Saw + Scrim
On Louise Nevelson
When you square the circle,
you are in the place of wisdom.
- Louise Nevelson
I wasn’t dumping them
on the doorstep somewhere.
- Doris Lessing
Self-Portrait, c. 1940*
to her son
Do not enter the kitchen where your mother appears to be cooking but stirs a potion, adding rust and grass and horns. She coats all of her work with it. You will do this too someday.
She gives you a hug before they take you away, one circle around you and a square in your face: her first no. Your gaze breaks against it.
*All dated poem titles are the names of sculptures by Louise Nevelson (1899-1988).
Exotic Landscape, 1942-45
In this writer’s midwestern house, toolbox equals green tackle box and a mess of nails and screws, drywall supports and bent metal left over from shade installations, a Phillips and a flathead on a good day, and clay-cutting wire. Tape measure, odd button and tack, stubborn pen, electrical tape, and one perpetually turning antique doorknob.
Her toolbox held what she needed to become what she already was: a hammer, a nail, and found wood.
Ancient City, 1945
Two winged griffins are the red sentinels at the edge of understanding. She found these creatures already made, their faces locked into grimaces, curling tongues and vital death masks, and she turned their backs to the sun. She put them on a pedestal.
What lover of representation created these accurate animals? I put a doll in my story, but who painted her hazel eyes? The person in the poem: Who raised him as a child?
This sculpture’s sun is a burnt-out O and I want to know who carved it, if the artist drank when lonely.
During World War II, sculptors could not get steel. It was heavy and hard to work with, and L.N. did not like heat and noise. Besides, she had no money.
I’m not going to wait till the war is over.
You had to be famous to work big; you had to be a man. Scrap wood was light, unwanted. No one noticed two women, one clutching a bowling pin and the other a banister, hurrying down 61st Street in the rain.
Black Box (Seeing Through), c. 1950
In the owl’s eye is his voice. He watches every scratched surface. His precarious balance is night’s last dream, the coffin quiet of woods before small birds start singing. On the other side of the owl’s eye waits morning. Around him, dark shapes cluster into trees. Within him, a tar-pitched road divides the forest from itself.
Louise Nevelson in the Kitchen, c. 1954, with column from First Personage, completed 1956
She impaled herself willingly each time she worked. More nails went through the central board of her form than through Christ. The art got the light, the door, the frame, while her body stood to the side.
Her house leaked light and air. Dark realizations marched up brick steps, shuttling forth from Mrs. N’s simple kitchen. This piece of her armed for battle, eased by workmen over the grate.
Mike Nevelson in Egypt During the War, 1942
He looked inward into darkness: you could say this about many. They confessed that they were dying: Louise, Doris, Paul, Charlotte, Sherwood, Joni. They sent back what they could. In Russia during the wars, mothers brought their children to train stations and simply walked away.
That struggle blinds you.
All I say is the child’s survival did not come first.
I do not know if the woman who gave birth to my child was an artist, but my daughter sees in the dark, lines her eyes with it in the morning. All she makes contains the end and its core of light.
She tied a scarf over her hair and went out with Diana at dusk. D. drove and L.N. told her when to stop: for an old wooden wheel at the end of an alley, tennis rackets from abandoned Park Avenue lessons, a split window frame pulled out of a house.
They discovered whole stacks of waiting wood at the site of a demolition. No one wanted it, or her; this was her genius as the unnecessary artist. She could always find the wood waiting, abandoned life to darken and resurrect.
First Personage, 1956
link to artwork
A knot in the wood like a round scar on flesh, a place of entry, a head. I see through this portal and imagine becoming myself.
The question-curve of the front of her body, its nipple the one place she gave sustenance. Her eye, her mind, grown out of a scar.
One side of her shook the President’s hand while the barbs on the other kept family at bay, scared away demands, said fuck off.
I express my admiration and she shares her wooden answer, her measured half-embrace.
Royal Tide I, 1960
The problem of activity:
the bees were busy creating this hive and the queen directed virtuosically. Unpredictable as usual, she elevated each piece to royalty and its heavy worth. Light scraps of beech prepared to fly. The queen demanded tiny holes for workers to go in and out – much fun for busy children of all species. They layered and painted, painted and layered. A croquet mallet struck a waiting coin and three arms embraced a squat relic, while the golden egg waited in its corner.
link to artwork
Every corner in her work is one in my own mind. Just yesterday I lost that splintered box within a box. The curved shelf would be perfect for photographs, over the bed, and I’d put my wine in the bottom bin and my playing cards in that thin partitioned one. The Morse code of the centerpiece says words I’ve learned but lost: meet me on the other side
I picture it just beyond the June garden and across the railroad tracks, where teenagers collect rusted tacks, nails and anvils, anything solemn and heavy. They bring the relics into the house and set them on the mantle, not into the fire but above it.
Night Leaf, 1969-1974
A fan, a machine, made or found, grown or buried. Nine blades whir. A fractured engine, a loam-thick spring with nine accompanying memories. A lover’s plane takes off and a fan cools the bedroom. Night claims the thick of trees. The lost one’s face is this smooth, this real: white neck against black collar, white collar against black neck.
