March 2, 2006

"Positions of the Body"

This weekend I'll be giving a presentation on Carol Snow's poem "Positions of the Body" at NEMLA. I've had a difficult time with the presentation simply because there's so much to say about it, and only 15 minutes to say it in. I think I've been pretty ruthlessly chopping away at it trying to get it down to size (I really can't stand it when one person in the panel overrides the rest of the panel's time), but this in some ways feels like hacking of the arms and legs of your argument’s body. The conclusion I've come to is that I'm going to do about 5 minutes of theoretical and background discussion / wrap up, and five minutes discussing two images in two section of the poem. I'm unsettled by how much this leaves out, but I've resigned myself to its necessity.

In any case, one of the images I'll be discussing comes from the cover of the volume which houses this particular poem. Artist and Model, Snow's first book, selected for the National Poetry Series by Robert Hass in 1990, includes many ekphrastic poems, and others which interrogate the relationship between painters and poets, the visible world and the representational, the suffering and those who witness suffering. Snow selected for the cover of the volume (or I assume Snow made this selection, as others would have been much easier to find), a Brassai photograph which I have not been able to locate in any web-based archives. The photograph, as far as I know untitled, looks like this:
View image

As I argue in my paper, this image serves as a visual demonstration of what happens to the object of an artist’s gaze when it is objectified, seen from a single, sustained perspective, and ultimately mastered in shape and design. The desire for representational perfection, an inward self-satisfaction of the artist/observer, results in a sterile creation. Section five of "Positions of the Body" attends to each of these issues quite well. [NOTE: some of the formatting is off.]

She stands in a scattered crowd of herself—the
      the model
in the sculpture studio of L’Académie Julian, Rue
      du Dragon,

Paris. It is 1931 and Brassai is there; his camera
      has noted
the sober, mustachioed artists, the heroic

espressions of busts on a shelf above here,
the frieze of plaster nudes in various

classical poses.
        How naked she seems. Standing
there she knows she possesses almost nothing—
only—and the men,
taking that knowledge from her fact to touch the
clay of her body without desire,

                    touch desire
in themselves they cannot give up.

The “serious” and “mustachioed” artists in this section demonstrate the dangers of removed, detached observation. It is their inward desire, their sterility, their dispassionate gazes that further objectify the model, leaving her without possession, other than position. While I will argue in other places that position is a significant possession to Snow (her poem is titled “Positions of the Body”), for now I’d like to focus strictly on what Snow is saying about the detached and dispassionate gaze. The attitudes the male sculptors in the photograph adopt toward the model reflects a traditional trope in ekphrastic writing. As Mitchell explains in “Ekphrasis and the Other” the ekphrastic triangle, or the relationship between the speaker, the object of his gaze, and the reader is predicated on the notion that there is a distance between each. The speaker stands at a distance observing negotiating the desire to make the beautiful present to the reader, and at the same time the counter-desire or fear that such a union may resist in the paralysis and muteness of the speaker/viewer himself. Indeed, the artists “captured” by Brassai’s photograph fall prey to precisely the fear of the ekphrastic poet, they, too, have become stilled, frozen mid-creation, unable to realize the completion of the object they desire. I think there’s a purposeful irony in the fact that Snow chooses a photograph of the artists at work, rather than describing living artists in the act of creation. The artists’ stillness, however, and canonical ekphrastic anxiety over that stillness are not part of Snow’s agenda. Rather, she raises this image as one “position” among many others that represents possible attitudes toward observation and representation. In earlier sections, the speaker recognizes the desire to subsume the visual image, essentially becoming its possessor. She writes earlier, “that image transfixed you; yet afterward, not…even the image survived, but your wanting that beauty//in you, contained in you.” The section with the artists and model, however, demonstrates her awareness of the dangers of this kind of desire. While detached viewing is pleasurable and alluring, it can result in the destruction of the image, as well as the paralysis of the artist. Something else, it seems, is necessary.

That something else, the alternative, is in her words the “drawing together of like, unlike bodies” which she also provides an image for. Variations on the Piéta become a recurring image throughout the poem, entwined with the images of bodies held at a distance: An unspoken pieta scene appears in the lower half of Giotto’s Lamentation, mentioned in the first section, and Picasso’s askance reference to the Piéta trope in Guernica figures in the final stanza. The most compelling discussion of this position, however, happens in the seventh section of the poem. Drawing specific attention to Kathë Kollwitz’s sculpture Mother and Child (Piéta)View image, currently located at the Neue Wache (The New Guardhouse). The figures of a woman holding a dying German soldier Snow describes as “not only entwined, but contiguous.” She explains that “Kollwitz expresses deep grief//as stillness.” The speaker, too, wants to stop. Snow explains “And circling that terrible desire / to stop, you have no name for a moment; your hand lifts / to your mouth like the twisting // to light / of grass and new leaves.” While the stillness and muteness of the image begin to overtake the speaker who loses her voice momentarily and wants to succumb to the “terrible desire to stop,” these lines demonstrate another attitude toward stillness. The inability to speak and the stillness that the poet feels are what also open the possibility for light and new leaves. By collapsing the distance between the viewer and the object of her gaze, she opens herself up to “feel along with” the contiguous figures. Experiencing stillness and grief may momentarily render the speaker mute, but confident that she will find her voice again she raises her voice to her mouth to give voice to something alive and hopeful, the “light” and “new leaves.”

The pull between these two images demonstrates the “Positions of the Body” as they dance, in Snow’s terms, “a two-step.” Shifting between images of distant bodies and entwined figures, “Positions of the Body” demonstrates one strategy for sympathetic ekphrasis. To see how… you’ll have to come to the talk. For now, I’m off to polish it for you.

Posted by c_jane at March 2, 2006 12:07 PM | TrackBack

Good luck CJ!

Posted by: Jason at March 2, 2006 9:43 PM |

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Thanks! :-)

Posted by: cj at March 7, 2006 9:02 AM |

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i'm afraid i might be too late, but good luck! and if you've returned from your talk, then I can't wait to hear about how well it went. :)

Posted by: fritz at March 8, 2006 3:13 AM |

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Thanks, Fritz.... I've been meaning to talk to you. Deeply felt personal congratulations are in order...

Good luck to you too :-) and we'll talk offline soon, I hope.

Posted by: cj at March 8, 2006 3:19 PM |

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On locating more about the image, this may be a lead... Brassai is known to have photographed Dina Vierny who was a model for Aristide M-a-i-l-l-o-l (I've hyphenated the surname of the sculptor because software filters out the abreviation for "laughing out loud"). There is a piece by Tom Rosenthal in the June 4, 2001 issue of The New Statesman called "Model Behaviour" that references the three.

Posted by: Francois Lachance at March 8, 2006 4:07 PM |

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There may be a further level of irony at play in the poem and the positioning of the image. L'Academie Julian admited women to life drawing and sculpture classes at a time when l'Ecole des Beaux Arts did not. The gender of the adressee of the poem and the gender of the observer positioned at the "fourth wall" of the theatre offered by the perspectival image may well provide some interesting rifts on interpretation of both the poem and the cover art and their relation. It may not be so much a question as to who is falling prey to what stance but which subjects are being constructed by the gaze of the addressee or the viewer...

Posted by: Francois Lachance at March 8, 2006 4:27 PM |

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Thank you! The link to the New Statesman is invaluable, and your insights into the perspectival ironies of the cover image are, I believe, spot on.

Posted by: CJ at March 9, 2006 10:29 AM |

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