By Harriet Levin
What do you know about Modernism? The Process Art Movement? How do you feel about Modern Art? You don’t have to answer to see that My Oceanography is a collection of excellent poems, but it helps to know something just as it does to wear those headphones in a museum or visit a gallery with cognoscenti. Harriet Levin has written the poems about and in the voice of major 20th century artist/sculptor Eva Hesse. If you know Hesse’s biography and work, you’ll be hard pressed to detect artist from poet. If both are new to you, the twin experience will be a journey to depths.
Some of the poems share their titles with Hesse’s artworks. They mirror this mid-20th century artist’s passionate rebellions in her art and marriage. As a child, Hesse survived cataclysm (Nazi Germany) and catastrophe (parents’ divorce, mother’s suicide) but soon found recognition and success before her tragic death in 1970 (at 34, brain tumor). She had gone from Cooper Union to Yale School of Art and Architecture, where she became Josef Albers’s favorite student. In 1961, she had her first show and met a sculptor she quickly married. Bradley Cooper’s latest incarnation of A STAR IS BORN may cause you to mentally cast Lady Gaga as Eva Hesse; she married a successful artist whom she eclipsed. Also as topical as #MeToo outrage, many of Levin’s most incendiary poems describe Hesse’s 60’s marriage and breakup.
Two poems laid out as prose read like Furies on fire. Bumming a Cigarette describes Hesse watching her husband light up another “girl… They’re glowing, the two of them, they’re so attracted… Resting my hand on one of the power saws until I see how close to the blade I’ve placed it, I sashay toward him, pull a cigarette from his pack and snap it in half.” The six page Chain Polymers is a diary-like report of a trip to North Arizona where mushrooms and mayhem of various sorts ensue. “All I could think about was my husband cheating on me… I was a vagina with teeth, an evening person.” It ends with Hesse’s rebellious assertiveness: “I hid my hands behind my back, afraid of what I might do with them and why was I the only one who heard her father say from his seat in front of the TV, Can’t you walk like a lady? I was going to clamor out of there, make as much noise as Devonian fish growing new fingers and hands from their fins to breathe in air.”
By 1963, Eva Hesse had her first one-woman show, followed by an offer to her husband that took both of them to Germany where opportunity and anguish followed. She read The Second Sex. In Berlin, she saw the marble sculpture of lusty, punished rule-breaker Laocoon, whose title she took for her first large sculpture. Laocoon is also a poem in the collection, a flash summary in metaphor of the artist’s recurring process & material.
That which springs
back, how grass was invented,
strands and strands
so that things could start moving on their own
without being detected,
free even as a gaze.
like a caterpillar feasting on leaves.
I wanted to be a boy
who sat turned in the direction of his mother,
felt his way into sleep,
played with her hair.
I fidgeted, couldn’t map
the noises that pulled me.
I twisted a strand, coiled it
around my finger, like rope tied
to mooring, and tugged on it,
forcing it to break.
For Eva Hesse, the union of art/life was even more existential than aesthetic. She emphatically asserted no separation between herself and the art she created. Sometimes quoting from Hesse’s Diaries (for the title/poem), always channeling the artist, Levin succeeds in honoring this fusion so much that she/her poems are indistinguishable from Hesse. Her life/work here become 21st-century ekphrastic objects for poet Levin, joining a tradition that includes 19th-century Keats’s Grecian urn, Browning’s Last Duchess portrait, and William Carlos Williams’s 20th-century’s rain-glazed red wheelbarrow & white chickens that so much (still) depends upon. More recently, Rebecca Wolff titled a poem Ekphrastic (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/90198/ekphrastic). There’s even a California journal: http://www.ekphrasisjournal.com/. Ekphrasis resonates in this new collection, but often obliquely enough to prompt a nagging question: where is the poet?
The book, divided into ten labeled sections, contains the title poem My Oceanography in section V [“Deep Is Form”]. Though it was not a title for any of Hesse’s work, it epitomizes the artist’s manifesto:
My second impulse is to keep it [“a strand of algae”] as a totem
of subterranean life, a scrap chiseled
from things that are meant to sink. Deep is form,
like a snail that burrows into silt, shell
growing out of sludgy cravings.
The recurring images of Hesse’s life/art in Smoke in X [“The Road Between the Rims”] are arresting:
If I could use smoke as a medium,
I’d have no trouble creating great art.
I tilt my head back and imagine
a cigarette pressed against my lover’s lips.
Three more left in the pack.
This is the last of him.
Smoke fills my mouth,
passes down my throat and into
my lungs where it infiltrates
every cell in my bloodstream.
I smoke past the redline on the tip,
his body’s imprint—
jawline, nape, neck—
tuck the stub into my jean’s pocket
for his scent to seep through,
linger, live in my pocket as a remnant,
as I throw open the car door,
step forward and out of him.
PBS recently devoted an episode of American Masters to Eva Hesse. Among cognoscenti, she’s to-20th century art what Louise Gluck is to contemporaneous /current poetry. I wonder what poet/critic William Logan (who described Gluck as “a stand-up vampire”) might say about Eva Hesse/Levin’s collection. With an artist as young as Hesse was, the adolescent impulse is strong (and intentionally irritating), but of course the epochal breaks of the 19th-20th centuries inevitably found expression in all art forms, re-examining and avoiding assumptions and expectations. Artists can be canaries flying down into mines or diving underwater. Those who see/say/do differently offer possibilities tradition can’t. What survives redefines reality. Truth is Beauty, but it’s been Ugly for over a century now. We’re long overdue for a [Ferlinghetti] “rebirth of wonder.”
My Oceanography makes me wonder about Hari Levin’s connection to Eva Hesse/art. Her predicaments and exertions move me, too. A lot of Hesse’s art looks like a predictable reaction to the forest fire/destruction that was the break the Modern Era had with The Past. Like the result of any major cataclysm [comet, forest fire, volcano, tsunami, war] the removal of the overgrowth [for good/ill] results in opportunity, a kicked anthill rush to rebuild. New things grow/evolve. Modern art retested basics, experimented with materials/process, all the while in various ways mirroring/expressing fragmentation, anxiety, of loss, change, despair, hope. Wrestling with received forms is always a Jacob/Angel bout that results in limping with a new name. But it also calls to mind what Picasso said when he first emerged from the Lascaux caves, “We have invented nothing.”
In the modern era, the (Romantic) emphasis on individuality/novelty ironically resulted in ‘schools’ of similarity. Much modern art looks like repetitive culs de sac. “Confessionalism” crowded 20th-century poetry. Levin writes about and in the voice of Hesse, and while the poems are confessional in form/content, they are not Levin’s confessions per se. They make you wonder where she is or isn’t in the words. They are familiar modern lyrics, without meter, with emphasis on ellipsis and oblique comprehension. Modern poets often chose consciously or not to assert/write poetry like mathematics, as a foreign language that only initiates/adepts can speak, possibly to make readers learn to think in poetry as a unique point of view reality. “So much depends upon/a red wheelbarrow…rain” could be modern poetry’s E = mc2.
Harriet Levin’s MY OCEANOGRAPHY is a voyage to surprising depths. You are called upon to think about 1) the artwork that shares the titles of many poems; 2) the biography of the artist, especially the crisis in her marriage; 3) the language/knowledge in each poem; 4) the motives/presence/absence of the poet; and 5) your own reactions to the vivid metaphors and events of each poem … maybe more, but that’s more than enough. Most of all, the hybrid tension of Romantic self-absorption (by the artist) and Classical self-effacement (by the poet) compels reflection. It’s a mirror of the artist, of the poet, and you.—L. Shapley Bassen