Wrought Fiery-Hot Upon a Grillwork of Transformations

Western Art by Deborah Greger. Penguin Poets Series, 2004. $18.

As Reviewed By: James Rother

Debora Greger is one of those poets who can’t help obsessing about art’s hidden agenda—the one lurking beneath layers of veneration which for centuries have surrounded art with more awe and wonder than anything outside of revealed religion. Forget what great paintings seem to be saying, fixationists like Greger insist, and concentrate on what they reveal of themselves as they go about the business of unmasking (or, as some might say, of flaying the hell out of) the world, the flesh and the devil. The question such poets want answered is: Do works of art tell questing humans what they need to know, or only what connoisseurs’ vanity demands, so that what is less than marvelous in humanity can be palliated by the “greatness of art”? Glance at any piece of classic art, they argue, and what do you see? What the Clement Greenbergs and Sir Herbert Reads have taught you to see: surfaces residuating into backwashes of detail, themselves but mercurial aggregates of cultural particles owing more to the viewer’s own patterning than the artist whose name is on the painting. The framed thing staring back at us is nothing but a speculum which, if sufficing as Hamlet’s “brief and abstract chronicle of the time,” is still flat and two-dimensional as any garden-variety looking glass.

Western Art, Debora Greger’s seventh collection of poems and the first since Movable Islands appeared back in 1980, attempts to plumb (with only intermittent cogency and coherence, one regrets to say) the same mirror of art Baudelaire notoriously ransacked for ravelings of beauty in such probative studies as his accounts of the Salons of 1845, 1846, 1855, and 1859. Though having little in common with that fractious man of gall, Greger, like him, spurns art’s sacred and sublime offices for the Loreleis they all too frequently prove to be. Her quarrel with art’s shortcomings may now and then decline into willfulness bordering on vulgarity, but it can also come across (when the temptation to turn the wrath of the biblical Judith on paintings and plaster casts of Holofernes is indulged) as evidence that a poet unwilling to let “Great Masters” chic cloud her trusty female intuition is in our midst. Trust neither the tale nor its teller, her poems seem to be saying, for art has small commerce with trust and sits for even less of it being siphoned off to teach us about it. Stripped of its pieties, art seems concerned with little more than catching homo pudens at his disingenuous best—or worst, depending on one’s gift for cynicism. Staging wardrobe malfunctions for the snobs accustomed to seeing things nude rather than buck naked is what art has always been about, or at least what it used to be about before it went all wacky and expressionist. Homologies linking a Géricault to a Jackson Pollock might be adduced ad nauseam, but who could possibly think them worth the highlighting? No, what drags us back to museums like hashish addicts to bongs is not the frisson of High Art, but getting down in the muck of controversies roiling over this or that degree of dèshabille’s inadvertence. The scandal that converted Manet’s Olympia into a Warhol-esque Olympiade has shown greater legs since that portrait’s unveiling than the model herself. If the history of art teaches us anything at all it’s that a nipple exposed here, a crotch nearly glimpsed there, and before long, art’s whole pornucopia is ululating in spasms of long-sequestered horniness. And not just in the manner paraded in a Goya’s Naked Maja or the Fontainebleau ‘Diana’. When truthfully revealed, the handmaids of art emerge as akin not to the muses or graces of refined sensibility but to the Janet Jacksons and Sharon Stones of social flight from such enervating regimes of those of taste and morality[private]

But that is decidedly not the wrong tree Greger’s Western Art is avid to bark up. The process of unmasking that her “Western art” undergoes is both subtler than the “erotics” Susan Sontag passionately embraced—in her ‘60s manifesto, “Against Interpretation”—and a good deal less self-trumpeting. In Greger’s two-part poem (“after Tiepolo”) “The Trompe l’Oeil of History,” the effrontery of art acts as a prompt launching the poet into a critique of the liberties taken in one painting where the yoking of love-making and war-making (in the persons of two notorious lovers) is not to be written off the stage of history as no more than an occasion for an artist’s waking dream. The diptych’s first part, “The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra,” suggests that what is most captivating about a painting is not what is seen there, but rather what isn’t:

Because the painter knew that history,
when it happened, happened in Venice,
it’s on the steps of the Riva

that Cleopatra meets Antony’s ship.
And it’s not so long ago, merely the Renaissance,
so high it smells like the Grand Canal,

which lies hidden in the fresco
behind her froth-white, useless horse,
his unseaworthy, shell-like ship.

