Anabases 5: A Poem between Charles and Eric

In an interview, Eric Baudelaire describes one of the origins for his interest in the idea of the Anabasis theme as follows:

I don’t know why this figure is so important to me, but I remember already being touched by it when reading Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1857) as a teenager. You can look at the entire cycle of what happens in that book as a form of anabasis: in the final poem ‘Le Voyage’, the poet explains that he has tried all kinds of means of escape: wine, hashish, travels … but even the infinity of the sea was not sufficient to drown what he calls spleen. His form of existential anxiety never disappears regardless of which journey he undertakes. Death is the only journey he is hopeful to engage in, because its endpoint is the only one that remains unknown. The poem opens with this beautiful stanza: ‘To a child fond of maps and engravings / The universe is the size of his immense hunger / How vast is the world in the brightness of lamps / How small it appears in the eyes of memory’.

More than the connection between the two Baudelaires – the poet and the artist – this passage persuades me of the acute precision of the latter’s use of language to articulate an idea that appears in visual form throughout his work. What I am referring to is how the poem ‘Le Voyage’ is described in two markedly different ways in order to exemplify the idea of the Anabasis theme. First, we get the summary, in the artist’s own re-phrasing, of the ‘unknown endpoint’ of death; this is followed by the opening lines of the poem quoted verbatim, ‘To a child’ etc. One Baudelaire has made an Anabasis out of the basic temporal structure of a life (childhood to death) inscribed by the other.  But what if Eric is simply ‘reseeing’ the lesson of Charles in another way? I was recently reading Charles Baudelaire: Letters from His Youth (translated by Simona Morini and Frederic Tuten) and I couldn’t help but smile at the gripes of this boy who would become the poet and who would so clearly articulate the figure of the artist in modern life and the dynamic between poetry and painting. Where is the poet in the boy who was detained at school on a Sunday for what he calls ‘a trifle’: (he ‘drew with a pen during sketching’)? It made me wonder,  when an artist points to a poet for the origins of their art, can we also point to the boy Baudelaire drawing with a pen as the origins of the poet and the modern artist?

As a way of posing this question another way, let me share with you the first draft of the review that I’ve been working on (of Reading Cy Twombly: Poetry in Paint by Mary Jacobus), accompanied by images from a work by Eric Baudelaire that I wanted to include somewhere in this week’s posts: the film and book Sugar Water (2007).

‘Where’s the poet?’ is a question posed by Cy Twombly in a drawing he made in August 1960 on the island of Ischia in the gulf of Naples. Yet, as Mary Jacobus tells us in her brilliant new book, this is not merely the painter’s question, but a quotation from an unfinished poem by Keats written in 1818. At the same time, Keats’ borrowed line is not alone in Twombly’s drawing. His words are accompanied by more text (the heading ‘Sonnet’ and the phrase ‘mists of idleness’), as well as a grid of twelve numbered sections (with the numbers 13 and 14 squeezed along the bottom) and three curiously doodled lines. As with this drawing, Jacobus’s book invites us to approach Twombly’s work as always more than just the sum of its constituent parts. Snatches of poetic quotations combine with grids, numbers turn into scribbles, generating a fragile environment from which the poet we’re looking for emerges.

Jacobus’ title comes from Charles Baudelaire’s essay on Delacroix, in which he dubs his contemporary a ‘translator’ and ‘a poet in painting’. While Jacobus acknowledges that she is not the first to transpose this identification onto Twombly’s work, her book is now the most extended and convincing discussion of its far-reaching implications for the artist. Reading Cy Twombly is framed by two concrete examples of Twombly’s intimate engagement with poetry – a tantalizing analysis of Twombly’s library in Gaeta, his Italian base on the coast between Naples and Rome (‘Introduction: Twombly’s Books’) and a meditation on his collaboration with the Mexican poet Octavio Paz (‘Postscript: Writing in Light’) according to a conception of the Baudelairean figure of the artist. Over the course of the eight intervening chapters, Jacobus highlights several differing aspects of the artist’s poetic engagements, covering an incredibly broad range of works with a sensitivity to the artist’s biography and development, poetic genres and artistic methods and theoretical ideas and historical frameworks. Rather than summarize these chapters here, I want to demonstrate how Jacobus’ two framing chapters project and reflect processes of reading between poetry and painting inspired by Twombly’s work. Following Jacobus’ lead, as we make our way through her book, we experience a pivotal shift whereby we abandon a linear focus on Twombly’s acts of reading and writing in his practice as a painter and instead focus on how Twombly mirrors what Jacobus dubs ‘the paradoxical nonequivalence’ (22) of Baudelaire’s modernist figure of the ‘poet in paint’.

