Beholding Eye: Poems by Grace Bauer
The poems in Grace Bauer's Beholding Eye range from fully ekphrastic poems about individual paintings, to densely researched impersonations of artists, to poems loosely inspired by works of art. Though the degree of direct inspiration, by visual artists from Marcel Duchamp and Cindy Sherman to Edward Hopper and Frida Kahlo, varies, most poems end up sounding pretty similar: Formally proficient and self-consciously, even epigrammatically "wise" in their commentary on the self-unmaking, kenotic, power of art. That Bauer is largely able to sustain this focus without it seeming claustral or overly bookish is a tribute to her wit and skill; as I'll suggest, I'm not sure the poems' rigor always matches their engaging qualities. Whether one finds the project as a whole appealing probably has to do with one's relationship to visual culture -- this is a very meta set of poems.
Bauer's basic insight into art is that it mediates between self-expression and self-estrangement; that is, the former becomes the latter through artistic craft. This effect even holds true for audiences. Viewing Cezanne's "Large Bathers," for instance, she notes that "civility and containment" are "what / we come to this painting to step out of / for a moment. We enter this idyll to forget / a world that makes us so self-conscious / of our naked selves, we fear / a sight like this might strike us blind." What's odd about this formulation is that it ends up defanging art: Society represses us, "makes us so self-conscious," that we end up "fearing" the power of art, but we're also drawn to it -- we are made both to fear and desire art as a release from our everyday "containment." But that formulation requires the repressions to continue for art to have power -- art, that is, has to be marginalized, quarantined, even, in order to offer any benefit.
There's a similar kind of mediation available to the models who are painted. In "Portraits of the Rich," for instance, Bauer distinguishes between the decorous, regal aristocrats, always reserved, and the "exposure reserved for the poor / wenches who were paid to serve as models / for the Masters, and who now gaze openly / at us, and those who deemed themselves their betters, / from much better paintings, hung here / on the gallery's equal but opposing walls." There's a nice commingling here of democracy (equal but opposed) with elitist judgment ("much better paintings"), though perhaps one can feel the poet's thumb on the scale a little as she compares work-for-hire with masterworks.
Observers and models are not Bauer's chief interest, however. Her main preoccupation is with the artist and the work, and the relationship these have to the world. Susan Macdowell Eakins, who largely suspended her own painting so that she could model for and study with the painter who would become her husband, Thomas Eakins, is made to say "In becoming these I slowly had / to unbecome myself," and it's hard not to hear that as a slogan for the collection. Unbecoming the self here is not quite alienation; rather, it is a way of moving beyond the confines of the self into an aesthetic craft. Frida Kahlo, in the very next poem, clarifies the nature of this "unbecoming," with her "paintings / that are more me than mine," because they are "Parts of my self scraped / with a palette knife, laid on / thicker than blood." Bauer preserves an ambivalence about what is being scraped here: It's possible, for example, to read these as suggesting the process of art allows the artist to emerge anew.
As the title of the collection suggests, Bauer is keenly interested with the way artists see the world. As Georgia O'Keeffe ages, for example, and shifts from painting to pottery, she "realized my eyes / were not so much failing, / simply learning the art / of revision as I had / never understood it before." For the true artist, even degeneration is merely a new filter through which to interpret the world, a new way of unlearning old habits of viewing in order to pick out some new vision. A confab between "Me, Marcel, Rrose & the Buddha" leads to a question that the surrealists, and arguably modernists in general, took quite seriously: "What do we see / when we realize / our eyes / are not our own?" Artists simultaneously struggle with and exploit the fact that we see the world through custom and habit as much as through our senses. Sense perception itself -- that point at which the external world is translated to the internal -- is thus an artifact of culture, history, and biology, none of which sit easily with our sense of identity.
Sometimes, of course, that sense of identity is simply a mistake, a calcification of perceptions that no longer map adequately to the world. Pondering the phrase "after all these years," Bauer notes that "After all, / these years have a way / of deceiving us with the burden / of whatever we have gained in them / the blindness of all we've lost." Both gains and losses, in this calculus, point to deception and blindness. We need art to pry open our eyes, so that we can reappraise our place in the world. And this is what art does: looking at one of Duchamp's versions of "Nude Descending a Staircase," Bauer's speaker sees "in fact, she isn't / a woman at all, but a machine / designed to disrobe the viewer / an idea intended to change / forever how we see."
There are numerous small touches in Beholding Eye to recommend it; Bauer sees paintings with uncommon clarity, and her impersonations of different characters are vivid, even if their points tend to be similar. I do think that when the poems aspire to theory, they suffer a bit -- "The Scholar," with its apparent confusion of desire and jouissance, is a good example here. But of course poems needn't provide theories in order to be rewarding, and Beholding Eye is certainly that.
Beholding Eye: Poems by Grace Bauer