In its ghostly ballroom, you stand,
feeling underdressed, and study the painted ceiling,
the peeling walls, waiting to have seen something . . .

a rustle of silk vanished in a forest of spears?

For Greger, the essence of art is to be found in that ellipsis tapering to a question mark at the end of her poem and indicating idiosyncrasy in the course of being overtaken by the enigmatic. But is it the Queen of Egypt’s idiosyncrasy that is giving way to the enigmatic or is it the painter’s, or, least likely among clashing possibilities, the poet’s own? The second part of Greger’s diptych, “The Feast of Cleopatra,” though lengthier than the first, muddies the waters more rashly:

The past is in the next room,
the painter would have us believe,
and the food’s better—

a dog still waits at the feet of its mistress,
like love for table scraps.
But Cleopatra has called only for a glass

of vinegar, she’s so extravagant.
holding a pearl earring,
she reaches for the goblet,

ready to prove to Antony,
girded in armor for this battle across the table—
whatever it was she proved.

But not quite yet.
Pliny still wants to know of the pearl,
do we get the most bodily pleasure

from the luxuries that cost a life?
Where before they only dove for pearls,
now the poor divers desire them, he says.

See how a jewel attends a lady like a slave.
How a pearl warms to the skin.
This he calls natural history

for want of a better word. But not yet.
Not yet does love begin at the beginning,
acidly, its slow dissolve.

The letch of such verse for the quick kill is as promiscuous as its formal dispersion of accents and emphases. Auden in his prime could toss off trifles like these between breakfast and the first whisky of the day, but his modus operandi was always to make seem as difficult as possible what was actually as uncomplicated as falling (no lapsarian pun intended) off a log. Greger’s personal m.o. snips along the same dotted line as, say, that poet’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” though it balks at praising artists for any display of wisdom not claimable by their subjects. (Western Art contains a three-part “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which, though walking knowingly over Auden’s grave, is likely to raise few goose bumps on the hide of his anointed.) Her Tiepolitan Antony and Cleopatra act on no one’s lack of initiative (or as yet un-occurring failure of nerve) but their own; their eternity of love looped into a grisly ampersand would be utterly inaccessible to similar lovers with different names even if such existed, which they don’t. The “trompe l’oeil of history” Greger references in the title of her diptych trumps the eye as well as deceives it by falsely contemporizing the fact of the lovers’ posing as though for a postcard of Renaissance Venice in which stunt doubles substitute for their fabular counterparts. Passion in the painting of which she speaks remains as palpably out of reach as it does on Keats’s Grecian urn. But so is any establishable meaning or suitably elevating purpose, and art that takes account of neither is not really the art we’re used to rhapsodizing about—or is it?

Who knows where art comes from? Try as we might to plumb its wells and not-so-wells, to root about where nonsense plumbers of every persuasion have unsuccessfully roto-rooted since Plato’s cave presented aesthetics with its first clogged latrine, we can’t for the life of us avoid what every spelunker with a light in his hat has had staring him in the face from Day One. Nobody knows where art springs from, and when all is said and done, the findings of a Camille Paglia are no more—or less—credible than the gyroscopic fits of a W. B. Yeats or the feral dissemblings of a Ted Hughes. Having said this, not a single starry-eyed prospector after fool’s gold is likely to be diverted or deflected from following his hunches as to where all that glittering might point, no matter how failure-ridden the track record of all such quests has proved in the past. Doubtless it’s tempting to see what pans out when with each new generation, every hock shop and flea market this side of the Kasbah yields new decoder rings for cracking this Arethusan conundrum. And it seems to make very little difference how the new finds are trotted out. Whether gussied up in mummy wrap (out of Yeats’s A Vision) or gleamingly simonized with paste from some Jungian ball of wax—all that is required is for the ducks of any fresh hypothesis to line up smartly, to look lively, and to not quack on key like a flotilla of decoys.

