Lowell's (Self) Portrait of Jarrell
Making art involves the translation of reality. Something is made into something else, and during that process the sheer material at hand has to be unmade. This is fundamental, for instance, to lyric poetry. Think of Shakespeare's sonnets, of how they interrupt midsummer fullness with the reminder that "every fair from fair sometime declines," of how they scratch beneath a contented present to "weep afresh love's long since cancelled woe," so that the poet can promise a time in which "All losses are restored, and sorrows end" because his work itself "gives life to thee." Such a conclusion may offer resolution, but it appears only after the poet has volatized a seemingly stable substance.
One of the reasons I'm obsessed with portraiture is that, in its best examples, those tensions between making and unmaking grow particularly strong. The play between the subject as he or she objectively appears in the "real world" and the felt images that course along the pulse of the artist, the pull between inside and out, takes on a certain ethical dimension. Which of the two people, after all, is imprinting him- or herself on which? Where does the truth really lie?
Many of the portraits I find most compelling attempt not to resolve this problem, but to dramatize the very challenge of carrying another person's likeness into the world. A prime example for me remains the work of Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966). Take Giacometti's bronze bust of his brother, "Head of Diego on Base" (1958). I had the pleasure of seeing this piece at a recent exhibition on portraiture at the Pulitzer Foundation in St. Louis, and I was amazed.
The pinched folds and ridges of the face. The diagonal slice of the palette knife that forms the jaw. The gaze that could exist by itself, separate from the sculpted head. Each of these features contributes to the unified force, the power of the object both to pull the viewer in—as if it were the single, hard core of being—and to radiate outward, from the intensely small scale of the bronze itself, to fill the room with its presence. Sculpture may not seem an art form that moves through time. But in the Giacometti bust, the effort to knead—one can actually see the sculptor's fingerprints—and cut the image into being runs against the properties of the bronze. The image embodies a moment of emergence, a moment between making and unmaking, between the bare fact of Diego's appearance and his brother's attempt to sustain that imprint in his own sensation.
This particular sense of movement, this wrestling with the characteristics of the given medium, and with the very space between the self and the other, also appears in the work of Robert Lowell (1917-1977). Lowell wrote portrait poems in all of his books. Among my favorites is "Randall Jarrell," one of the many Lowell wrote in the form of the blank verse sonnet during the 1960s and early 1970s. (Others portray historical figures such as Alexander the Great as well as contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop, Allen Tate, and Robert F. Kennedy.) "Randall Jarrell" presents a converse challenge to the one that Giacometti encountered. How does a poet establish a permanent image in a medium that moves through time, and even seems to erase itself as it moves?
It also conveys a moral challenge. The poem is named for Lowell's great friend, the poet and critic Randall Jarrell (1914-1965). But the first eight lines show Lowell himself falling asleep, waking up, falling asleep, waking up again, as his cigarettes seem dangerously to appear and disappear with an agency all their own.
The dream went like a rake of sliced bamboo,Then in the last six lines, in the true depths of dream, the ghost of his dead friend appears:
slats of dust distracted by a downdraw;
I woke and knew I held a cigarette;
I looked, there was none, could have been none;
I slept off years before I woke again,
palming the floor, shaking the sheets. I saw
nothing was burning. I awoke, I saw
I was holding two lighted cigarettes. . . .
They come this path, old friends, old buffs of death.
Tonight it's Randall, his spark still fire though humble,We've all read "ekphrastic" poems—poems written in response to visual art that fail precisely because they imitate the other medium too faithfully; they go flat. In Lowell's poem, time may be jumbled. The cataleptic shocks that begin the poem show time doubling back on itself, as hallucination and fact become indistinguishable. But the form, finally, is anything but static. The image of Jarrell gains its force by dramatic delay. After the first eight lines—the octave of the blank sonnet, which risks being all Lowell all the time—the poem plunges to the depth at which the ghost appears.
his gnawed wrist cradled like Kitten. "What kept you so long,
racing the cooling grindstone of your ambition?
You didn't write, you rewrote. . . . But tell me,
Cal, why did we live? Why do we die?"
The suspension turns out to be more than a formal move. The poem is structured like a snapshot that's mostly blotted by the photographer's thumb. There's a challenging honesty to this: Lowell asks us to consider the ways that we ourselves intrude onto our images of others, or even unmake them in our attempts to render them.
But like Giacometti's fingerprints on the bust of his brother, Lowell's jolting dramatics embody another, seemingly opposite reality. Yes, the poem shows how others appear most true to us when they most surprise us, swerving around our attempts at easy assimilation, ambushing our perceptions when we least expect it, and even rebuking us, in the manner of that imagined barb about "the grindstone of your ambition." Yet the poem also confirms that our act of sculpting the images of others, of circuiting our impressions of them through our own interior sensations, may be more than appropriation. It may also be a way of giving life to these people: Lowell resuscitates his friend for the moment of the poem, and Jarrell himself brings vitality, his "spark," to the friend who has survived him. Like Giacometti's bust of Diego, the poem suggests that, in the end, we're each of us made by others.
Peter Campion received his BA from Dartmouth College and his MA from Boston University. His collections of poetry include Other People (2005), The Lions: Poems (2009), which won the Levis Reading Prize, and El Dorado (2013). He has also written monographs and catalog essays for the painters Joseph McNamara, Terry...