by Randall R. Freisinger
I've always loved Norman Rockwell's illustrations, so when I saw this book of poetry based on some of his paintings among the LibraryThing Early Reviewers books a couple months ago, I requested it. When the slim chapbook arrived in the mail, I was first surprised that the ten* poems it contains were not accompanied by the Rockwell paintings of their titles.
But then it occurred to me: perhaps that is the point. I could have just looked up the painting online as I read the titles for each poem, but I decided to see if the free verse itself evoked the painting for me.
They did. Freisinger did an excellent job of describing each painting within its poem, with details that helped me recall it. I'm pretty familiar with Rockwell's work, though, and I'm not sure this approach would work for those who are not.
(*The ten paintings are really just nine - or eleven, considering that the tenth poem is about an imaginary painting based on two of Rockwell's other paintings.)
The first page of the book notes that the poems "remind us that visual art is never static, the beholder's eye never innocent. They bear witness to the fact that each cultural era must reinterpret its rich artistic inheritance within the context of its current collective experience." The publisher's website also states that "they were conceived just prior to the attacks of September 11, 2001, and written in their wake."
That probably explains the negative or depressing tone of the poems, which, besides an evocative description of the painting, also contain either a speculation about the life/lives of the subject(s) of the painting, or the reaction of poem's narrator who is viewing the painting. They speak of aging, death, grief, wife-beaters, estranged children. One poems ends, "what you long for most of all is one last graceful exit." I've always found Rockwell's work to be cheering or at least uplifting, so the desultory mood of these poems was a downer.
I also got the impression that the poet doesn't really like Rockwell's art. In one poem, he refers to "that first time he knew whose painting it was and he also knew he was not supposed to like it." In another, the narrator "studied art in college and remembered the dismissal and scorn her teachers preached for mere illustrations of The Real." All of the poems are rather cynical.
While I was puzzled by the abrupt and awkward division into stanzas in some of the poems, the lines themselves have lovely language and metaphors. All in all, this was a book that made me think, and not only to recall the painting described.
© Amanda Pape - 2010
[This advance reader edition will be passed on to someone else to read and hopefully review.]
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