Which is another way of saying that poets who lack the windmills to tilt at at home (pace Blake and Yeats) should not blast away from blinds hammered together at home. The pretentious pronouncements made by amateurs of this lore, those knights of mortar and pestle eager as Faust to see their souls swapped for a mere whiff of aqua fortis, deserve the negative cachet they’ve earned among skeptics: that of tent-show pitches, for the credulous only. Yet Greger’s unflagging devotion to the cause of nailing down art’s originary source serves only to support the old saw that fixations increase the grip they exert on us the more aware we are of the hold they exert on us. She can’t fool us with occasional departures from the Rome, Verona, and Venice of her favorite artists whose paintings obsess her, or from the Golden Horn of those pli selon pli-ers whose tales goaded Alexander to conquer Persia and India—even when Greger deserts those places for parts all too known and bearing code names like “the verge of Florida” or Archer City, Texas. For that matter, neither the intimations of mortality summoned by the Tar Pits of La Brea—nor the fossils of conjugal incompatibility unearthed by one estranged spouse for his or her opposite number over dinner—neither of these gambits can distract from Greger’s real ploy in this game of noughts and crosses, which is to stick it to art with art’s own cache of stilettos and poignards. There might be game afoot in Western Art, but it isn’t the sort broached by the naturalist John Muir in the epigraph to the book’s fourth part: “In my interview with a Sierra bear, we were frightened and embarrassed, both of us, but the bear’s behavior was better than mine.” Neither is it the wedding-cake “alligator bride and groom” that rise up to threaten marriage in the poem of that title. In the mesh of itineraries fleshed out by destiny in Greger’s troposphere, there are no detours, no lines of demarcation effectively separating the Florida of her own residential acquaintance from the Rome of looser collective memory. Or the ever-temporizing City of the Angels from eternally contemporary Venice or Byzantium. Or for that matter, all of them from the lush (if interior) grazings offered by any of the better Manhattan museums. Viz. her poem “Annunciation, with Missing Panel”:

For her, all such loci are party to a single archetypal conundrum: Why is rootedness in art thought to be our only hope for moral enlargement outside of religion, when it may be no more than an elaborately carved popsicle stick to which our civilization, rapidly succumbing to global warming, frigidly clings as its insecurity blanket.

That’s right: insecurity blanket. Centuries of cant to the contrary notwithstanding, something there is indeed that doesn’t love a wall, to approximate Robert Frost’s inimitable lockjaw idiom. And especially when it’s in a museum and tricked out with all the folderol of the beaux arts in excelsis. Greger feels that the real mystery of art lies in its power to further excoriate our personal anxieties, to take what is discreditable in ourselves and project it, somehow inverted, as the triumphal glory of pettiness, all neatly transcended. Her Rembrandt is a Panzaic recorder of quixotic ignoblesses obliges gone funny in the head. Requiring chamber pots to helmet their willfulness with tempered resolution, they trumpet reveille to the sentry policing the costume fancies we all first surrendered to as children:

. . . How he liked to dress up:
a helmet like a chamber pot, with matching gorget.

A plume with a mind of its own. Upholstered in velvet,
chained in gold, he painted himself into the past—

but couldn’t get the light right, as the x-ray showed,
and put in a poodle, desperation kinking every curl.

Greger’s Gainsborough, similarly cross-grained with distraction, transubstantiated his imperial boredom into a corpus of aristocratic or otherwise privileged hosts whom he portrayed grudgingly in brown study after brown study as the veritable peat moss of a gentry too deep in its own accoutered pride to see the handful of dust staring back at them out of a painted mirror:

After a certain age, who can bear to look out the window?
Time on his hands like paint, he painted himself

in the muddy colors he loved most of all.
His face won’t bear the weight of his looking

for much longer, but he doesn’t know that yet.
Death, his last patron, will say of it,

Can’t you see? There’s something wrong with the eyes.

