Contemplating Objects: Poetry and Sculpture
Sometimes I find it difficult to figure out what on earth to write about. Here I am living my supposedly emotionally rich life, and yet I sit down, and….what? This old set of memories? That same chain-link fence outside my office window and the omnipresent to-do list with pressing things to add? I feel like poetry can be a process of zooming in, tracking little paths of language into memory, into music, into the physical world.
It feels important to take such care, but sometimes I feel over-zoomed, to the point of nothing really moving—a contemplation at the molecular level that has me mystified and out of words. And so I think about the shape before me, the shape forming an object that has not yet taken on a collection of words.
Lately I have been thinking a lot about objects. They are everywhere around me—a dead stalk from last summer’s garden blown against my doorstep, my neighbor’s huge white truck parked several feet from my window, warming up in the cold morning air, my coffee cup, almost empty.
Art critic Matthew Goulish, in his mini lecture on criticism, wrote about looking at objects, in his case works of art, “in the light of this moment, whether it be a moment of humor or sadness…a distraction, an honest error….” In this way, he goes on to write, “we will treat the work of art, in the words of South African composer Kevin Volans, not as an object in this world, but as a window into another world.”
This semester, I have been peeking through these windows into other worlds both in the lingual and non-lingual. This spring, I am taking my first sculpture class, forcing my thinking about materials and objects beyond the fabrication of poems, and into spaces that include several welding wands, a band saw, and an extensive dust collection system.
As I watch crude shapes emerge from my efforts in the studio, I have had to hold a phrase by the sculptor Robert Morris close at hand: “Simplicity of shape does not necessarily equate to simplicity of experience.”
Immersed in the study of poetry for the last year and half has forced me to contemplate more deeply the material of language, and the manipulation of this material into poems. The act of writing poetry seems full of gaps, or perhaps windows, through which the objects in the world give rise to the object of the poem, which is then pushed off into the world in hopes of finding eyes that will link the phrases, and maybe, if all goes well, the poem might reemerge newly in the mind of the reader, and form a kind of meaning.
The physicality of making objects out of materials non-lingual became painfully clear this week as I spray-painted a sculpture in the dark outside the studio, only to realize the next morning that the sidewalk too, was bright orange with drift. As I was standing over my mess, contemplating clean up strategies (a form of revision?), a friendly fellow from the welding shop came out to tell me I left the valve on the inert gas canister opened and bled an entire new canister into the air. This must be how I learn, really, about the materiality of experimentation, I thought as I powered up the pressure washer, prying paint particles off cement. I imagined what it would be like if such late-night oversights in pursuit of the poem left one’s shoes soaked, and one’s brain cells dying off from inert gas.
For my critique, I arranged five objects—hewn of salt, wood, metal, and clay—in a line on the floor. One of my classmates noted that different objects linked to one another, and they found their eye moving from one to another, and back to the next, and so on. They did not just look at each object in sequence in the line, but instead linked the objects that seemed formally to echo each other. Without realizing it, I had arranged my objects in a line, a kind of “sentence” that my classmates approached and “read,” moving their eyes over the objects and linking together to form a kind of meaning making. I love thinking about objects as large pieces of language just waiting to be linked with other objects to create the sentence, to tell a different story of being in the most physical sense in this world.
Looking at an object of art, sculptor Del Harrow told our class, is not just about the moment you are looking at it, but also how it changes the way you see things in the world, changes the way you fundamentally see.
Through the physical objects of made things, be it poetry or sculpture, I find that art is working away on my sense of the world—whittling at me, as if I am the material being shaped, being composed—by these objects, and perhaps even by the world itself.