FOR LACK OF DIAMOND YEARS
BY CAROLINE BEASLEY-BAKER
As a literary person who became an art critic, the nexus of visual art and poetry has always been of interest to me. I have known Caroline Beasley-Baker as a painter; now I know her also as a poet.
In Beasley-Baker’s visual art—in all of its diverse forms—I always saw a perceptually acute link between the visual and myth. In his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Ernst Cassirer describes how visual feints and impressions, physiognomies (seeing faces in things), fears, animation of the inanimate, and conceptual reversals begin; how nervous ticks comprise the human fight-flight physiology. He describes how epiphanies were experienced and then clarified over time as the presence of a god (or “temporary gods”) emerged, places subsequently becoming sacred as shrines.
In secular life, such huhs? are often the result of mishearing something, of making a sudden new connection between two odd things, or having a little insightful eureka. Recent neuroscience has found support for Cassirer’s linking of sight and myth to the study of how humans figure out the world; to how–from purkinjee trees inside the eye to how we see during reverie to how early dysmetropsic misunderstanding of the world is processed through the eyes of a child–forms the basis of all later perception of the world.
In one statement about her poetry, Beasley-Baker said that in her youth she saw the world as a whole laid out below her, that when when she blinked she thought the world changed. These are classic ur-dysmetropsic events, which, if held onto and cultivated, lead to a distinctly personal culture and mythology which seeks to give voice to that seen reality. A poet like Pound, so responsive to Japanese calligraphy, to the haiku, and to other short forms of poetry, sought out poetry to put a visual sensation into something other than conventional words. He sought to give voice to the passing visual sensation of the world in the form of a kind of nervous gestalt beneath or before words. This line of poetry is grounded in sensation. As a result, it paradoxically, harbors an alexithymic suspicion that once you put a label on something you have gone too far and crushed the moment in its delicate passing (as so much lyrical and more confessional poetry, in my view, does). Indeed, much of such poetry has been written precisely in response to visual moments or visual art with the express purpose of not using denotative or even connotative words…but some other kind of word.
Beasley-Baker was the only artist I knew who dealt with both the macro and micro dimensions of mythic perception (or, as Cassirer called it, “mythic thought”). Later, the titles of her works of art developed into little poems, and she began to put captions or titles into her meanders of lines too, right there in the painting. Her current poetry digs even deeper; it strikes me as what art historians are now calling sfogo (Italian for “steam”)… the little musings to oneself that accompany the making of a work of art; a kind of nonstop texting-below-texting that the mind in metacognitive itch continues on with as it will. Not the lecturey talkback run-on that keeps one from getting to sleep, but the dream-phrasings that incant over walks in the cold or in the dark—or being in the flow of making art. Beasley-Baker seeks to capture these odd, errant “what-made-me-think-of-that?” thoughts at a very micro level. I have called this voice of nature “nomos”, and find that it often takes form in visual art in words that rise out of the very surfaces of the facture of painting or as broken fragments of words: fractured, surgically transposing adjective, adverb, verb, noun moments into other figures of speech; making use of punctuation as if in a musical score, thus leaving behind a finely etched and lean transcript of a visual-mental response, given overvoice or underbreathvoice by the mind. A mental world of phenomenological ghosts (Husserl’s term) and a world made of metaphor, this is not a nexus that positivist categorical American art and American poetry have had much time for. But in John Donne, in Emily Dickinson, in folk song, and in the late work of the Beatles, even, the hesitant, immediately retracting, spelling it out, taking it all back (it all adding up, after such an emotional outburst, to precisely nothing) has sometimes taken shape.
You can see this worked out perfectly in Beasley-Baker’s For Lack of Diamond Years poems. When she puts a slash in, she is pulling up short, telling herself, maybe, to stop; when she hyphens words into supercompounds, that’s an emotional compression, a sudden transposition, a freezing, a making noun of verb, adjectives into an entity. Then an image will come and immediately bump up against another, then something else will block it, or counter it: all of this mental byplay between talking to oneself and telling oneself to stop doing that, to be silent, is there. Beasley-Baker, as a painter, knows that the best moments are the most fleeting and mythic; in her poetry, she seeks to enlist words against themselves to capture moments prior to words, so fleeting as to almost be an enunciated form of silence. Consider her description of a clock stopping after her father dies: “I found meaning and comfort in that ceasing moment, in that…..what? the breath between living and my imagining”. There it is, right there. The title of her poems refers to “diamond” years, a reference to age, but also to precision, facets, carats, if you will. Her visual art has always had, in addition to larger scale meanders, and an overall almost maximalist quality, countless dispersals of micro moments too, many of them faceted by gems or things that shine or sparkle. It’s really very rare for a visual artist to so completely translate or, more precisely, transcribe her visual sense into words. For this reason, for me, Beasley-Baker’s poems are a significant achievement.