Extended Ekphrasis: A Review of Tension : Rupture, poems by Cutter Streeby, paintings by Michael Haight

Everything about this book is extra-ordinary.  From creation to publication, which, in many senses is a frozen moment in an ongoing conversation. It is critical to understanding this work that both artists are equally acknowledged and considered, even as they express their responses to the world and each other in the different languages of words and paint. 

The two artists were friends before they collaborated, so had a sense of each other before they began. Spurred by the pandemic, Streeby asked Haight to respond to some poems from his unpublished manuscript that was still “open to changes.” Within the manuscript were a series of poems called “Frameworks.” Haight proposed responding with “Alcoholic Crepuscles” (both artists have battled addiction) in watercolor, tempera, and gouache.  Rather than stop at that standard point of ekphrasis, the dialogue continued.  Streeby let Haight’s work “hold the narrative line” and selected or wrote new poems to send back to Haight. Haight, in turn, chose “details” from his paintings.  Streeby wrote his own “details” to add to the conversation. 

In this  captured moment of the conversation, Streeby opens with a poem; Haight closes with a painting.  As the introduction clarifies: “At each exchange, there is an intersection, a tension, a rupture between our languages and our memories, our own stylized selves expressed through our languages that results in new islands, new continents of awareness.”

It is important to ‘experience’ this book, not just read it, both as an artifact of the ongoing conversation and as a combined work of art in two languages.  This complex layering reveals itself through the work. 

Streeby opens with “Framework: A Vessel, Notes on a Grecian Urn”: “We should stay how it starts, shouldn’t we?” He continues by referencing the language of painting: “Wet clay and water, finger-formed—should say it’s spun, formed from a controlled force, built over a locus.”  The conversation begins within the poem, within the opening part of the body of work.  Readers have seen Haight’s paintings on the title leaf and on the page before the Table of Contents, but this poem is the true opening of the work.  When readers turn the page, the first painting within the work is revealed as two female figures, one with a face, one without, one standing facing the viewer, the other in a broken-legged arabesque, head turned to the viewer, but without features.  Pink, yellow, and yellow-green predominate.  The conversation has begun, but readers must explore to discover what this conversation means to each.  Readers have, after all, joined the conversation forming that triangular connection among creators, the work, and readers.  The connection unique to each reader.

Some poems appear as prose poems, but the colon is used almost like a line break, echoing the title Tension : Rupture, where the colon is presented with a space on either side.  Sometimes, the poems are in paragraphs, sometimes a solid block.  Sometimes, a poem is accompanied by a detail, as in “Concerning the Fox, Liber Monstrorum,” followed by “Detail: Liber Monstrorum,” a poem in couplet form.  “Detail: Heliotrope” is physically wide open, words and short phrases almost scattered on the page with extensive white space. On closer inspection, there is a specific structure to the poem where indention and the trail of words and phrases down the page leads readers to correlate words and spaces, to understand spaces as words in themselves.

One of the more fascinating poems is “Letter from a New City to an Old Friend” (sic).  Some words and phrases are also presented with strikethrough lines.  Readers are given two versions at the same time: a work in progress, reflecting the nature of this evolving dialogue between the artists.  Readers can read all the words, including strikethroughs, as the earlier version of the poem followed by reading the poem without the strikethroughs.  The last line of the poem gives the time span for the versions: NoV16, 2009– 6.1.2019    a ten years now.

The conversation, which began at the start of the pandemic, has not been in progress that long, but some of the work spans a longer time.

The content of the written text is also wide-ranging.  Addiction is common to both artists and embedded in the work, but there is much more.  The first title “Framework: A Vessel, Notes on a Grecian Urn,” references Keats and the romantic tradition of ekphrasis.  The “Notes” at the end of the work explicate other references—to Lorca, Jericho Brown, and others, in the tradition of poets. T. S. Eliot comes to mind.

Streeby dives deeply into individual words and their meanings and implications.  In “Detail: λ ε γ ω,” for example, he writes “Reason grows from the root of legos, / And if we can’t say a thing, logos can’t be there:” This is followed by a series of lines of X and Y in upper and lower case. He concludes: “So breath’s form’s the crux then? Everything’s there.” The importance of saying “a thing” is key to understanding conversation.  Hence the attention to individual words, their meanings, and the nuances and implications. 

Haight’s work also “says things.”  The word “crepuscule” from the Latin crepusculum means twilight but can refer to sunrise as well as sunset—sunrise, the golden hour, sunset, the blue hour. Many of Haight’s poems center on yellow and blue.  The figures are often wraith-like, reminiscent of the figures that weave above the world in the works of Marc Chagall.  But these figures, despite their ephemeral quality, are grounded, the limbs particularly large, feet and toes almost those of old people.  The painting most directly connected to addiction is the responding to “Ela” and “Detail: Garnet” on the previous page, but it appears opposite “Letter from a New City to an Old Friend.” The painting is yellow, blue, and purple and depicts drinking from a large bottle through wide, long straws.  These figures are primarily faces, one with closed eyes, one with wide eyes, a third upside down.  A succumbing, an orgy. The impossibility of stopping.

The intention is for a painting to follow a poem, but often the following painting sits opposite a different poem, making the collection more fluid as paintings flow from the previous poem into the next poem at the same time.  As the work evolves, readers are encouraged to question reality, what is said which hearkens back to “if we can’t say a thing, logos can’t be there,” limits (“I limit the infinity of the world by the variable of what calls to me from it,” from “Tonic Key: A Rose”), and language (“Language is a good example,” which follows directly from the previous quote).  In “Tonic Key: A Rose,” Streeby also writes

“Language is a conspiracy between two people, and it’s always only two,

Necessarily: the speaker and the hearer, no matter the scale; the words

hit your ear only, process in your mind only. Your space, your time.”

Readers can hear both speaker and hearer by absorbing the conversation, but readers actually see not hear them—the paintings and the words on the page.  The artists saw their creations as they passed them back and forth.  This raises the question of how much they “talked” to each other in the course of the work, i.e., if the “conspiracy” of the work also included “the speaker” and “the hearer” as well as the sight of paintings and words. 

In the last poem, “Self Portrait through the Eyes of a Photographer,” Streeby invokes a different medium. Haight grew up in Perris and Hemet, California. In the “Afterword” by Jane Ursula Harris, she writes that “These places have the shape-shifting contours of daydreams and nightmares alike, and while some are based on photographs, they are like palimpsests seen through the shimmer of memory.”

The reader learns that medium of photography underlies some of Haight’s contributions to this conversation.  Memory is a third medium, one that Haight, Streeby, and readers possess and can apply both to the creation and the understanding of the work.

Tension : Rupture takes time to grasp and understand.  Time well spent.

***

Aline Soules’ work has appeared in such publications as the Kenyon Review, Houston Literary  Review, Poetry Midwest, and The Galway Review.  Her books include Meditation on Woman and Evening Sun: A Widow’s Journey (chapbook). She also writes book reviews which have been accepted by publications such as Tupelo Quarterly (https://www.tupeloquarterly.com/reviews/) and Heavy Feather Review (https://heavyfeatherreview.org). Find her online at http://alinesoules.com.

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