Always something wrong, as though art were a gradient of error needing no more than an ascension by some plenary gratuitousness to have its subjects forever revealed as misshapen or even grotesque. With a Cézanne, the problematic more and more revealed itself to be hands, clumsily drawn and falling off the draughtsman’s table line like pre-school plaster moulds; in the case of a Chagall, it turned out to be lips; and chez Fragonard, furbelows protruding at an angle out of sync with attendant airs and graces were enough to send perfectionists scrambling toward the first Watteau in range. Greger doesn’t point an accusing finger at such egregiousness of manner or mien. Rather, she embraces it as the saving dis-grace of an adequacy alone capable of keeping the artistic enterprise out of Chapter XI. If scarcely Blake’s divine love rechanneled contrariwise, then the degree to which art is never less than human remains for Greger one that other enterprises cannot lay claim to. Even so, while the characteristic Dasein of art might pack a wallop, its particulars tend to disperse with disturbing vagueness into those discrepancies of suffering for whose disposition W. H. Auden accorded infallibility to his “great masters” in that poem of his discussed earlier. Indeed, Auden’s none-too-cautious poem represents an anti-matter to the matière comprise of Western art—or at any rate, that version of it to which Debora Greger’s book title alludes.

The foothold from which Greger overlooks the abyss of artistic errancy is her own idiosyncratically concocted stance as self-appointed cicerone of what proves a purposely misguided tour of exemplary cultural sites. In it, she is at pains to show us where metamorphosis wrought by artists (rather than by gods filling out Ovid’s officious forms with mythic boilerplate) has had its way with unearned felicity. She also shows how the rumplings of contentedness have been crimped—via not always welcome make-overs—by the intervention of special pleaters in the affairs of reformable matter. Not by art alone, but by the partnering of complicity bordering on the criminal (marriage) with criminality bordering on complicity (“significant other”-ing). Yes, domesticity, whether operating under the proprietary gaze of the Sacraments or in the loosely conscripted form of mutually useful cohabitation—the chump change of sexual currency in the Mariolatric West—is still the Wal-Mart-ish monogram, His & Hers. When the facts on the ground, and not just the druthers of Greger’s will to power, have been totted up, there is almost as much about demeaned engenderment said in Western Art as about art’s having conscripted the vanity of human wishes into a pride. To confirm this we need only turn to a poem Greger decouples from its own couplets to make a siding out of end-pieces, “The Palace at Four a.m.”:

And then one morning the courtship is over.
No longer does the male hold forth at four A.M.

to impress the female enough to mate.
Now only the note of alarm is given voice

by the blackbird or its cheeky, petrified young:
a chink in the air—as if stone were being dressed,

the way you mend a wall in an old cathedral town,
the local church too soft to last. Almost fifty,

you wake almost alone, in a foreign country.
That’s not a husband next to you, it’s loneliness. . . .

Yeats’s Byzantium is held similarly off-limits to women, who are plainly there to inspire, and not be inspired by, spirits empowered to make ravished virgins of those unprepossessed poets clueless enough to claim their gender as incontrovertibly male. Women can only ply the causeways of possession like streetwalkers in an Islamic exorcism of public desire, far removed from that visionary exclusiveness ironically furnished to Yeats by a consort skilled in automatic writing and sporting the—by British standards, at least—butch moniker of George. “That is no country for women,” Gregor somewhat caustically paraphrases “Sailing to Byzantium” in her own “Flying to Byzantium.” “In the streets / of Istanbul men strutted like pigeons.” “Like saints surrounded by gold in the old mosaics,” she writes, “they wanted to sell me something.” Down but not out, she wanders, an evictee of her own bemusement, gored not a little by the ox of alien masculinity she sees everywhere staking out bourns of lordliness in what was once the nominal haunt of the emperor Constantine.

