What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Humble Actual: Forrestall, Nowlan & Bishop

Four full pails of grain on a cement floor bathed in a golden brown light – such are the particulars of a photograph taken by our seven-year-old son, Lauchie, many years ago, on a visit to Clark’s farm in North Wiltshire, P.E.I. We (my wife and I) had the photo enlarged and framed. For several years, it hung in the hallway of our home on Palmer’s Lane. When we moved, it got packed away, and never really saw the light of day again until recently, when I brought it up from the basement of the place we live in now, and set it on a table next to my desk. I’m looking at it now, as I write this. Not everyone liked it. I remember one of my wife’s cousins looking at it, when she visited Palmer’s Lane, and wondering aloud, “What’s so great about four grain buckets?” When I told her that Lauchie had taken the photo when he was a kid, she nodded, perhaps slightly altering her perception of the picture, seeing it now as a family keepsake. I didn’t say anything more than that. I didn’t try to argue its artistic merits. But the truth is, I like Lauchie’s photo for more than just sentimental reasons. I like it for the same reason I’m drawn to Van Gogh’s painting of worn shoes, Walker Evans’s shots of roadhouse shacks, James Agee’s inventories of sharecroppers’ possessions (“A cracked roseflowered china shaving mug, broken along the edge … A pink crescent celluloid comb: twenty-seven teeth, of which three are missing”) – they represent the humble actual.

I thought of Lauchie’s “grain bucket” photo the other day as I leafed through a remarkable book titled Shaped by This Land (1974) by the painter Tom Forrestall and the poet Alden Nowlan. The dust jacket shows two dented old oil drums, used for burning trash, their thick orange rust almost palpable, standing in a wild entanglement of brush and wheat-colored grass. It’s an enlarged detail from Forrestall’s superb Backyard (1971), a shaped panel, consisting of two circular egg temperas, one above the other, the top piece a close-up of a boy climbing a leafless tree, and the bottom one depicting the oil drums, behind which are two bare-limbed trees, one holding a crate-like tree house.

Forrestall’s oil drums have, for me, a Proustian reverberation. I recall trips my family made, when I was a kid, to my Uncle Guy’s hunting camp on Berry Brook, deep in the Restigouche watershed of northern New Brunswick. Uncle Guy and my father caught trout in the brook. Aunt Joyce gutted the trout and fried them up. I remember the smells of fried fish, pancakes, bacon, kerosene, beer, wood smoke, all intermingling inside that rough-hewn, tarpapered cabin. Amber-colored fly-catcher strips dangled from the rafters. Outside in the yard, not too far from the brook, there was an oil drum just like Forrestall’s, in which Uncle Guy burned brush and garbage.

Rusty oil drums, crumbly brick walls, disused rails, tumbledown fences, felled tree limbs, an old wood furnace, abandoned farm equipment, derelict farm houses, dank basements, antique oil lamps, gravel pits, split firewood, gravestones, battered milk cans, left over hay, dried wasps’ nest, kitchen woodstove – these are some of the glorious subjects of Shaped by This Land’s bleak, detailed, melancholy, ravishing Forrestall egg temperas, watercolours, and pencil drawings.

But whoa! Let’s go back to that wasps’ nest for a minute. Forrestall isn’t the only artist who treasured such a thing. Elizabeth Bishop, in her wonderful “Santarém,” wrote about finding an empty wasps’ nest in a Brazilian pharmacy:

In the blue pharmacy the pharmacist
had hung an empty wasps’ nest from a shelf:
small, exquisite, clean matte white,
and hard as stucco. I admired it
so much he gave it to me.

Then – my ship’s whistle blew. I couldn’t stay.
Back on board, a fellow-passenger, Mr. Swan,
Dutch, the retired head of Philips Electric,
really a very nice old man,
who wanted to see the Amazon before he died,
asked, “What’s that ugly thing?”

What’s that ugly thing? – a question similar to the one my wife’s cousin asked when she saw Lauchie’s “grain buckets” photo. Obviously, she wasn’t transported by the humble actual the way Bishop was. Bishop wrote poems about fishhouses (“The five fishhouses have steeply peaked roofs / and narrow, cleated gangplanks slant up / to storerooms in the gables”), stumps and dead trees (“On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet”), a home-made flute (“Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?”), a service station (“Oh, but it is dirty! / - this little filling station, / oil-soaked, oil-permeated / to a disturbing, over-all / black transparency”). She even wrote about a moose (“A moose has come out of / the impenetrable wood / and stands there, looms, rather, / in the middle of the road. / It approaches; it sniffs at / the bus’s hot hood”).

