Arc Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as art thief – A National Gallery Heist

I’ll confess to a certain feeling of ennui when it comes to poetry magazines.  Even when stocked with good poets, these collections tend toward the bland and predictable.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumbled upon a collection rife with a rare intelligence and sophistication: the Arc Poetry Annual 2011.  Guest editor and poet Aislinn Hunter begins the collection with an exhilarating essay on the collection’s theme, ekphrasis.  Arc takes liberties with its definition, perhaps to justify its many collusions between visual art and poetry, yet Hunter persuades that the works within—representations of visual art through poems and vice versa—are contemporary acts that dialogue on our visually overloaded contemporary culture.

Case in point: Gillian Sze’s “To Ilse Bing, I &II”.  Set across from Bing’s photograph “Self portrait in Mirrors, Paris” (1931), Sze unravels myths of femininity and selfhood through her interpretation of the image.  “Perhaps not in mirrors. / I don’t trust them” (54) Sze begins ironically, capturing Bing’s metaphor of the mirror as that which fixes identity falsely, just as the camera in the image—and the photograph itself—are manipulative, imprisoning objects.  Looking and knowing are two different things, Sze articulates, and perhaps it is the more opaque format of the poem that offers the best reflective surface: “I think I’ve seen myself more truthfully / in dirtier surfaces and circumstances” (54).

Elsewhere in the collection artist Emily Vey Duke (of the celebrated art duo Duke & Battsersby) constructs a poem based on a painting by writer/artist Shary Boyle, both entitled “The Bad Mother.”  Boyle’s dark painting depicts a mother figure digging into a cloud with a shovel as bright mythological characters tumble into a diamond-strewn sky (127).  Vey Duke’s interpretation skillfully inserts her own narrative within Boyle’s brushstrokes: “It’s sad for me, of course,” she wryly asserts in the mother’s voice, “but it’s best not to dwell.  Breathing light, / the leaves acting like a thousand-million panes / of green glass in the air.  I’m free to excavate whatever!” (126).

And herein lies the true artistry of the 2011 Arc Annual.  As they weave back and forth from the visual to the poetic realms, the works here are liberated from the poetic mold.  As a result, Arc’s 2011 ekphrasis issue is not just refreshing—it’s absolutely riveting.

Arc Poetry Annual 2011: Poet as art thief: a National Gallery heist, Arc Poetry Society. 172 pgs.  $9.95

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Guest post by L. E. Vollick

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