by guest blogger Karen Schiff
The New School's room 510,
at 66 West 12th Street, was an unexpectedly perfect place for last month's conversation between Edward Hirsch &
David Lehman. Though the two were scheduled to discuss Hirsch's new reference work,
A Poet's Glossary, the occasion coincided with the publication
of Hirsch's latest book of poetry, Gabriel. You can see a write-up of the event elsewhere on this blog (click <here> to read the post). In that account, as well as in a recent New Yorker article about Gabriel, Hirsch is quoted on the difficulties of writing about a life challenge so devastating that I'm finding it hard even to type any words for it here. So, revving up resolve & writing most plainly: Hirsch's son, his only child, Gabriel, died unexpectedly in 2011, at age 22, when a party drug he maybe didn't anticipate mixed with physiological conditions he certainly couldn't control.
How I wish those words weren't true, or that by un-saying them I could rewind reality & bring the dead back to life. Lehman & Hirsch agreed ruefully that the poem they most wanted not to write was an elegy for offspring. And Hirsch looked like he had been through the gates of hell. I had last seen him in 2008, at a reading he had given in DC, & I wondered if he had survived cancer in the interim. But mortality delivered a somatic shock in a different guise.
I had gone to the event with a secret plan, built on a conversation I'd had with Hirsch after his 2008 reading. Back then, I had hoped he would read his poem, "The Horizontal Line (Homage to Agnes Martin)," because I admire Martin's work. When he didn't read it that night, I confessed to having considered sending him my request, by e-mail before the reading, & he enthusiastically encouraged me to do so some other time. He'd be happy to put that poem on the set list. So before the New School reading, I e-mailed him my request, with a reminder about the 2008 conversation. Hirsch replied with the amiable suggestion that I ask during the Q&A about ekphrasis, so he'd be able to talk about Agnes Martin in an answer still tied to the context of his glossary of poetical terms. Sounded great! I agreed.
But Gabriel blew in. ("Unbolt the doors / Fling open the gates / Here he comes") As soon I heard Hirsch speak about the impossibility of finding a form in which to write about his vivid & inimitable son, now gone...details of ekphrasis & even the implacability of Martin felt moot. Hirsch's eventual arrival at a flexible form of three-line stanzas, with short lines & no punctuation so the emotion could turn on a dime (to evoke the "Mr. Impulsive" aspect of Gabriel's personality), didn't feel like an arrival at all, but rather a taking up residence in a dynamo of (e)motion. Thank goodness there was no Q&A.
Instead of formulating my coded question about ekphrasis, I started to think about Hirsch's struggle to articulate the unimaginable (or the unarticulable). And as I gazed around the room, I saw artworks that looked like potent ruminations on the same theme. Behind Hirsch & Lehman I recognized a Cy Twombly, from his phase of "scribbling on blackboards." (This was Untitled -- an apt title! -- a 1971 silkscreen from Cy Twombly's On the Bowery portfolio -- see detail, above.) On the far wall was a series of lined drawings by Sol LeWitt, like so many empty notebook pages. (These were were four etchings from the 1973 Sol LeWitt portfolio, Straight, Not Straight, and Broken Lines and All their Combinations -- details, farther below.) Scrawl & silent anticipation: are these works not about the discontents of language? Here are the walls I saw from my seat (I took snaps of the empty room, later):
Sol LeWitt, "Straight, Not Straight, and Broken Lines and All their Combinations"
What can each of these artists reveal about the challenge of articulating something beyond articulation?
Twombly is hot on a trail, chasing something down the line again & again. Agitation is electric in the contrast of black & white lines, & in the vigor of the circular marks that have no meaning. That is, no denotation, no connotation, no notation at all...they are all O. "O" for the moan of not being able to say. "O" for the endless line of that infinitely circling letter (I'm thinking of John Cage's repeated enso drawings); "O" for the zero of what we can actually conclude about Twombly's intention. This work both invites & denies access to its maker's conundrum: let me tell you the story of my inability to tell.
LeWitt, by contrast, has figured something out, found a cool remove. He may even be a little amused by the problem, which now isn't necessarily about expression but is about strategies for expression. "All their combinations." I don't know if these four etchings are the only ones in the portfolio, but here are close-ups of their line patterns, in order from left to right:
Not Straight Broken Not Straight / Broken Straight
Though these lines were planned in advance, they are not dully or overly rational. We still see the skittering hand, the vulnerability to error. What is inexpressible is perhaps the extent of variety itself. LeWitt tries to catalogue categories of the infinite, while Twombly dives into its excessiveness. Whose art falls in the middle? I think of Hanne Darboven's calculated non-scripts, or Mary McDonnell's clotted arteries of blood-red lines (both, like Twombly's, "Untitled").
Hanne Darboven, "Untitled"
Mary McDonnell, "Untitled"
And what of Hirsch? While many commentators talk about his strategy's resemblance to Dante's terza rima (fitting for such a hellish journey), there are no schematic rhymes here. Rather, I hear something of Twombly's repeated O, in the truncated rhythm of the thought that cannot be sustained. When I listen to Hirsch read from these poems, & I zone out slightly -- in much the same mode in which I looked around room 510 last month -- I can hear underneath the words, to where each capsule sounds like a brief keening. Allen Ginsberg recommended composing lines according to the length of the breath, & Hirsch reminds us: sometimes we pant.