In the church of St. Savior, the sainted men

painted on the wall looked down on me.
What could I do but walk beneath their gaze,
I who’d paid to look, not to pray? Over their heads,
a girl was given away to priests in the Temple.

Even higher up, an angel brought her bread,
since she would be needed later in the story,
being the young virgin Mary.
A paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick—

a girl at a traffic light at midnight
took the smirched rag she was supposed to smear
our windshield with, and wound it instead
around a fence post in play. Into a doll

whose face could hardly be seen for the veils . . . .

How well does Debora Greger the poet account for herself on such uneven ground? She is certainly no greenhorn tourist in this oft-frequented neck of the woods, having turned in no fewer than six full-dress performances before Western Art, none of which shows any sign of wanting to veer into less intense neighborhoods. (The title of her last book was God.) Greger’s virtues have a wry way with commonplaces masquerading as “signs taken for wonders”:

There was a note in pencil for Ezra Pound.
Pink ballet slippers in a plastic bag
hung in mid-air from Diaghilev’s grave.
Brodsky didn’t have a headstone yet,

just a few pebbles, balanced,
out of respect, on a wooden cross.
A cigarette and a whisky bottle lay in the dirt,
songbirds in the cypress making light of it. . .

(“Island of the Dead”)

There is an uncompromising way of not forcing metaphor to do the job of mere similitude—

The rest of the saints looked carefully
at nothing, the view from the back row
blocked by the haloes in front, arrayed
like Sunday-best plates in a china cabinet. . .

(“Island of the Last Judgment”)

—and an honesty willing to forgo, if necessary, the ear candy of sweet sound when direct statement cannot feasibly be fitted with a cadence, as in “Poetry and Sleep”:

What did Keats know about sleep or poetry?
He’d never seen an elephant
take a nap. Merely lying down
took the elaborate effort of a poet:

you almost saw the thought occur
behind the massif of forehead and then
set out to reach the extremities by dark. . . .

She can also, when it’s called for, rhyme featly with the better Ransomites on this side of the generational divide separating pre-World War II- from post-Vietnam-era poets:

High in the dark light we call weak,
God has six days. He’s young, smooth-cheeked—

and already something’s not to his taste,
an angel, as always, in too great haste

to roll the earth back into night
before he can say, “Wait. There should be light.”

On the negative side of the ledger one can point to a whole clutch of glitches that from the stylistic point of view are either annoying or expungeable—or both—to varying degrees. Not infrequently in Greger’s verse, cuteness marries up to elegant cliché with an almost casual arrogance:

Backs straight, we sat in the dorm-mother’s room,
ankles crossed, and listened to the voice of God:
Walter Cronkite read the evening news. . . .

And with comparable morganatic brusqueness, the mating of yellow journalist with retro-agitproperty clerk:

Worthless, my degree in art.
What would Madame Nhu, late of Saigon, do,
that deposed dictator’s wife
who said you could sleep on the run,

but only in a couture coat?. . .

Would her degree in art have seemed as futile, one wonders, if the object of scorn were Imelda Marcos authorizing on-the-run naps in Gucci shoes? From the poet’s standpoint, are long-lost anti-guerrilla wars better grist for the mill if they awaken memories of solidarity on the left or if they revisit militant screw-ups perpetrated by the right? Again, only the Shadow knows, and this time with Hollow Men-style dryness of tone is equivocating.

On his death bed, Molière reputedly was asked whether dying was difficult. Icily he responded that dying was easy, comedy was hard. Debora Greger, on the basis of a careful reading of Western Art, appears to attribute her own difficulties with life’s comedy of errors to art’s rank inability to prepare us for the worst in all that is not art, which is to say all not magically invertible by the looking glass enterable (in the manner set by Cocteau in Orphée) through a picture frame. Among the worst in this regard (and dispatched with a glibness that is of not just the flambéd but the flimflambéd variety) are the booby traps of domesticity, those rabbit holes of “significant otherness” down which most of us, through much of our lives, repeatedly tumble and which never, or almost never, open out onto satisfactions greater than those a mustard seed might augur lacking a parable to bear fruit in. If the husband and wife imbroglio is successfully averted, then—short of loneliness courted depressingly as dark familiar—our fate, starkly pointed to by Greger in poem after poem on the theme of failed domesticity, is to confer flat-lining revenance on years of local cohabitation.

