Sonja Sekula Grace in a cow’s EYE : a memoir : by Kathrin Schaeppi
(Black Radish Books, Lafayette, LA, 2010)
Kathrin Schaeppi’s first full-length poetry collection is unlike most first poetry books—for one, it displays a mature synthesis between its underlying poetics and the poems engendered. Sonja Sekula… presents poems ekphrastically founded on one of the artist Sonja Sekula’s artworks. I confess to not having heard previously of Sekula until this book; here’s the publisher’s press release about her:
“Swiss poete-peintre Sonja Sekula (1918-1963) was an avant-garde artist active in New Yor in the 40s and 50s. Her word-image combinations and ‘scratchboards’ are astounding and unique. Though Sekula exhibited in New York and was part of a broad artistic social network that included Cage, Cornell, Breton, Kahlo, Schwarzenbach, Carrington and others, her name is unfamiliar, even new. This poetic memoir, which is but a trace, is homage to this versatile, under-represented artist.”
As homage, Schaeppi’s book is a lovely tribute in part due to the poems’ intelligent manifestations of Sekula’s statement, “…to me writing is drawing.” For examples, look at the book’s first two poems. Here’s the first “Early Painting, 1942”(1):
Not yet old enough to go alone to bed
every night alone in a lovely apartment
to go to bed
was inspired by a 1942 painting—it’s an “early” painting though I’m confused at the referenced age of “20” since, based on the press release’s bio, the artist would have been 20 years old in 1938, not 1942. In any event, one can presume it’s a painting made in the artist’s relative youth. Thus, it can be a sad poem, bespeaking loneliness. What’s smart—and visually so—is how the third line “to go to bed” is presented as indented. With the line ending where the first two lines generally do, it evokes a sad conclusion. Had the line been written flushed-left, the space after the short line could have implied a continuance. Instead, with the way the line is presented, there’s a conclusion there and it’s unequivocable: the poem’s persona went to bed alone. It’s not a small point—it’s this choice of visual placement that more effectively evokes what blurber Cara Benson calls “true pain”.
Then there’s the second poem entitled “Evolution of man and comets, 1942”:
The poem begins
electrify one another
followed by the quad-centered phrase
It’s obviously fitting that “I am” be quad-centered for emphasis. But it’s not just a matter of egotistic self-insistence; any arrogance about that placement is quashed by the following tercet
a skin envelope
One need not know that Sekula was a lesbian to glean some (inner) clash between the “artist” and the self constructed by a particular body. The imagined psychic battles evoked by the tercet continues the hearkening of some “true pain”.
Last but not least on this poem, the last three lines which are set on the page’s bottom right corner. It’s the same corner, isn’t it, where many artists write their signatures on drawings or paintings? Yet the identity referenced there is the artist’s materials. The implied choice made certainly would be a painful one, as known by artists and poets whose journeys regarding identity have been accommodated to the demands of their art…? (I end this with a question mark because I raise it as a possibility, not as a definitive conclusion.)
The above are just two of the many lovely poems in the book, but exemplify how, with relatively small “marks”, Schaeppi can evoke so much as to warrant the book’s subtitle of “memoir”. That these are (often minimalistic) poems, thus involving the reader, does not preclude the full presentation of a life. The whole approach is so integrated that one looks at the dedication page anew with fresh eyes. That is, suddenly, this
is not just a “for you” dedication but the visual of that “U” suddenly evokes a vessel that can be filled, in this case, with the gifts of poems.
I consider these poems “gifts” partly because of the clear interest in, through art, creating a relationship (e.g. relationship with reader). The poem “Moist Bark, 1958”, for instance, concludes with
I wait for someone to
read with me + to realize
what I try to convey
I believe that “+” in the middle of the second line is significant. The poet, after all could have used “and.” But doesn’t “+” elevate the importance of what follows: a realization of what that “I” was trying to convey? It’s not sufficient to be with one (“read with me”); ideally, one also would recognize (“realize”). All from a simple mark, a “+”.
It’s worth noting, too, that a sense of gentleness comes across in reading through many of the poems—as if the poet was consciously careful not to be overbearing with her own “take” on Sekula’s works. The effect is such that even a most grandiose statement like (from “God with child, 1948”)
God with child is
oil with canvas
, with all the baggage that comes with the use of the word “God”, doesn’t strike a false note. The all of Schaeppi’s achievement is indeed a manifestation of Grace, a grace hrough a careful, wise discernment: from “Grace, 1952”:
we balance with the fireflies
where Grace is found in a cow’s EYE
(1) My photos come off dark; please know the book has white pages.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects as she's its editor, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book SILK EGG: Collected Novels is reviewed or generated responses by Joey Madia in The New Mystics HERE; Allen Bramhall over HERE; by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE; by Leny Strobel over HERE; and by Jean Vengua over HERE and HERE. Her THE SECRET LIVES OF PUNCTUATIONS, VOL. I is reviewed by Edric Mesmer in Yellow Field and reprinted HERE. Her THE THORN ROSARY: SELECTED PROSE POEMS 1998-2010 is reviewed by Arpine Konyalian Grenier over HERE. Allen Bramhall also reviews the "Hay(na)ku for Haiti" series over HERE. If the latter two get you curious, please note that participating in this fundraiser for Haiti is supported by Marsh Hawk Press, publisher of THE THORN ROSARY: if you order at least $15 worth of booklets, you will receive a copy of THE THORN ROSARY which is priced retail at $19.95; this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.