Alden Nowlan has a sensibility similar to Bishop’s, except that his is deep-dyed Maritimes. He, too, wrote moose poems, at least two of them – “The Bull Moose” and “Chance Encounter.” Some of his other subjects include hens, horse troughs, woodsheds, gum rubbers, pulpwood, straw-filled bunks, tamarack swamps, boardinghouses, all-night diners. Like Forrestall and Bishop, he’s a superb noticer of the extraordinary in the quotidian. For example, in “And He Wept Aloud, So That the Egyptians Heard It,” he observes the “houseflies big as bumblebees / playing crazy football / in the skim-coloured windows, / leap-frogging from / the cracked butter saucer / to our tin plates of / rainbow trout and potatoes, catching the bread on its way to our mouths, / mounting one another / on the rough deal table.” In “Pussywillows in March,” he notes the pussywillows’ “strange loveliness,” their “mud-coloured stalks / and the little blossoms / in their leathery pouches.” And in “On the Barrens,” he notices “the teapot on the stove as long as / anyone was awake, / mittens and socks left to thaw on / the open oven door, / chunks of pine and birch piled / halfway to the ceiling, / and always a faint smell of smoke / like spice in the air, / the lamps making their peace with / the darkness, / the world not entirely answerable / to man.”

My favorite Nowlan poem is “Stoney Ridge Dance Hall,” about the “Eight generations of Hungerfords, McGards and Staceys,” who have “lived on this ridge / like incestuous kings.” The fourth stanza reads:

When they tire of dancing
they go down the road
and drink white lightning
out of the bung
of a molasses puncheon.

That “drink white lightning / out of the bung / of a molasses puncheon” shows an avid realism.

In Shaped by This Land, Nowlan’s poems are matched with Forrestall’s pictures. One memorable pairing is Nowlan’s “Bull Moose” with Forrestall’s McMonicle’s Moose, a shaped panel consisting of two egg temperas, one showing three rusty oil drums, a glass jug, and a big round piece of firewood that might be used as a chopping block; the other panel depicting two skinned moose carcasses hanging in a barn.

Tom Smart, in his absorbing Tom Forrestall: Paintings, Drawings, Writings (2008), calls Shaped by This Land “a unique book.” He says,

Collage-like, it presents groupings of painting and poetry related by common imagery, themes, or mood. The poems seem to give Forrestall’s pictures depth of meaning and metaphor that is not immediately evident, and the narrative character of Nowlan’s poetry suits the latent prosaic quality of the painted images. However, while reinforcing the narrative dimensions of the paintings, the poems close down other readings.

Smart goes on to praise the pairing of Nowlan’s “The Coat” with Forrestall’s The West Nova Scotians, observing that “the juxtaposition informs both poem and painting, expanding the meaning of both.” But he repeats his criticism, saying, “Generally, however, the pairings, based on superficial resemblances, limit rather than enhance interpretation.”

I’m not sure Smart is right about the poems “closing down other readings.” Smart seems to treat the poems as if they’re annotations, like wall commentary at an exhibition. But, in my view, they’re more like a literary equivalent of Forrestall’s mood. Nowlan’s poems are “Forrestallesque” and Forrestall’s paintings are “Nowlanesque,” but with this difference: Forrestall’s pictures are often unpeopled; Nowlan’s poems brim with characters – Janice Smith, John Fynch, Georgie and Fenwick Cranston, Cecelia Cameron, Nancy Lynn O’Malley, Henry Ferguson, Mary-Beth McGuire, Standish Morehouse, Jack Stringer, Andy Shaw, Warren Pryor, on and on. In his book, Smart observes that Forrestall’s “interiors and landscapes reflected a sense of emptiness … enhanced by the fact that human presence was intimated only by the things left behind.” Nowlan’s poems afford vital, fascinating glimpses of the people who once lived in those places and used those things.

Shaped by This Land lives in its particulars – the wintering flies, whale oil lamp, “porcupine-sunk porch,” church land, pole-fenced pasture, cut-open squash, grafted tree, “hands that stink from milking.” There aren’t any grain pails in it. But there could be. Lauchie’s image would fit right in with Nowlan’s molasses puncheon and Forrester’s oil drums, highly particularized representations of things as they are - the humble actual.

Postscript: To my knowledge, neither Alden Nowlan nor Tom Forrestall ever appeared in The New Yorker. I rely on Elizabeth Bishop’s strong connection with the magazine to justify posting the above essay to this blog. For example, her great “At the Fishhouses,” which I quote in my piece, was published in the August 9, 1947, New Yorker. Bishop had the Maritimes in her veins. She lived in Nova Scotia with her grandparents from the age of three to the age of six. She then left to be raised by an aunt in Massachusetts, but spent summers in Nova Scotia until she was thirteen. Interestingly, she mentions, in her “The Moose,” the Tantramar Marshes (“The Tantramar marshes / and the smell of salt hay”). According to Tom Smart’s book, those marshes are among the places where Forrestall painted when he was a Fine Art student at Mount Allison University (1954-58).

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