Beautiful Intervention


Turing the poetics of painting into the poetics of language, or into a poem, can come from admiring beauty. Elaine Scarry argues that, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being. It makes us draw it, take photographs of it, or describe it to other people. Sometimes it gives rise to exact replication and other times to resemblances and still other times to things whose connection to the original site of inspiration is unrecognizable.” It is the feeling caused by an experience of beauty that comes, hopefully, into a new being.

Earlier this year, the Guggenheim in New York exhibited a survey of paintings, or works on/in/about canvas, by Alberto Burri. He played not only with surfaces, but with the materials of his canvasses; sometimes besmirching them with dark scorched marks, scarring some with “melted and charred plastic”[1].  Earlier he worked with resin and pigment, adding depth to surface. In the middle period, he worked other textiles—burlap and linen, common household fibers, some of which were manufactured in the town where he grew up—onto, into the canvasses. The most tender canvas has, twisted into a ropey shape and sewn into the upper corner, a nightgown. The canvas itself had been torn or cut to allow the nightgown a place between its two parts.


What kind of intervention into the canvas is this? It is a scrap of vulnerability, for which space has been—is it violently? or completely?—made. Sewn into place, the canvas and nightgown/slip have been stitched, or sutured, together. The canvas is the main body. The slip is the vulnerability, the graft. Does the completed work contain a wound? A scar? Or both?

Assuming the impulse to replicate beauty, how do you make Burri’s kind of material intervention into a poem? Here is one way: take a simple rectangular shape—a functional, regular form—and stitch something tender, bunched up, textured, into it.  You can do this literally, stitching paper into paper, or another material into paper. The two could be contrasting:  the rough surface of canvas, best suited for giving paint something to grip into or onto, and the slick, smoothness of the nightgown, which slips against the surface of the body like a caress. You can do this figuratively, “stitching” words or images or sounds into something otherwise simple and, not quite flat, but also not quite monochromatic.

How do you stitch something vulnerable, relevant, reminiscent of the body, into a simple, regular poem? How do you replicate this tender and rough and still tender thing?

Here is one poem. Take a block of unified but general text, one descriptive of any morning thoughts:

The early mood is quiescent, pleasantly dark and the
room is barely not breathing awake from the lighter
end of sleep, where dreams, if they are, are only just
not like waking, are like waking without the buzzy air
of having to do something to start the day that is still
not quite day and not quite night, because, although it is
still dark, it is also not yet light or maybe it is, but
not yet light enough to rouse itinerant thoughts from
sleeping bags out into the rambling and vivid light.

The image of thoughts tumbling out into morning consciousness (certain kinds of thoughts wander away and back) is non-specific in subject but specific enough to human experience, and most people see dawn at least now and then. The shape of the text is horizontal and rectangular, reminiscent of the orientation of Burri’s canvas. The mood is uniform, and the text looks like a poem, as Burri’s canvas looks like a painting. Words pain the page. (I meant “paint”, but let the error remain.)

Then, cut space into the words to place in some relevant but different thought:
The early mood is  a  quiescent, pleasantly dark and the
room is barely not br  twist ing awake from the lighter
end of sleep where dreams, i  of  hey are, are only just
not like waking, are like waking w  hot  ut the buzzy air
of having to do something to start the da  blanket  t is still
not quite day and not quite night, because, alt  against
it is still dark, it is also not yet light or maybe it is, but
not yet light enough to rouse itinerant thoughts from
sleeping bags out into the rambling and vivid light.

This blanket is woven into the fabric of the poem—a textile presence in the poem’s stitches. The material winding itself into the conceptual. The material intrudes into sleeping/waking. This is my replication called into being by beauty.

Here is another, from Gio Alonzi:


I had a little it were between delirium nut tree Nothing would
it bear But a silver and a nutty cake nutmeg And a golden
pear The King of Spa dreams would whip bacterium in’s
daughter Came to visit me And al without consent to take l for
the sake Of my little nut tree Her a break from their demon-
state dress was made of crimson Jet savaged, amorphous,
labor black was her hair She asked me for my nut ratted
black death date meg And my golden pear I said, “So fair
reservoired invader a princess Never did I see, I’ll give you all
the cruelest sleep the fruit From my little nut tree I danced
writ inky-deep o’er the water I danced o’er the sea And all the
birds in the air Couldn’t catch me

Worked through the main body of the poem, something like a bright fairy tale, is a thread of nighttime language. There is magic in both, but differing magics of light and troubled sleep. Texture is a quality of language, and it associates itself with sleeping and waking.

One more version of this intervention is from Amanda Choo Quan:

carnival in trinidad

i am walking anyway and i do not know why, except
it is cold and i am wet and cold
i am walking slowly and i do not know why, but i
am wrapped deliberately in a black wool coat that has
decided my body listening to soca in the wind is something it cannot love
and it is cold but an uncomfortable
not cold enough chafing at the neck as a
reminder to see that the price of my arrival
cost more my own breath than this zara coat

Fabric is literal here too, and grips a body moving through cold air that makes breath visible and carries sound. The fabric restrains the body even as it provides warmth; fabric also restricts the movement called for by the music. The tenderness of the image of breath contrasts a cold that feels sharp on the page.

Why translate painting to poetry? Why not. If beauty begs to be repeated, it also begs for the materials that are tangibly sensitive to it, to which you are most tangibly sensitive. This is was not meant to be a case made in favor of admiring the texture of poems, but it turns out that it is.



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