My daughter calls while I am writing; she needs her swimsuit at school. L.N. would not have heard the phone, she would have let it ring, the gray cat wait out in the sun. She worked with scraps of wood, not time or mind.
I answer the phone and open the door, then return to the half-blank page. There is a swimsuit written on it and a daughter, and a cat hair in my tea which is now in my throat. That’s how hard it is to continue working.
Self-Portrait, Silent Music IV, 1964
Are divides ever this distinct? I’m not sure what they say to each other, the music note and the bird through black walls. I love this glimmer of ash, matte surface and phantom seagull whose profile senses its child through the dark scrim between them.
L.N. craved music and she played this way, in measures divided on the page but united in playing. One note, one box, leads into another. The hole at bottom right is a cavern in my own chest, the emptiness between organs, silence holding sound.
L.N. left behind masses of wood fiber and paint, all the water, soil and sun that growing trees turned into solid life. The cells of her work are strong, thick houses of memory, her afterlife’s sharp mind.
These parts remain in synagogues, skyscrapers, parks, museums and basements. Some are ash, like the canvases she burned in 1945 when WPA was over.
Paint my sculptures every ten years –
but no one does and nature, which she never much liked, consumes them.
Sky City I, 1957
The chair meets a dumbbell, the spool a chair, while oak oars row toward no association.
Flowerpots filled with shadows hold up walls of baseboard and a carved mouse lair with ship’s portals for eyes, while one boomerang fails to return. Stitches of nail in the scrap of a seed have nothing to do with a giant spool, and banisters meticulously created by another artist’s hand form tension with Hudson River drift.
In a long box with a paddle, my tall daughter dreams of kayaks while I chew at a nail in the crate next door, the wall between us thinking only of itself.
Her granddaughter lives in a shack with a chicken in Miami. She looks like L.N. and lives on change, with a jutting collarbone that never healed right, and she paints compulsively.
Here’s the rest of your life, the moon said to her one night, and a brush to get you through it. Here’s a bicycle to ride and a horse to paint. Don’t lose your photograph with Salvador Dali.
She tried to catch the moon but it slid away, so for fifty years she has painted hooves and light breaking through her own skin.
L.N. told her son twice, he said to the press, that she wished he had never been born.
His sculptures are warm and human. They hold and give the shade of trees. They form faces and shoulders and ask to be touched; they listen to the wood.
Three Night Figures, 1960
I reach out for the fiddlehead fern and word from a cave, which she holds before me in a dry blue palm. Each anchor has its shaft, its weight, its curve in her latest story. Each holds sleep.
I admire her willow self, its bending, bowing strictness. She makes the rules and clips them into scraps.
Three sleep in this house, at least for now. This is her only gift.
Black Moon, 1959
The world’s oldest television set leaks its burnt picture. Around the implosion, all life goes dark. Even the moon is held up by something. One hole stares at another and the eye turns into ash. The moon turns into an eye.
Epigraphs: Louise Nevelson, Dawns and Dusks, ed. Diana McKown (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976,) p. 44; Monica Attard, 'Doris Lessing: Nobel Laureate' (21 October 2007), online at ABC.net.
‘Splintered Corners’: Italics are Louise Nevelson’s words, quoted from Brooke Kamin Rapaport, ‘Louise Nevelson: A Story in Sculpture’, The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson: Constructing a Legend (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), p. 10.
‘Louise Nevelson in the Kitchen, c. 1954’: Rapaport, p. 176 (image referenced)
‘Mike in Egypt During the War’: Dawns and Dusks, p. 77 (image referenced) and p. 46 (quote).
‘Night-Focus-Dawn 1969’: Italics are paraphrased from Louise Nevelson’s words in Harriet F. Senie’s ‘Louise Nevelson’s Public Art’ in The Sculpture of Louise Nevelson, p. 63.
‘Grandchild’: Biographical information from Forrest Norman , ‘A Brush with Death’, Miami New Times (24 June 2004).
‘Pair’: Biographical information from Anita Gates, ‘Louise Nevelson, Sacred Monster, Takes a Bow’, New York Times (1 February 2002).
‘Black Box (Seeing Through), c. 1950’ and ‘Ancient City, 1945’ appeared in Ekphrasis.
The author is grateful to the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council/McKnight Foundation for support of this project.
[Julie Gard's chapbook Russia in 17 Objects is forthcoming from Tiger's Eye Press in Fall 2011, and Obscura: The Daguerreotype Series was published by Finishing Line Press in 2007. In addition, she has had prose poetry and short fiction published in The Prose Poem Project, Ekphrasis, Clackamas Literary Review, Crab Orchard Review, The MacGuffin, Fiction Attic, and a number of other literary journals and anthologies. She is the recipient of grants from the Fulbright Foundation, Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, and Arrowhead Regional Artists Council/McKnight Foundation.]
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