While Jacobus the self-confessed ‘literary critic’, focused on ‘the role of poetry, translation and writing’ (x) may have some blind spots, both to key elements within the Twombly environment (e.g. number and compositional space) and to broader art historical and interpretive frameworks (e.g. Minimalism, humor), her determined pursuit of the ‘writerly high’ that Roland Barthes marked in Twombly’s work is apparent at every turn of the page. Reading Reading Cy Twombly is less of an Odyssey in which we set out so as to return to the ‘poet in paint’ we know and love, but more of an Anabasis in which a series of intense misadventures and wanderings lead to ‘reseeing’ what Twombly means for us.

With her introduction set in Twombly’s library, Jacobus sets the stakes of her project unenviably high. Beautifully illustrated examples of the artist’s ‘handwritten mark-ups, rough notes, textual cuts, paint marks, and illustrative doodles’ (2), whet the appetite for future scholars to map the minutiae of Twombly’s active reading practice onto his working methods. At the same time, they also establish a framework for readings of his work that could prove to be overly literal. On one level, this approach allows Jacobus to give compelling examples of Twombly editing and rearranging poems, striking out lines, changing word and repeating phrasings, where we are asked to picture Twombly ‘(book open) inking out, editing and splicing – creating a hybrid passage of his own’ (46). At the same time, such images of this poet-painter in his books fail to translate into every twist of Jacobus’ analysis which proves inconsistent in application as we progress through the book. For example, in spite of pointing out the number of editions and translations that Twombly owned of Rilke’s poetry, they are nowhere to be found in her complex analysis of Twombly’s use of the poet in the five-part The Rose (2008). Meanwhile, there is no mention of Saint-John Perse amid a brief discussion of the flaming chariot of Twombly’s Anabasis (1983), in spite of an earlier note on how the poem was bookmarked in his copy of Selected Poems. (Twombly also owned stand-alone edition of T. S. Eliot’s translation of Anabasis as well).

Furthermore, while Jacobus includes a list of books found in the Gaeta library in her bibliography, it is a partial list that only aligns with Jacobus’ immediate interests, even for poetic works. For example, Twombly had multiple editions of James Joyce’s slim poetic volumes (Chamber Music and Pomes Penyeach). Also missing from Jacobus’ library-scene is the visual element of physical books, from their covers to illustrations. While Jacobus only mentions Seamus Heaney in passing during a discussion of pastoral poetry, she makes no mention of the fact that Twombly not only owned the hardback edition of his 1991 collection Seeing Things, but also took a photograph (in 1994) of the Celtic boat on its cover. This boat, as Jacobus mentions, was an ‘ideograph’ that acted as a ‘form of self-quotation’ from works like Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor (1994) and Three Studies from the Temeraire (1998-9) and the epic Lepanto (2001) series. In spite of its selective and inconsistent use throughout the book, what Jacobus does achieve by starting our journey in Twombly’s library is to ground her readings in the mutual exchange between reading and writing as fundamental to Twombly’s art.

