Robert Wood reviews The Told World by Angela Gardner
by Angela Gardner
Reviewed by ROBERT WOOD
Le Serment des Horaces, a large neoclassical oil painting by the French artist Jacques-Louis David painted in 1784, depicts three Roman brothers saluting their father. The father holds their swords out for them so they can then go on to patriotically kill the three brothers Curiatii. 1784 is historical for us, but in 1784 the classical period was their epitome of History. This then is a typical ‘history painting’.
Angela Gardner begins her latest collection of poetry The Told World with a poem that bears this title. ‘History Painting’ is a work that reminded me of David for its lines ‘in the grand scale/what price heroic death, in brushmarks’. Where it differs is in the scene as a whole. Gardner is careful, cagey even, about what her history painting depicts, for it is ambiguous. There is ‘wind in long grass’, ‘children legging it away’, ‘a throat of gold’, but it ends with the lines ‘no more than the usual neurons’ trick/of light’. This conclusion is telling for it indicates to us what the major trope, organizing concept and device are in the book as a whole.
If The Told World is ‘about’ anything it is about light – as deception, as beauty, as thing. There are poems titled ‘Half-Light’, ‘Brightness’, ‘Night’ and ‘Beyond the Footlights’ and that is only in the final section ‘Solo estoy mirando’ alone. There is ‘Morning Light’ and ‘Animal Light’ besides. The eye, sight, looking, optics is there too in various phrases throughout. For example, ‘the one who looks at the mountain’ (‘Landscape with Birdsong’); ‘the tool’s crude optic’ (‘Barely Noticeable I’); ‘pathway beyond the eye’ (‘Pastoral’); ‘double mirrors’ (‘In Double Mirrors’).
Consider ‘Half-Light’ in which Gardner writes:
I’ll start you painting flat. Objects next:
modeling three dimensions until light-gleam
appears on something. Garment folds, soft
dark of velvet, a feather in an angel’s wing.
Distance then to frame – landscape
a mirror – so real birds dash against it.
Face and hands last, unless you count
everything pulled from background by light
and darkness a stillness as it develops.
At one level this is a directive – how the ‘I’ will start the ‘you’ painting. It is a list of ascending difficulty – objects, garments, feather, landscape to realistic quality, then face and hands. There is the return of ‘i’ as an organizing vowel – light-gleam/something/angel’s wing/everything /light/stillness – that gives a pleasing cadence and sense of circularity too. As a set of instructions it may be useful, but as a pensive thought to be left with we have a comment on ‘half-light’, on what is suggested by the title.
‘Half-Light’ is one of Gardner’s more linear pieces. There are of course concerns other than light and object – sky, body, bird, suburb, landscape, Star Trek, birds, language, pollen, metamorphosis, Gallipoli, GPS, hens, clouds, and birds once again. Indeed, birds as part of the pastoral and anti-pastoral are central. Occasionally one must work hard to ‘uncover’ the meaning of the poem, which may or may not be the point. Difficulty of course has an important place and to slow down and apprehend The Told World is what adds to its painterly quality. Surely we can luxuriate in the medium rather than try to read the message? As she writes, perhaps paradoxically, ‘nothing is settled’ (16).
The Told World exhibits a sort of deformed realism, somewhere between the style of Le Serment de Horaces but not quite like the abstract modernism of say Mark Rothko, or Gardner’s own paintings or even Paul Celan. In other words it occupies a middle ground that discusses the real world but in a language that can be elliptical and understandable rather than transparent or hermetic. It is this disjuncture that I found most interesting and productive for it attests to an ongoing exploration of ideas through different media rather than simply an application of frame in both word and paint. Gardner then knows how to make her materials respond. This is not a simple ekphrastic relationship.
There is only one poem that explicitly references painting, and that is ‘ilium’, which is ‘after Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli series’. Ostensibly ‘about’ the beach landing, the poems chronicle the relationship of a man and his horse, with the sea and war playing a pivotal role. The poem is balletic in parts (‘bodies ripped in streaming light’/…/…/in limp animal-hipped shallows’), which resonates with Nolan’s bursting shells. Yet there is a stripped back, almost spare quality too, again capturing the spaciousness of Nolan’s series. Read now Gardner’s work seems less like an attempt to build nation, to show bravado and a certain type of emerging masculinity that Nolan’s can be read as, and more as a comment on what war does to people and animals. Her re-working is subtle, effective, resonant and apt for our time.
Painting has always had a different relationship to photography. This has as much to do with the medium as the historical and contemporary language of its exchange. Gardner has a painterly eye and turn of phrase – warmer, longer, slower than realism, more ‘Poetic’ than a photo. We linger in her descriptiveness even as we are not overcome with lyricism or nostalgia. For those who want to know what the seen world is like, The Told World is the place to start for it gives us a view of life out there and in our mind’s eye with resplendence, charm and chiaroscurotic ability.
ROBERT WOOD holds degrees from the Australian National University and the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a National Undergraduate Scholar and a Benjamin Franklin Fellow respectively. His work appears in Southerly, Plumwood Mountain, Counterpunch and academic journals including Foucault Studies, JASAL and Journal of Poetics Research.