This week’s poems & art:
“Concord Street Hymn,” by Dawn Potter
“Concord Hymn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson (American, 1803-1882)
“Out My Window,” a painting by Leslie Butterfield
“Untitled,” a painting by Jeff Haste
Last week I presented three artists whose current work directly addresses COVID-19 and its many physical, emotional and spiritual effects on our lives and our world. This week I’ll present works that address those issues in a more indirect way, yet are, make no bones about it, as much saturated with COVID-19 as the ones from my COVID-19 Part One post. Over the past three months I’ve had many a conversation with Dawn, Leslie and Jeff about what’s going on so I know how much their hearts and minds are filled with the current state of the world.
Leslie Butterfield and Jeff Haste are not only my friends but also work with me on the ART IN COMMON PLACES program. While “Out My Window” and “Untitled” are both powerful images, I revel in their differences: the bright colors, flowing lines and dreamy quality of “Out My Window” versus the darker palette, straight lines and edginess of “Untitled.” “Out My Window” soothes me, almost rocks me to sleep, while “Untitled” makes me think and want to take action. Isn’t it exciting how two artists have responded to the same moment in time in two very different ways yet both ways are necessary, both are full of truth and humanity?
Leslie, a visual artist, lives in Sarasota. During these dark times, she has found much solace in Nature, especially when she kayaks and sees such wonders of the universe as manatees. Her paintings remind the viewer: Nature continues. When asked how the attached painting connects to COVID-19, she wrote:
“Out My Window” is from my manatee series that has helped keep my spirits up
even when I can’t travel to see my new granddaughter or my children.
Jeff, a painter and book designer, lives in Maine. He’s very plugged into what’s happening politically and culturally so it’s no surprise that his paintings, despite their abstractness, have a “social commentary” feel to them. He wrote about his creative process:
In indirect ways I often think my pieces speak to what’s going on around us without intent or representation. My process is unlike those who have an idea, “I want to look at this or that and incorporate it into my work,” or make pieces about subjects such as endangered species, or whatever. Which is fine. Work may fit into a ‘revisionist’ genre, though I can paint in different ways, the current layering outcomes relate to printmaking.
Usually I take a premise, a recent piece I like for something discovered in its texture and composition, and start to draw anew, wishing I could have something of that technique carry over. It might be stream of consciousness after that, the marks and colors, the layers might go elsewhere, and a series of revisions follows. I have to keep an eye on composition, not wanting to have many forms that might look representational in the layers, it can be a blessing, or a hindrance. The piece speaks to me about what it will become.
This series on how artists are “seeing in a dark time” actually grew out of conversations with poet Dawn Potter. Since March she and I have been having a bi-weekly “poetry call,” during which we discuss the works of a poet. At the time of the conversations we were reading Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus; we’ve since moved on the Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (I have always been baffled by these much-praised poems but, lucky for me, Dawn has a life-long connection to them!). Anyway, during the early weeks of “shelter at home,” we often turned and re-turned to the question, “What does it mean to be a poet in the midst of this turmoil?”
As Dawn roundly puts it:
So what’s it like to be a poet during this pandemic? Honestly, it feels useless. What do poems matter, compared to baking bread or hanging sheets on the line or standing alone in the sunshine? I’m not being coy here. I’m shocked at how indifferent I’ve become to the public life of an art that I’m devoted to. Of course I’m still writing. But creation feels like enough. I haven’t felt the urge to seek out a platform for this work, and I’ve been wondering if other artists and makers feel a similar shift.
Yet, she continues:
My poet life bears a certain resemblance to my breathing life—which is to say, for me words are like air molecules. I pull them in, I sigh them out, constantly, constantly. When I stop reading and writing, I’ll likely be dead.
First, take a look at how the last line of stanzas 2-4 seems to fall into the next stanza. Take a minute and just read those moves from stanza to stanza. Did your stomach feel a bit queasy? Mine did. And yet, after falling through the air, the end of the line does land on the beginning of the next stanza.
Second, look at the words choices and phrases: unanswerable, meekly, “only information available,” “a needle on the front sidewalk,” scarred, tremble (repeated), maligns, “makes me feel like dirt.” The pattern of somewhat-strong-for-the-situation words/phrases signals the presence of a text beneath the text. Don’t strain to hear the sub-text … let it appear/disappear, as it will. Let the various emotional notes, summoned by the words, appear/disappear, as they will. This is a poem full of nuances.
Third, the repetition of “daffodils.” When I lived in NJ there were years when winter dragged on and on and on … and my winter-worn spirits sank lower and lower … the appearance of daffodils, often breaking through snow, reanimated me. Now that I think about it, daffodils are fragile and resilient; they “tremble,” but “breast the wind.”
Fourth, the inclusion of images of Hope such as: the breeze kicking from the ocean; the daffodils; the thawing earth.
As I sit quietly with the poem, more connections to our COVID-19 reveal themselves: how we seem to be falling through space; our individual/communal vulnerability AND resilience; the strength-giving power of Hope.
Now take a look at “Concord Hymn.”
Why did I include this poem from 183 years ago? Because there is an “intertextual” conversation going on between “Concord Street Hymn” and “Concord Hymn.” Reading the poems together adds another layer of depth to both of them. Did Dawn consciously open this conversation between the two poems? I suspect she did, but don’t know for certain. But I, the reader, bring my history of reading, which happens to include “Concord Hymn,” to the table; therefore I may be initiating the conversation. (You may be initiating other conversations.)
Some things to consider while reading “Concord Street Hymn” in light of “Concord Hymn” (and vice versa):
–Why would the poet open a conversation with “Concord Hymn”? Does this innocent poem about daffodils contain more of a commentary on the times than it appears to?
–The Concord in “Concord Hymn” is a town. In “Concord Street Hymn” Concord has been reduced to a street. What might that difference symbolize in terms of the America of 1837 and the America of now? Are there similarities between then and now?
— What are the differences/similarities between the look of the poems on the page and the sound of them when recited? What are the differences/similarities in your responses to them?
–Look at how Dawn slyly plants pieces of Emerson’s poem in hers—e.g. his “green bank” turns into “half-green bank”; his unfurled flag turns into an unfurling person.
–In a sense these are both “memory” pieces. “Concord Hymn” records the cleaned up version of a cultural memory, the version written long afterwards by someone who didn’t participate in the experience. On the other hand, “Concord Street Hymn” is the “right here, right now” messy account of a communal experience. As such, I think it calls into question the surety of Emerson’s poem.