THE NECESSARY ANGEL
BY MELANIE ALMEDER
Almeder, Melanie. “The Necessary Angel.” Miami, Florida. Miami-Dade Public Library System. Exhibition catalogue. October 4, 2007.
The conversation between artists and poets, between sound and image, is as ancient as the Anasazi/Hisatsinom rock drawings of Kokopelli, the flute player. In modern art and literary studies the term “ecphrasis” has come to describe poetry and art in conversation across time and culture. In western traditions, historians have traced what they believe is the inception of ecphrasis back to either Plato’s Phaedrus, or to a passage in The Illiad where Hephaestus makes the shield for Achilles. Homer goes into great detail about the god Hephaestus’ work; knowing he cannot keep Achilles from his fated death, from his birthmark vulnerability, but desiring to make him a powerful object to shield him into his death, Hephaestus puts his full energy into his craft. On the shield he forges the very images of the cosmos itself, complete with the planets’ positions, the stories of cities and power, the stories of marriage and dancing, of warring and death.
No matter what culture historians examine to trace the genealogical origin of ecphrasis, the conversation between art forms has always contended with issues of home and exile, love and death, the passages between worlds and nations, and, ultimately, the oldest question of the relation between the “I” and the “thou.” The poet Rilke once wrote, “And who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?” Poetry and art have always been in a call-and-response relationship to each other—and throughout time, whether it was in Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” or Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” the same forms have worked the hierarchies to ask about the nature of identity, of love, of suffering and mortality. In ecphrasis there is always a will for the image to have the transformative power of Kokopelli or to be a kind of shield to raise against the times, whatever the outcomes may be.
Richard Blanco and John Bailly are working in the lineage of ecphrasis. In their call-and-response they ask of their own lives (and of the lives of nations) how we create identity as we move through worlds, how we find echoes of our own personal histories in the larger stories of our times, and how we imagine the listener, the “thou” to which a poem or a painting is addressed, whether that “thou” be a love, a family member, a god, God, another version of the self, a member of the audience. Blanco and Bailly work these questions through images from the World Wars, from Cuba, from Miami, from dreamscapes, and from memory. What is so very interesting and valuable about their collaboration here is that they have offered us frozen moments of their conversation. In offering us these moments (and not foreclosing their work with summary or lecture), they invite us to make connections between their pieces and to enter the conversation ourselves. What do we see in Little Havana? Do we have a “Gulf Motel” of our own—places of the mind so vivid, so powerful they shape our dreaming and our waking lives?
The poet Wallace Stevens claimed that great art musters an equal force to the force of our times, a kind of Necessary Angel. Blanco and Bailly have achieved such a necessity—an art that because it is so dynamic, because it asks us to take part in it, rises, with risk, humanity, and elegant integrity, to meet our times.
This Tropic of Resemblances
BY MELANIE ALMEDER
Almeder, Melanie. “This Tropic of Resemblances.” Miami, Florida. Miami-Dade Public Library System. Exhibition catalogue. October 4, 2007.
There are experiences that, on the surface, seem to have nothing to do with each other. What would the troop movements in World War II have to do with the street energy of Little Havana, or with clouds, or with the words of a dying father? But when poet Richard Blanco and artist John Bailly collaborated to make this exhibition by setting their work into conversation, the maps early explorers made began to echo with the bright red “U” of the atomic bombs, to echo with the lattice of street maps and with cloud drift–even “Quantum Theory” resembles a love letter, resembles the state of exile.
. . . nothing I’ve lost is lost.
No matter how nomadic we have been, no matter how many keys to how many different doors we have carried, we must all have a place like Richard Blanco’s Gulf Motel–a place in the mind so vivid memory brings the very smell of it back. Maybe it was our childhood home, a backyard thick with kudzu. We knew some places so absolutely that they mapped themselves into our senses. Places where, if we could return with the certainty that there
would be “nothing there” we “wouldn’t remember,” we would know that nothing we’ve “lost is lost.”
. . . this bridge
Maybe, as in John Bailly’s bridges, we recognize a bridge we crossed once and only half-remember, a bridge like a bridge we might find in a city we have never seen. How many have traveled across such a bridge on their way to war and home again?
. . . like an oracle
The clouds in their infinite migration might resemble a bird’s-eye view of the crowd moving on a city street. Sometimes, in the middle of a crowded street, a fragment of song or a bit of news brings home the way history insists itself into our lives. Bailly and Blanco conjure the sound and shape of experience: how history comes with its ambition and soldiers, through our yards, our cities, our dreams. Because they have given us moments of this conversation to wander among, we can ask not only what connections we find between their works, but also how their work echoes with our lives.
Melanie Almeder was raised in Atlanta, Georgia and southern Maine. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts, and Ph.D. in contemporary fiction from the University of Florida. She currently teaches creative writing and contemporary literature at Roanoke College and has been published widely.
04 September 2022
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