Slept dreams, they say, take just a few seconds
no matter how long they are. Or how far
I walked on that bridge of spider silk
with the moon beside me like a friend.
Her light trapped us in a radiance of bliss so
pure, hours weren't hours, or minutes minutes
as we passed my old lecture hall, its professor
stopping in the middle of his question: "Can
someone here tell me -- ?" to stare at us as we
floated along, my insouciance blurring a little
with a sense of guilt. Had I a right to this?
Could such joy be mine for free? . . .
Dorothea Tanning, "Bridge, Moon, Professor, Shoes"
At 93, Dorothea Tanning, who has had a long and marvelous life as a visual artist, is our most surprising new poet. She is an audacious dreamer, and the spirit of creativity, the sheer joy of making things, is everywhere apparent in her restless, inventive, energetic and triumphant first book of poems, A Table of Content.
Tanning takes her epigraph from Montaigne -- "It's hard to be always the same person" -- and turns it every which way. She is drawn in poetry, as in painting, to radical juxtapositions, collage-like effects, and longs for multiple lives, a multiplicity of selves.
One of her characteristic signs is bliss ("Wild rapture spins over your personal landscape"), but the flipside is a sense of doomed singularity: "If it isn't too late/ let me waste one day away/ from my history," the speaker pleads in "Sequestrienne." "Let me see without/ looking inside/ at broken glass."
Tanning often draws metaphors from painting ("Oh, we were primed like canvas") but embraces her role as wordsmith. She takes innocent pleasure in the sheer oddity of words, in the basic triggering power of the letters themselves. She probes the medium and plays with different line and stanza lengths to see what they will yield.
A Table of Content is organized around the alphabet and divided into four sections: A to G, H to O, P to S, T to W. It cleverly starts with a poem entitled "Are You?" ("Stay on the planet, if you can," the poet advises, "It isn't/ all that chilly and what's more,/ grows warmer by the/ minute") and concludes with one called "Window Treatment" ("My windows are private-eyed," she observes. "They gape with authority:/ what to let in, what to let out").
Dorothea Tanning's poetry estranges reality. It has a way of being both whimsical and grave, charmingly lighthearted as well as deadly serious. It has a great deal to teach us about the nature of making art, about the life of a maker, and shines a light on our own lives. Here is a sonnet from the creative front:
Report from the Field
Sublimation, a new version of piety,
Hovers the paint and gets her going.
Everything drifts, a barely heard sigh is the
Sound of wind in the next room blowing
Dust from anxiety. A favorite receptacle
Holds her breath and occasional sewing.
Only the artist will be held responsible
For something so far unsaid but true,
For having the crust to let the hysterical
Earnest of genuine feeling show through,
And watching herself in the glassy eyeing
Of Art as seen through a hole in her shoe.
Painter and poet, sometimes said to be lying,
Agonizingly know it is more like dying.
(All quotations are from Dorothea Tanning, "A Table of Content." Graywolf. Copyright © 2004 by Dorothea Tanning.)