Which is not to suggest that Greger’s verse reduces to such knee-jerk runes of revisionist feminism as “Eve was framed.” Their history of providing the office doors of female professors with a Dantean admonishment to males with knockers on their minds to abandon all hope before crossing the transom is not really at issue here. Greger’s art is a notably acidic one: it has the etcher’s gift for inscribing the serpentines of moral allegory on Dürer-esque surfaces where the malleable and the fictile need to be scrupulously controlled. As a result, she is drawn to those forms of art which, from Roman times to the Renaissance and beyond, kept themselves honest by bearing the image of mortality’s sting into the world to combat the blandishments of flesh and devil. Despite the solvency it has acquired within first paganism’s, and then Judeo-Christianity’s crucible, such art failed notably to accomplish in situ what historians and connoisseurs of later times overgenerously allowed to be an empowering contextuality. This, implies Greger, has proved unfortunate for art as well as its gullible constituency because in the final analysis, art’s “aura” is nothing but context. Western art’s centuries-long superintendence of art culture, those repositories of the human image from which we draw breath of spirituality, reduces to little more than the contextual management of ulterior no less than anterior spaces of remonstrance whereby all who contemplate art’s productions are furnished with a museum wall for the broadening as well as the relativizing of their own perspective on the world. Greger, if the vulgarity can be forgiven, is determined to be more broader than broad in not countenancing any of the claims traditionally voiced by artists, who believe that art socially and politically enables people who, outside of art’s realm, are content to see themselves as merely empowered. In “Artist Unknown,” portrait miniatures are interrogated for any incriminating evidence they might be harboring that their central unknown is not in fact the artist who painted them:

In the last row, dime-size, gold-encased, hung two
that were all eye: the eye of the beloved,

whoever she once was. Was the guard’s back turned?
You had to be eye to eye to see that the iris

was just another earth. Aqueous humor blue,
green continents adrift: the world was tiny

two hundred years ago, all love inconsequent.
O my pretty unknown, to whose watch chain

were you fobbed? To what did you turn a blind blue eye? . . .

This is cross-talk in the by now familiar idiom of Ashbery’s Parmigianino-inspired “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror.” But it does go the doyen of such contortive post-modernizing one better by refusing to mix alembications of a naturalizing personal cult with distillations of a more fomentive, not to mention fermentive cast. Indeed, the conceit broached in Greger’s poem luxuriates not all that remotely from the Crashaw-esque, both as a trompe-l’oeil of masculinist derogation and optical sophistry as bizarrely lachrymosed in that poet’s super-mannerist poem “The Weeper,” and as a wrong-end-of-the-telescope airing of the truism “It’s a small world.” In Greger’s baroque boutique, we are light years removed from the notion of the musée sans murs (museum without walls) floated some years ago by the French novelist and art historian André Malraux. For him, the entire world, having inherited the aura-less estate of unlimited reproduction obsessed upon first by Baudelaire and later by Walter Benjamin, was a fortiori a vast representational gallery equipped with neither exhibitive surfaces nor divisive partitions. Malraux’s para-critical fluxions aside, what’s lamentably absent from Western Art is its author’s registered shock at the paucity of concern for what endangers the irreplaceably human in the life we all live in—what might best be called the shadow of art’s engaging dissimulations. It all coalesces rather too easily on the page, this obloquy of hers with irony, with pastiche, with disabling tropes in general. Too pat and easily rechargeable are the cells of distemper for one unable to be shocked at how little the bomb-maker is alarmed by the destructiveness of the devices she arms, and not just the masterworks they aim to atomize, are intended to wreak. That they not infrequently fizzle, sputter and conk out is altogether beside their point and hers. They were brought into the world of Western Art to detonate certain ancient assumptions about the donativity of the work bequeathed us by the Great Masters, and it is on that basis that they should be judged and not any other.

