Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Epistolary Review: Coming to That, Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning
Coming to That
Greywolf 2011

Dear R.,

You don’t necessarily have to look at Dorothea Tanning’s paintings (though I can think of no reason why you wouldn’t!) to understand that her aesthetic is, in essence, painterly. Coming to That, Tanning’s second collection of poems, uses language to compose as a visual artist might, often in a way that recalls her own long career as a painter. That is to say, the poems in this collection are, by turns, springy, surreal, artfully posed, sneakily narrative, and deeply interested in perspective: “It was then I saw the kook./Tall, he stood over me/wearing a droop-winged hat” (25).
            Other readers have noticed Tanning’s debt to James Merrill, with whom she was friends (Tanning’s wide acquaintance has also included Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, & Max Ernst, to whom she was married until his death in 1976)--& her tone of warm, witty knowingness bears the comparison out. But Tanning strikes me as far more whimsical about her whimsy than Merrill. Perhaps that seems tautological. But what I mean is that, for Merrill, whimsy was dead serious business. Epic. For Tanning, it is mostly a diversionary tactic, the sleight of hand that keeps you from noticing the rabbit until it’s been plucked out of the bottomless black hat. Many poems in this collection—in one way or another—deal with the sensation of vertigo, the giddy exhilaration that comes from standing at the edge of a very deep place: “reeling in a surreal sky./My hat turned up in China” (5). But exhilaration is not uncomplicated in this context. It often masks disorientation, dizziness, and (perhaps) a fear of heights. In “Debonair,” a poem that remembers the first balloon flight in 1783, Tanning at once celebrates and deflates the possibilities of the vertiginous:

            Wigged and beribboned as
            usual, they rose together
            in a basket under a balloon and
            crossed the sky over Paris.
            Remarked one to the other,
            back on the ground, a little
            out of breath but debonair,
            “Why it’s the earth that drops.” (28)

Vignettes like these often form some of the major substance—if not the full substance—of the poems here. From a talking dog in “At the Seaside” (“‘our final/rejection of that fiction known as best friend is imminent’” [34]) to the veiled quarrel in “Room, Pool, Piano” (“Cruelly he said, ‘Go ahead and cry.’” [19]), Coming to That often trades in these conversational tableaux in a way that makes them seem like short pieces of sequential art. In some ways, the chatty quality that most of the poems espouse is a part of those diversionary tactics I mentioned earlier—a seeming laxity that gradually resolves into something hard and sharp. “Sand/Dollars,” for instance, essentially a short poem about oil and relationships between the West and the Middle East, draws you in with a few terse, enigmatical descriptors before narrowing in to more sustained rhetoric: “them/sable-eyed/battened down/tunneling/part sinew” and, finally, “trusting/the target’s brag of/oil to spare” (23). The same sort of contrast between the breezy & the brittle is evident in “Zero,” where the economy is the subject: “Now that legal tender has/lost its tenderness” (51).
Tanning’s poems are often wonderfully faceted, carved to reflect a wide array of concerns through the prism of the urbane, observant narration that gives the collection its tonal cohesion. And yet these adjectives—witty, urbane—suggest much more detachment, much more distance than is really present in the poems. For all their carefulness, Tanning’s poems rarely seem reserved. Sentiment is coded but pervasive—immediate but mostly tactful (I must admit the title of one poem, “Wisdom Tinged With Joy,” gave me more than a little pause but perhaps it’s ironic? Perhaps not.). Tanning trades in “stunning facts.” She does this well & often. That is one thing you can ask of your poetry. What are you asking

late & soon?


Dear (r),

I am asking whether one must be ironic when dogs are involved.  I refer to your question re: “Wisdom Tinged With Joy,” a phrase that refers, it seems, to what comes “[o]ut of the mouths of city dogs” confined to perpetually smaller apartments.  (I tend to honor my obsessions and today will be no exception.)  Indeed, my dear, it seems that only Dorothea Tanning could sell you on that device that I enjoy and you dislike—trite domestic epiphany.  While Tanning’s poetics activates a sort of accidental ekphrasis that almost makes us believe in the surrealist paintings described imagined, I second your emphasis on “sentiment coded and pervasive.”  Take “To The Rescue,” which I will reproduce here in its entirety:


Think of a lizard as a spot of day-glo green,
insect-sized, though in all ways perfect.

Lost in this kitchen of chrome-souled
recipes for oblivion, he looks hard at me.

His skin, my skin, our heartbeats tight with
trauma, I carry him out where, tack-sharp,

two green push-ups, and a cool survey
of the universe, my endangered species

walks, not runs, away, leaving his savior
staring at two brown leaves pasted by rain (41).

Even if this poem didn’t conclude with a romantic/domestic re-writing of Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” dear (r), it reads more D. H. Lawrence than James Merrill.  I am not complaining!  I find Tanning’s neo-Modernist gestures to be fascinating and effective.  (Is the Kook you mentioned not the Man-Moth, newly beloved?)  I only wonder whether they are quite as experimental as you suggest.  There is a sonnet in here, (r) (albeit a sonnet about Halloween (32))!  There is “The Writer” characterized as privileged observer:

“Then, ‘O missed train,
take me with you wherever
you’re going,’ she murmured
in the crowd, and nobody
heard it but me” (13).

Dear (r), I do not mean to contradict you.  (A blessing on Tanning’s diversionary whimsy!)  I only mean to ask whether you would like these poems as much if, say, I wrote them.  Which is to say—does experimental street credential win us, after all that vertigo, the right to be sweet?  Must the poet, like Dante/Orpheus refigured in Spicer’s “The Heads of the Town Up to the Aether,” descend into the inferno of meaning unmade before he permits himself to stand in the beatific face of sentiment?  Whether the trials are necessary, well, we may need to

agree to disagree,