January 15, 2008
“There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Willa Cather (cq) wrote that in her novel O Pioneers! (cq) and it feels increasingly true to me with time. Maybe that’s the reason we are fascinated with other people’s stories--because they are our own. They give us knowledge of those other people, yes, but they give us insight into our lives, too.
Irene Koronas is a poet and visual artist whose new book, self portrait drawn from many, focuses on life stories of people that interest her. The diverse group --the book’s subtitle is “65 poems for 65 years”--includes Emily Dickinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Hans Arp, Arthur Rimbaud, and Charlie Chaplin appear in tightly drawn, deliberate shapes inside frames of fixed, even margins. Set in what she calls “square paragraphs,” these portraits drawn in spare, unpunctuated writing cross the boundary between the written and the visual, hanging on the page the way they might on a wall.
The minimalist writing feels like a natural outgrowth of her visual art, which most often
incorporates a grid of finely drawn lines.
“There are no shortcuts,” she says. “Once you start, you have to keep doing it--like life. It’s intimate. You have to come close to see the lines and see that each line is different.”
Her word portraits, too, invite the reader to come closer and watch the fragmentary details blur, like pointillist dots, into a picture of a person. A poem titled Louise Nevelson, for example, begins “broken pieces from bureau draws (cq)/fidgets and legs twist hidden in the/bosom of her skirted cities” (cq). And even though the art forms look different to the viewer or reader, in Koronas’s mind the process blends into “writing painting.”
“Painting is easier for me because I’m a visual learner,” she says, but she goes on to describe a similarity of process, with the initial impulse and then the more detached and cerebral re-envisioning.
(An aside here: as Koronas talks about her visual art process I confess I’m jealous. I don’t know a writer who doesn’t long to have “stuff” to manipulate once in a while, something to relieve the stark confrontation with the blank page. Oh, to have colors to mix on a palette or tools to sharpen and arrange or the mantra of drawing line after line rather than having to find word after elusive word.)
Koronas talks, too, about trying to figure out exactly who her subjects were. Joseph Cornell, Einstein, Emily Dickinson--what shaped them, made them tick? And how did they contribute to the way we think? Of Emily Dickinson, for example, whom Koronas refers to simply as “Emily,” she wonders about that famous aloneness and how that affects creativity..
“She had time to be alone with no distractions. So how do I do that?”
How indeed? What do we take from the lives of other people, whether presented to us in words or images? With their ability to show us ourselves do they simply magnify our self-involvement? Or can they make us somehow larger? Maybe they lure us out of our shells and into an empathetic engagement with our fellow beings when we look at the people around us and see (surprise!) ourselves?
too heavily upon her purse it may be
composure the grave old aloe tree
leaves she remains on the front row
seat she remains the beginning
inside with sun glasses on my knees
ache my lips blister her voice tidal wave
star marigold petals spiral open with
moisture on my cheeks fallen green
leaves virginia woolf left her hair under
mouth full of slugs solemn rinses
suddenly my life is very exciting her
vision enters and swivels shivers with
whatever buttons a long book