Does not the saying of Picasso that a picture is a horde of destructions also say that a poem is a horde of destructions?
I recently picked up the exhibition catalog for destroy the picture: painting the void, 1949–1962, exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. The book/exhibition considers post-WWII artists who “staged a literal assault on the picture plane.” These artists employed “techniques such as puncturing, ripping, cutting and burning to break through the two-dimensional support” in order to “figure the void.”
Looking at the catalog, I’m struck by how visually stunning paintings seemingly bent on their own destruction can be. For instance, here’s the work displayed on the cover, by Alberto Burri:
The exhibition also features widely recognized artists such as Lucio Fontana:
I found myself thinking about poetry: what poets have turned poetry against itself in the service of portraying “the void”: emptiness, nothing, silence, and other sorts of privation? What poets—driven by the need to go “beyond”—have brutalized their own medium? What does the verbal equivalent of these paintings look like?
One poet who came to mind was Brazilian poet Orides Fontela** (1940-1996). Her work is not well known to the English speaking world, and it’s a shame. Her spare, elemental poems are like shards of what was once an immense vessel. But her concern is less with the vessel than the emptiness it encompasses. Her favorite words—silence, white, water and space—suggest she’s more interested in what she can’t say than what she can. Even song cannot contain the vastness she seeks:
they flow gentle
the flower does not
No noise. Just
of the flower which navigates
It’s been said that language can be as much barrier as bridge, that words, instead of bringing us closer to things, push things away. Fontela recognizes this, and suggests that true intimacy with the world comes from silence: “wise rose in its / ripe silence.” But it seems impossible to summon silence with words:
To know the silence by heart
— and desecrate it. Dissolve it
What’s called for is a more active dismantling, taking the words we have away: “One step / From the bird / I in / Hale.”:
What I do I un
what I live I un
what I love I un
(my “yes” brings a “no”
in the breast.)
But words always return—or maybe we always return to words. Thus the poet has an essential but impossible task. The effort to flee language must be continually renewed with each poem, each line:
To devitalize form
to dis – member
to dis – make
and – beyond structure –
to live the pure un
This is the first in series of posts on poets who aim “to destroy poetry” in some way. I hope to write a new one each week or so. At the moment I have 5 or so poets in the hopper, but please feel free to send suggestions.
**For the sake of simplicity/readability, I use only English translations of Fontela’s poems in this post. To read the originals alongside their translations, visit this helpful webpage.