This project is based in response to visual art, principally late medieval and early Renaissance paintings. One of its recurrent themes is the position of the viewing-subject in relation to the depicted subject--who is the subject of the narrative implied in so many of these works. It's clearly a matter of intending (con)fusion, an invitation to let individual identity slide a little, to join in stories fundamental to the culture, thereby reinforcing the stories themselves and initiating the viewer into the culture as a participant.
One question I was exploring in writing on these works and on my viewing of them was the relationship of writing to this initiatory process--could writing disrupt it in an interesting way, at the very least creating a self-consciousness that complicates the overlap and reintroduces elements of "personal" decision--in quotes because the question of what 'personal' might, can, does mean is one of the underlying considerations.
NOLI ME TANGERE Unknown Spanish Painter, early 14th century
Should the painter be distracted, should some sharp noise alarm him or passing thought disarm. All the saints in their flaming skins. And at first glance seem to have an extra finger.
Note the grace entirely based on precise. Sudden ballet as you back away from the depicted: Story One: If you touch
the sky will turn blue
(of our child
to the tips of the fingers
to the ceiling suddenly to the sight
If you profane this is not flesh
with your supple
seething soon to be saintly and I
with a lock on the body and the sunlight cutting straight through me and I
picked up a brush and what's breathing
is not necessarily living
not that I have left but leave my
in your moth-fingered hands, in your million-fingered hands, a third story:
Now everything is sky and
where the body joins the body
a flickering solidity
encounters the returning
touch finding a different erring
and recognizing the difference,
which is how hands are formed and then lives:
miles sewn back on each other and the seam
some secret plenty.
When the sky was still gold
Mary Mary quite so many
to be reaching and always
toward that receding
land and body: body of clay
and a landscape made of faces.
Grace us in our unraveling flesh;
one alone must stay on earth
and I loved you so that I insisted:
Distill it. I, who can never be
single, splayed through a chiseled bevel
into the blues and greens and she's
wearing red, which is why she
gets the breadth, thus does not end.
Chantal Akerman, THE EAST, (a documentary video), 1993
What if she had not put the cellist so separately after the fifteen minutes of the camera's panning along the long line of human faces but had slowly over a ten minute period brought the music up behind and faded the image of the single musician into and over the long line of human faces waiting for something in line side by side perhaps beside a train track so barely that it never quite arrived. What if all concerts were performed behind a huge screen onto which was projected a long line of faces all facing us and it had always been done this way. You can see hundreds, even thousands, of faces in fifteen minutes. After that, they cease to be plural.
The guard peers closely
at the painting. Count.
The fingers. The figures. The
strange sweep from waist
to chest to head. His hand reaches out
within a second of
She sweeps upward. Up
to where the gold sky might
What would the touch
if it did not first
run up against
a man who is in the end a man
She touched the painting
as soon as the guard
turned his back. Respond.
I said turn around. I
screamed, I drowned, I
thought you were home.
I touched the surface of the canvas.
It was I, the sound of salt. And fell
and is still falling through a silent earth.
A deep red in the sky that has nothing
to do with the season but quiets
Outside drinking coffee and wine and watching.
Look, he's speaking, leaning over to his neighbor.
Look how the lines around his eyes and mouth.
Fleet. Part. What of that. Replies.
She crosses the square in a bright red coat.
Look how they look at her, look up
from their talking. There is no thought
here of leaving. There is no thought.
There are people crossing the square
arm in arm, in threes and fours and alone in great numbers.
Joseph Albers, THE INTERACTION OF COLOR, 1975. I've heard
that no one is ever repeated or ever precisely named.
She took the coat off the peg.
Even to herself, she said it was her own.
She crosses the square on her way home.
She will not stop at a cafe, she will not talk, she will just go home.
The minute progressions between grey and black
becoming one against the red that stares back.
Because she knows they are watching, she will not turn around.
Home is a sound repeated to solid, to something that will hold.
Look, there goes a man with his left hand left lightly
on the head of his child. There they go.
In the painting, all the reaching hands are growing.
In the gallery, everything was green and gold and red
Made the sun, though deep, cut through:
Within the door was a window; within the window, a jar.
Inside the jar, carefully there, the love need not be
assigned in order to fix and ignite.
She had to cross the square in order to get home.
She was one. And one by one, they looked up and watched.
When the guard turned around, the gesture was gone.
A woman stood back and said no.
She stood back, looking at the painting and said isn't it fine
that a woman wearing red could arrive at a gold sky. Remind.
Or else in falling. And nothing broke. The rift
shifts open the devout. A finger that exceeded number, a
A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Cole Swensen studied in San Francisco and in London, receiving her Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Her most recent books are Noon (Sun & Moon Press, 1998) and Numen
(Burning Deck Publications, 1995), nominated for the PEN West Award in Poetry.
Her awards include a National Poetry Series selection, Sun & Moon's New
American Writing Award, and most recently, the 1998 Iowa Prize for her manuscript
Try, to be published by the University of Iowa in Spring 1999. Active
as a translator, Swensen has focused on contemporary French cross-genre
poetry and fiction, and has participated in translation conferences and
group projects at Louisiana State University and the Royaumont Foundation
in France. She currently teaches at the University of Denver and directs
the Creative Writing Program there.