblivion, you notice odd fragments of flotsam, wood, torn trees, or are they limbs of trees? Or worse? Then you realize one of those random bits forms a barrel, and to that barrel clings a survivor. Which ends up feeling more ominous than the image of the boat (though…check out the boat again…as you peer more closely it seems to house a human foot...and the back part of the deck appears fringed with human teeth, lower portion of a jaw, the boat the shape of a mouth opening in protest).
Flipping through the rest of the illustrations, I find the combination of ornate almost-flowers and detailed pattern that really otherwise should add up to ornament coupled with the sometimes gruesomely extending limbs and body proportions effectively betray the warp of psychological states Poe puts his readers through time after time. Clarke’s drawings match Poe’s methodical haunting, the way Poe rings you with words and portions of argument that should add up to reason but tilt towards madness. The words chosen to describe Descent into the Maelstrom’s illustration reads: “The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic…upon the interior surface of a funnel…”
Initially the image felt familiar—I first identified as the boat trying to maintain position…boat of motherhood, boat of personhood, boat of poet trying to stay afloat. But once I saw the person clinging to the barrel, the lonely boat felt far less romantic in the light of this second image with its graver degree of depravity and desperation.
Weighing the emotion rings of each image (empty boat vs. barrel clinging survivor), I turned to a back issue of APR I found unpacking this weekend (in a stack of other reading material I was supposed to return to Elizabeth before we moved). In a conversation in APR’s March April 2012 Issue, Why Write If Not to Align Yourself with Time and Space with Mathew Zapruder, Ange Mlinko, Timothy Donnelly, Steve Almond, and Hannah Gamble, a couple of paragraphs by Timothy Donnelly moved me. In speaking of the sublime, the experience of it, how the relative safety of the observer (reader) figures, he left me with another useful visual: “…The difference is that between terror and horror. It’s leaning over the railing at Niagara Falls versus actually falling in… The art that excites me the most has always had both a railing and wild river in it…” You need to read the whole conversation to appreciate all the nuances (I hope you will). Donnelly follows this by rooting for taking risks in writing, going the distance.
Been a long time since I felt that excited about writing poetry again, about reaching for the curve past the curve. I am thinking of the opposite vortex of terror Descent into the Maelstrom implies—is it possible for our generation of poets to write poems that spiral with equal height celestially, hope-driven, not sappy, not trite, not “angel-fied”, but where body meets potential of spirit.
Likely these poems already exist, so tell me your favorite. I’m feeling restless with my own tired orbit, spiraling on the updraft of others with brighter vision, thrilled for example with the birdsong and the rainbow hammock behind Elizabeth, the cheerful lilt of her voice in this week's recording. I’ll be recording my next half of poem outside near the birds of paradise, hoping too to catch the trills of the yellow warblers I hear right now and every morning when I wake.
Email Elizabeth if you want to join in her collaborative prose poetry blog, Perhaps, Maybe. You can send her a Perhaps or write a Maybe to one of her Perhaps stanzas. It will grow on you…I promise…
For images reminiscent of Clarke’s, but definitely aligned with a sweeter strain of music (enchanting, an antidote for me to the darker Clarke depictions) check out Kay Nielsen’s work. See Maria Popova’s Kay Nielsen’s Stunning 1914 Scandinavian Fairytale Illustrations.
Photograph is cover of Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe with Illustrations by Harry Clarke; published by Calla Editions in 2008 (unabridged republication of an edition originally published by Tudor Publishing Co., New York, 1933). Twenty-nine tales, with illustrations (Eureka, A Prose Poem does not appear in the collection).