Perhaps Greger’s rage to disorder was somewhat mollified (hence the impression of patness) by the disinclination to credit poets with the same disruptive capability as painters, cathedral architects, and the rest of the supernal riffraff with which bastions of unutterable splendor like Renaissance Venice, Rome, and Istanbul abounded. As it is, Western Art retraces an Oregon Trail of contumelies that the Lewises and Clarks of wormwood historicism—John Ruskin, Bernard Berenson, Wilhelm Wörringer, E. H. Gombrich, to name but a few—have already marked with poison pens. All of these are known for having toiled in gold fields, which Greger’s hard-to-conceal self-gratulatoriness would have us believe were not thrown open to lucrative speculation before her own deadwood historicizing.

In the face of such canards it is perhaps best to cry duck and leave it at that. The art historians mentioned above were at least able to take art as it comes and to be unwilling to further worry it to death with mementi mori in excess of its own earned right to die in species et in décor—which is to say, removed from dusty archives and reintroduced into the light of day, its superb heartlessness the better to be appreciated. Poets should not be shortchanged in such a general indictment of compassion or a failure in foreseeing the feminist Atlantis raised at last in Camille Paglia’s time and our own. Doesn’t Greger know that it is to poets much more than painters that most of us flock when the heat of things cools down and disabling entropy looms? Painters might in the manner of a Tiepolo gild a way to the Truth lined with clouds and back-lit plenitudes; but it is poets with the chutzpah to counter the not-to-be-seen with the not-to-be-left-unspoken, who, trailing rap-sheets of glory like scoops destined for a celestial City Room, we repeatedly rely on to acquaint us with places of which none can say, as Gertrude Stein famously did of Oakland, California, “There is no there there.” Only they have the courage to broach the audible without the visual as backup, and they usually have the grace (responsible as they are for having conducted us there) to let us find the way out by ourselves, offering neither spilt religion nor volumes teeming with chain-chucking masses to aid us in our transit. Their quite singular virtue is to leave us very much under the power of our own sense—call it a delusion, if you like—of having had one more than could actually be counted depart with us from whatever or wherever it was we had been led to, even if that he, she, or it could no longer be confirmed as a live presence at our journey’s end. Painting, sculpture, even architecture cannot in any real sense accomplish this. Only language, wrought fiery-hot upon a grillwork of transformations themselves ulteriorly verbal, can discover alloys of temperament and mettle able to resist reality’s solvents. Even if only for the briefest of times.

That, I feel, is what has gone A.W.O.L. from Debora Greger’s otherwise diverting take on those who hardily compensate for the inhuman condition in Western Art. Still, in all fairness to this engagingly thoughtful poet, no one is suggesting hers to be the only verse notable for having had its spinal taproots take a powder when the going got rough. In the gutless wonderland of today’s publishing world, books like Western Art serve a purpose by filling the gap left by potentially more substantive contributions to the art of poetry being lured into more financially rewarding media and venues. Too many poets rush into print having achieved no more than a prosy cover story whose wiry artfulness fails to redeem an overall sponginess beyond any possibility of being, as the saying goes, fixed in the mix. I would be less than honest if I pretended, for the sake of courtesy, or of going along to get along, that Western Art deserves praise precisely for not being the kind of book that cries out for the sort of praise usually accorded books hanging “unpopular” notions of what constitutes sacred cows out to dry. While there’s nothing exceptionable about being saddled with that kettle of fish (to mix a metaphor unfixably), it’s hardly cause for anyone to rush out and buy helpings of the bouillabaisse for shipment to one’s friends. To invert the old carnie putdown, Debora Greger’s book earns the complimentary cigar, but not the accolade “good” that ordinarily precedes its withholding.[/private]

About James Rother

James Rother studied at McGill University and the University of California at Santa Barbara. His critical work has appeared in Contemporary Literature and the American Book Review. He is a professor of literature at San Diego State University.
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