When we encounter the pre-poetic Twombly of Jacobus’ first chapter (‘Mediterranean Passages: Retrospect’), jetting off from Black Mountain College on his formative travels to North Africa and Italy with Robert Rauschenberg, we are already prepared for the pivotal moment at which ‘beautiful lines of poetry replace alien names; instead of fetish objects, a palimpsest of quotations…instead of the fetish: words’ (36). Then in a masterful reading of the 1994 work Say Goodbye, Catullus, to the Shores of Asia Minor, Jacobus transposes Twombly’s literal travels into poetic explorations, from the formation of an artist to a late career retrospective. By the second chapter we are firmly located within the question of reading – by Twombly and of Twombly (‘Psychogram and Parnassus: How (Not) to Read a Twombly’), only for writing and its deconstruction to take center stage in the third chapter (‘Twombly’s Vagueness: The Poetics of Abstraction’). However, by midway through the fourth chapter (‘Achilles’ Horses, Twombly’s War’) the poetic grounding established so far gives way to a more speculative angle. To continue the Anabasis analogy, this is the moment that Cyrus is killed and Xenophon and the Greeks must find their own path. To make sense of the shift that occurs in this chapter, we need to fast-forward to the very end of the book. Jacobus concludes Reading Cy Twombly with what seems to be a direct identification between the critic-poet Paz and her own critical role:

Framed by Baudelaire’s aesthetic of modernity, Paz’s “translation” of Twombly represents a critical intervention on its own right – a poet-critic’s reading of a painter, one of many in the critical history of writings provoked by Twombly’s work. Crucially, it allows Twombly’s turn to poetry to be reseen as his response to the paradoxes of modern art at his midcentury historical moment. (241)

This ‘reseeing’ guides the arguments of the sequence of chapters of the second half of the book, wherein Jacobus accentuates the artist’s visual modernism in order to counter the claims that Twombly’s work was ‘transcendently poetic’ (105). This process begins in the chapter on Twombly’s Achilles specifically in terms of the rupture between a mythic past and the framework of contemporary war and trauma, from the Vietnam War to the wars in Iraq for works from Fifty Days at Iliam (1978) to the Bacchus cycle (2004-5). This break paves the way for an extended meditation on a series of mirrorings between poetry and painting that create as much historical distortion as timeless reflection. With chapter five (‘Romantic Twombly’), Jacobus, quoting T.J. Clark’s reading of Poussin, confronts us with ‘the “implacable” distance between the visual and the verbal” (159). This distance becomes part of a compelling analysis of Twombly’s work of the mid-1970s that refracts pastoral literacy conventions through ‘a form of elegy specifically associated with artistic modernity’ (161). As Goethe’s color-theory informed the focus on vision and phenomenology in the previous chapter’s realignment of Romanticism, Adorno’s essay on the lyric in the sixth (‘The Pastoral Stain’) transforms Theocritus, Virgil and Spencer into the ‘stain’ of modernity. As any reader of Jacobus’ previous work would expect, at some point we would encounter a careful psychoanalytic approach to Twombly, which eventually appears in the seventh chapter (‘Psyche: The Double Door’). Again resisting the ‘nostalgic classicizing impulse’ (189) at the same time as invoking myths of Orpheus, Dionysus and Narcissus, Jacobus looks to the mirror, not as an image of self-deception and destruction, but of self-discovery. With the final chapter (‘Twombly’s Lapse’) the figure of the artist scribbling in his library and his ‘beautiful lines of poetry’ are replaced by ‘the artist’s perennial desire to find ways of inscribing the “sense” of words within painting itself’ (233). It is no coincidence that here, at the end, Jacobus sees the late work as enacting a return to Twombly’s pre-poetic phase, while also encompassing the lessons learned along the way:

Twombly’s late style recovers the very beginning of shape-making, with all its powers of evocation and invocation, while continuing to interrogate the inexhaustible relation of image and text – distinct, yet propped on one another (232).

So, finally, to return to our opening question (‘where is the poet?’), Jacobus’ answer is not simply ‘in paint’, but in the ‘reseeing’ of the variety of processes Twombly uses to draw letters and images in a way that allows for no simple return to either.

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