Review | Michelangelo’s Seizure, by Steve Gehrke
Like movies about poets, the literary treatment of painters must overcome one particularly tough obstacle: The creative process, the way in which inspiration (whatever that may be) is transformed into art, takes place in the privacy of the artist’s head, is frequently nonlinear, and, in the case of painting (if not poetry), is surely, at least in part, nonverbal. It’s not the stuff of high drama. Faced with this inherent dilemma, many writers and filmmakers opt for the easy fix: Choose an artist whose biography has sensational elements (say, Van Gogh or Plath) and focus on the life, not the art.
At least, poets writing about the visual arts have another option. They can describe the artwork itself. The voguish if clumsy term for this sort of poetry is “ekphrasis,” from the Greek, meaning “description from outside.” Ekphrasis can produce interesting and sometimes quite beautiful poetry (Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” for example), but, in its literal sense, such poetry describes the finished product and not the process. The artist may be left out altogether. A book of exclusively ekphrastic poems also runs the risk of sounding like an exhibition catalog.
Kudos, then, to Steve Gehrke for finding a third alternative that, while borrowing from both, is simultaneously more principled and more interesting than either of the other options. In Michelangelo’s Seizure, he manages to address both the act and the result of painting. Gehrke’s previous books, The Resurrection Machine and The Pyramids of Malpighi, dealt in large part with illness and physical suffering and the emotional and spiritual effects of such stressors. Much of Pyramids, for instance, presents a first-person contemporary narrator undergoing dialysis. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that, as the title of this new book suggests, Gehrke also portrays his artist-subjects in crisis.
While the crises range from epilepsy to AIDS, from the death of a loved one to the murder of a lover (by the artist—Caravaggio, of course), their effect is to create a reservoir of images, colors, emotional content that the artist can tap for his work. But none of these associations works in isolation; rather, they swarm over each other like Gehrke’s own lush style—an appropriately Baroque extravagance that piles simile on simile as if, like the Blind Men and the Elephant, no single comparison is enough to convey the whole experience.
In “Caravaggio’s The Death of the Virgin,” the artist’s dying lover reaches “dumbly / for his breast, like the gesture Caravaggio / will give the Virgin’s hand”—a gesture that also repeats the act of a nursing mother putting her breast back into her dress, which Gehrke sees as the first withdrawal of love, implying a link between the painter’s perceived betrayal by his lover and this first betrayal of Christ (“because she [Mary] was also the first to tell / the child no, wasn’t she? The first to deny him”).
Similarly, in “Late Self-Portrait,” Rembrandt’s act of painting himself causes him to recall the death of his wife and his earlier paintings of her, including the revision of one such portrait after her death, in which “her drowned light” is “resurrected into pearls,” a glimpse of which he needs as he paints himself:
Turner, beginning to paint after witnessing the burning of the houses of Parliament, perceives each brushstroke as “a flamboyant wound,” recalling the first time his barber-father shaved him and, “as punishment for some forgotten sin,” nicked his skin. Memory keeps surfacing and shifting from line to line: “The past awakens / into candle-dust and hue”; “a match-stroke” grows “into the flickering landscape”; the boy-Turner traces “his outline onto the steam- / fogged window of his father’s shop” and watches it evaporate, “his ghost-self trapped in the suffocating / glass.” The swirling and blending of these recollections, translated into landscape, promise to “end / the authority of shape.”
The fever-struck Goya hallucinates his firing-squad image, but it morphs into his mother’s basket of laundry (“rifles / losing their erections, / bullets leaving only clothes-lines in their paths”) and back:
One has the sense, reading these poems, that there is never a crudely literal correlation between the subject matter of the painting and the context of the memory employed. Instead, the artist chooses the images as he might pick the most appropriate brush or pigment for a particular task. He selects them as a poet selects from his or her own characteristic word-hoard.
The premise that art gets created out of such a cauldron of associations may well be a fiction. Surely, much of an artist’s strategy is concerned with questions of form, line, emphasis, and flow, not to mention an unverbalized connection to the actual space of the painting. Nevertheless, it is an illuminating fiction—one that transcends fact to get at truth. Gehrke’s approach calls to mind Adam Kirsch’s The Wounded Surgeon (W. W. Norton, 2005), a perceptive critical study of six demon-ridden poets of the Middle Generation (Lowell, Bishop, Berryman, Jarrell, Schwartz, and Plath). “When they [the poets] turned to experiences like madness and despair and lust,” Kirsch writes, “they did so in order to make effective works of art, not in order to cure themselves or shatter taboos.” Similarly, the painters in Michelangelo’s Seizure plumb the imagery of their private traumas to create master paintings. And, no doubt, Steve Gehrke transmutes his own experiences of trauma (and perhaps his passion for art) into these remarkably compelling psychological portraits of the artists.
Steve Gehrke’s third book, Michelangelo’s Seizure (University of Illionis Press, 2007) , was selected by T.R. Hummer for the National Poetry Series. His second book, The Pyramids of Malpighi (Anhinga Press, 2004) won the 2002 Philip Levine Prize in Poetry. His other awards include a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Pushcart Prize. Gehrke teaches at Seton Hall University.