Contributor’s Marginalia: Chad Davidson on “After Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #57, 1964″ by Adam Vines
The greatest danger of ekphrastic poems is distance. That sculpture or bas-relief or avant-garde hammer on a stool remains out of sight, tucked away in a museum in Ohio somewhere, or at least at another web address. You spend an inordinate amount of time trying to render the damn thing in words and (often enough) not enough time writing about why it was important to do so in the first place. A certain kind of snobbery seems also to have become part of the rhetorical machinery of ekphrasis. For if we were all as cultured as yon poet, we would of course know intimately the work of this or that marginally exceptional, late baroque chalice engraver. Still, I suspect many of us have been and continue to be guilty of these sorts of shenanigans, maybe without even knowing it. I have my fair share of poems about paintings, I admit, and Dave Smith—on a recent visit to our campus—complained of the preponderance of ekphrasis in manuscripts of young poets he had recently read.
Then you read Adam Vines’ “After Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #57, 1964,” and you think, well, maybe there is hope. I’m not saying that he avoids the problem of distance. He doesn’t. (I had to go look at the damn painting, after all.) But just as intellectual superiority can insinuate itself in such enterprises, so too can a lovely brand of self-effacement. After all, I was treated to Wesselmann’s work, which is quite striking: of the pop variety, with garish colors and almost cartoony people. So first off, Vines points me away from his work and to that of the painter. Nice, if and only if the work really merits the visit (as it does, in this case). Second, Vines’ poem itself is rather self-effacing. The short, staccato lines stay quite close to the painting itself, never veering overtly into social commentary (as Auden’s lovely “Musée des Beaux Arts” does), personal revelation (in the manner of Williams’s pseudo-ekphrastic “The Great Figure”), cryptic profundity (like Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”), or any number of others residing mostly outside the work itself. No. Vines’ approach illuminates the isness of the painting itself, in all its wry, ham-fisted sensuality.
This is a painting mostly about other paintings (Manet’s Olympia and just about any reclining nude woman from the previous five hundred or so years), so this in turn is a poem about poems about paintings about paintings. (Humor me for a moment.) That is, Vines knows that we know that the reclining nude occupies a prominent position in the landscape of Art with a capital A. And he also knows that, with very little trouble, we can locate this particular rendering of that stock nude and that, when we do, we will see just what fun Wesselmann made of it. The only thing left to do then is watch and see what fun Vines has with Wesselmann’s fun.
And it is fun. Just listen to the opening sentence (which happens to take care of just about half the entire little cheeky poem):
and he dipped
from the same heel
of his palette
for her vulcanized
nipples that he did
for the crevice
of her mouth.
I love this lovely mash-up, which is really what it is, just like Wesselmann’s job. Whereas the painter fused the iconography of classical art with the palette of patriotism (I forgot to say earlier that red, white, and blue dominate, along with gold—hence the Great American in the title), Vines has loads of fun with the received lexicon of female anatomy (the curtains, not the breasts, “pout” here, and I need not mention the “crevice” later on) and generally sexes up the entire scene. How many bad and fratty iterations of “dipping one’s wick” and the like have we heard in our lives to make Vines’ lines here seem all the more joyous and parodic? And the almost gibberishly sexy and bulbous beginning sets the stage perfectly for the linguistic pyrotechnics to follow.
I don’t want to give the entire poem away. (Suffice it to say, the lines get even sexier.) Go read it yourself. My point is that Vines succeeds in at least mitigating that chief problem of ekphrasis—distance—simply by becoming the painter himself, festooning the white page with the same dollops of calculated frivolity and fun that Wesselmann deployed in his.
Language, we know, is a kind of paint. A very good kind.
Chad Davidson is the author of From the Fire Hills (forthcoming 2014), The Last Predicta (2008), and Consolation Miracle (2003), all three from Southern Illinois UP, as well as co-author with Gregory Fraser of two textbooks, including Writing Poetry: Creative and Critical Approaches (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). His poems have appeared in AGNI, Boston Review, DoubleTake, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. He is a professor of literature and creative writing at the University of West Georgia near Atlanta.