Continuous Frieze Bordering Red
Our engagement with art objects depends largely upon culture, and the kind of relationship our engagement affords depends largely, of course, upon how we mean culture. If culture is the performance of a refined set of principles, then the object bears instructive potential for perpetuating its own system. Call this art as indoctrination. If culture is a catalyst for release from custom, from institution, then the object bears the potential to open the world anew. Call this art as revelation. The aesthetic and ethical implications of each type are quite different, and we know which version the poetic tradition sides with, with its lens-cleaning, its ostranenie, its make-it-new.
Gertrude Stein, of course, had a genius for the revelation-kind, as evidenced by the visual artists she collected, and by her own innovations. To quickly rehearse, as example, the well-worn story of the Cubists: their release into multiplicity, on canvasses, of once-seemingly-static everyday objects. And Stein, deploying language likewise to pry the thing away from its noun, and our focus away from the thing. And such prying then revealing our assumptions concerning a work’s “aboutness.”
As Marjorie Perloff has pointed out, Stein is quite conventional in terms of reference, writing Tender Buttons as still life artists paint, with the objects the poems refer to before her. Stein’s revelation comes in renegotiating how we represent. Where we had expected an object to be linguistically depicted by static imagery, Stein gives us something else. “A carafe, that is a blind glass,” the first poem of the famous book famously reads:
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
With such sentences Stein transposes the Cubist’s visual fracture onto syntax and movement from sentence to sentence. The result: the paradigm that places meaning primarily on what art represents, rather than how the representation unfolds, is flipped on its head and troubled. After Stein, we find ourselves much more capable of seeing the way a text’s how just might be its most interesting what.
Continuous Frieze Bordering Red, Michelle Naka Pierce’s book-length ekphrastic meditation for Rothko’s Seagram murals, exhibits careful absorption of Stein’s innovations. Like Tender Buttons, CFBR foregrounds the how of the art:
The doorway flanks the left 24 inches of one painting and the right 24 of another. That pale blue wall between two maroons [so deep in their tone]; earth on either side of water. Each time you step, even if ever so lightly, granules break away. You are this borough, straddling both sides of the canal, waiting for the swell to dissipate.
Here we have gentle layerings that call up the feeling of Rothko’s color fields. Notice the way Pierce brings us into the gallery at the Tate to stand before the murals, but does not stay on the level of literal physical description. Instead, she enters into the paintings. This happens through the hinge of metaphor, “earth on the other side of water,” which, along with envisioning the space between London and the US, imagines the two maroon Rothkos as earth. This phrase allows passage to the next sentence: “Each time you step even if ever so lightly, granules break away.” This step takes place, for me, on the earth’s crust, in the gallery, and inside of the painting itself, an apt layering of movement in response to an artist who, we learn from the book’s epigraph, once proclaimed: “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon it with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.”
Befitting an ekphrastic project based on murals, Pierce builds her book sentence by sentence into blocks of prose. These blocks are spare and orderly: each of the book’s sixty-eight oversized pages has only five lines, right and left justified at the top of the page. While the lines are long and give a sensation of strength as they span nearly into the gutter, the placement of the lines near the top of the field leaves much of the page blank. Exactly a third of the way into the book Pierce floats clusters of phrases, in small sans-serif font, at the bottom of the pages, underneath the prose blocks. This clustering goes on for twelve pages and then stops and is, to my mind, the weakest aspect of the book. The floating phrases often feel much too easy (“The problem was to image an image” and “You must acknowledge this scar tissue and proceed,” for example) and have the effect of wall text mounted by a curator who worries her viewers just won’t get the artwork. Luckily, the floating text does not go on for long and doesn’t ruin the visual sensation of moving through the book, which is rather like the visual sensation of being in a gallery of Rothko’s work: a repetition of shape that gives way to variation as you lean into it.
One of the most compelling features of the book is the fact that it can be read through in two different ways: line-by-line down each page, as is conventional, or line-by-line across pages, following, first, the path of first lines from page one to sixty-eight and then the path of second lines and so on and so on. Syntactically, the most linear and smoothest way through the book is the latter trajectory, creating a nice tension between convention and innovation. Our habit of reading has us move line-by-line down each page, and the decision to read along these conventions results in a fragmented poem. The first page of the book, for example, reads like so:
This is an inauspicious way to begin, inside your country bolt on, oxygen feeding the cellular white. As [elapsed turquoise] around the wrinkled eye. Tourists here are on a steady diet of art consumption, and non-breathable sweaters. Referred pain emerges in the shoul[der] behind the scapula: you are left with You confuse the other word for carrot with the other word for onion. You don’t know the difference languages taste, though “synthetic” comes to mind. Self-portrait transfer. You arrive on a Thursday or
Though fragmented, the poem still communicates many of the book’s themes, and, though ragged, the page is comprehensible. We understand the notion of beginning a journey, the confusion of language and culture brought on by the mode of the tourist. We understand the insistent ache of a body one never quite manages to leave at home. However, the experience of the text is quite different when read in the alternate, unconventional way—line-by-line across gutter and turn. For example, here are the first lines of the book’s first five pages:
This is an inauspicious way to begin, inside your country bolt on, oxygen feeding the cellular white. As you sleep metaphorically, you try to understand the dorsal aspect of the body. Though not your first crossing, you are on the outside, inside this once removed zone, just beyond the cit. Underground you hear languages not easily recognized, and the sounds are muffled, as though submerged. All around citizens rush to their destinations, minding gaps and such. You are caught between two lines, wondering
Here we receive a much more concrete sense of context and begin to unfold the book’s narrative frame: the speaker, who we learn from text is on a reprieve from her job in the US (a sabbatical from her position at Naropa notes her acknowledgments) has arrived in London to write. She finds herself at the Tate, meditating over the Rothkos, which afford the book’s central theme: a reflection on the unstable nature of boundaries as experienced through the particulars of mixed-race identity, citizenship, family, language, body, and art.
One of the book’s biggest risks is that it overtly admits to the conditions of its making: the fact of the author’s sabbatical, the ekphrastic tradition, the high-art of Abstract Expressionist paintings exhibited at the Tate. Add to this hot-button terms such as “hybridity,” the deployment of fancy formal devices (which I say as a fellow-practitioner of fancy formal devices), and a display of Stein amplified by collaged Stein-bites (the text echoes with Tender Buttons’ “out of kindness comes redness” and “the still life is a small lesson on perspective”)—and you risk writing a tract oozing with indoctrination…counter-culture inflected, but oozing nevertheless.
However, after considering the history of the Rothkos as told by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian, I conclude that it is not just Pierce’s intelligence and lightness of touch that saves the book from falling short. Commissioned for a handsome sum by the Four Seasons Hotel, the Seagram murals were to hang in the hotel’s restaurant but never did. One account says that Rothko hoped the intensity of the murals, which Jones describes as “lovely in their oppression and erotic in their cruelty” would ruin the appetite of rich diners, overwhelming them with a feeling of entrapment. However, after eating in the restaurant Rothko realized that none of the diners “eating that kind of food for those kind of prices” would ever be able to really look at his paintings. He withdrew the work and the paintings were gifted by Rothko to the Tate eleven years later, arriving at the museum on the morning of his suicide. The mood of the Rothkos leaves none of this struggle out.
One of the book’s graces is that it addresses the nature of boundaries—an enormous and generally over-treated theme—through a life’s particulars without creating chaos, self-indulgence, or boredom. Pierce achieves this via evenness of tone, consistency in tense and point of view, and by the fact that she returns to the site of the Rothkos again and again. As such, the book creates a vectored conversation with one of Rothko’s greatest achievements: to manifest an experience of the layering that creates a self. A layering, in the case of the paintings and in the case of this book, that doesn’t flake off and thin into air, but deepens with each pulse each breath each bruise.