Press release for Opening the Mouth of the Dead

FOR SEPTEMBER RELEASE

Scott Manning & Associates
Abigail Welhouse
646-585-2183
abigail@scottmanningpr.com

OPENING THE MOUTH OF THE DEAD

Poems by Catherine Woodard
Art by Margot Voorhies Thompson

The central character of Woodard’s first full-length poetry collection, Opening the Mouth of the Dead (September 1, 2017 | art by Margot Voorhies Thompson | lone goose press | trade paperback edition $17.95 and limited-edition letterpress edition $1,700) is a third-grade girl growing up in 1960s North Carolina who uses the ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead to navigate her complicated relationship with her father. She struggles to reconcile her heart with her brain in a family where her father grapples with alcoholism and depression.

Both versions of the book feature artwork by Margot Voorhies Thompson, with additional art included in the limited-edition letterpress edition.

The main character of the book is also interested in the relationship between images and words, and the power they have together.

“The decoupling of brain and heart confuses and worries the narrator as she pores over pictures and spells in the Book of the Dead for clues to help her father,” explains Woodard. The narrator finds comfort in Ba, which she calls “Soul-Bird.” In ancient Egyptian concepts of the afterlife, Ba refers to the part of a human soul that is like the modern notion of a personality. It is often drawn as a creature with big wings and a human head, and its job is to protect and console its mummy.

The young narrator is precocious, and asks adults questions that they prefer not to answer. In “Joseph Rescues His Family and Egypt,” she asks her grandmother “if depressed is a way to iron dresses” and her Sunday school teacher how the Egyptians wrote down the story of Joseph before the Bible. The teacher’s response is to say, “Nothing / Came before the Bible but desert and dirt” and hand her a Baby Moses to color.

Many poems refer to coping and vulnerability. The narrator’s mother appears in several poems doing laundry, bringing the narrator to church in black patent shoes, and instructing her and her brother, Luke, how to behave when their father is drunk. In “For Not Playing Dead,” Woodard writes, “Mother says we can die / if he’s drinking. / Says to scream, fall. / Kick if we must.”

The narrator longs for connection and protection. In “My Father Saves the White Gardenia,” she works with her father to give flowers Miracle-Gro and buries lollipops in the garden because their shape represents life in Ancient Egypt. In “Weekend in Emerald Isle, N.C.,” Woodard writes, “We cook crabs I net. / Crack the claws / Meant to protect.”

Several poems refer to Declarations of Not, which Woodard describes as “protestations of innocence to cleanse sins.” Ancient Egyptians believed that the dead spoke this litany to 42 gods in the hope of balancing the Feather of Truth and gaining eternal life. Each line begins “I have not.” The child narrator describes first learning about this ritual from her third-grade teacher, Mrs. Long, who just returned from the 1964 World’s Fair: “The mummy / needs a lot of Nots and no brains to pass the test. / Winners get a ticket to a Heaven of Eternal Reeds, where everyone you love will be safe, waiting.”

When the narrator is in college, her father survives a fourth suicide attempt but not a fifth. She returns to the words and pictures in the Book of the Dead to find a way to release and forgive him. In the poem “Searching for Nots in the College Library,” she says, “I have not read a Book of the Dead since Mrs. Long. / I pull out a translation by the Brooklyn Museum, / find a corner in the stacks I can read out loud.” In another poem, “Hieroglyphs, Reread,” Woodard points out that “The word for house and tomb/Is the same, pronounced per.”

In the poem “For Causing a Man To Turn in Order to See,” the narrator refers to her father as a “self-made mummy” who used “Vodka and Valium as embalming / As oil of cedar and natron.”

The poem “She Said Yes” breaks up the day after the narrator’s father’s funeral into short vignettes, mostly focused on the narrator’s mother. In one vignette, “Mother Thanks Me for Being a Helper,” she says, “You were four when you asked if your daddy was drunk. I said yes. / You left and cleaned up your room.”

Woodard shows a family bewildered by grief, reaching for the solace the young narrator sought in Soul Bird. In the poem “Referee,” the narrator describes watching TV with her grandfather five days after the death of her father. Her grandfather remembers his wife, the narrator’s namesake, who overdosed from pain pills. He says, “Never should have left her that night. But what could I do?” The narrator thinks, “He asks as if I referee.”

Praise for Opening the Mouth of the Dead:

“In this beautiful, haunted book, the author’s granddaddy asks her as a child, “But what could I do?” The grown child says “He asks as if I referee.” The child that survives catastrophic family history inevitably feels that she is a referee. The combatants are gone and were, always, not only powerful but unreadable. This child’s mind, facing a harrowing present and harrowing past, turns to a paradigm that she was given in the third grade: the Egyptian Book of the Dead. The ancient paradigm gives dignity and density to the tragedy of her parents’ lives. Litany, the insistent search for truth amid bewildering fragments, is what the survivor can perform to release, if not to save, the past. This is a superb book.” –Frank Bidart

“Yes! This is news. In depth and energy, Catherine Woodard’s poetry penetrates the whole intense story. She has achieved a dazzling work.” –Marie Ponsot

“Like a yearning, incantatory prayer, the extraordinary poems in Catherine Woodard’s Opening the Mouth of the Dead build to an exquisite and devastating story of loss. With a child’s precision of observation made especially poignant through her 3rd grade reading of the Egyptian Book of the Dead, Woodard’s narrator renders a brilliant portrait of an alcoholic father that is not likely to be forgotten — a poem cycle truly remarkable for its economy, surprising humor, and sharp truths.” –Kate Walbert, author of A Short History of Women, Our Kind, and other novels

“In this deeply moving, beautifully conceived book, the spellbound world of Horus and Ra intermingles with Piggly Wiggly, Moon Pies, and Mrs. Long’s third-grade class where blue crepe paper rolls down the aisle and is a river named The Nile. It is here where the imaginative narrator, whose heart is a muddle, latches on to ancient charms and prayers that she believes will fix her troubled family, will keep them—and her—safe from hurt. These are tender, sad, strong-minded poems of the eternal human desire to breathe life into the lost, to bring them back to us in love and forgiveness, and to learn how to balance the Feather of Truth on our aching hearts.” –Emily Fragos, author of two books of poetry, Hostage and Little Savage and editor of six poetry anthologies for The Everyman’s Pocket Library

“Catherine Woodard’s Opening the Mouth of the Dead casts a powerful spell and maps a royal road into several of poetry’s oldest themes– the persistence of sex, death, and family in our imaginations, and the need to speak from beyond the grave events of our lives. Here the heart testifies to its unadorned truths in every poem.” –John Lane, poet, essayist and author of Abandoned Quarry: New & Selected Poems, Fate Moreland’s Widow: A Novel and several nonfiction books including Coyote Settles the South

About the author

Catherine Woodard swerved to poetry in 2001 after an award-winning career in journalism. She helped return Poetry in Motion® to the NYC subways and is vice president of the Poetry Society of America.

Her poems have appeared in literary journals, anthologies and CNN online. She co-published Still Against War/Poems for Marie Ponsot and has been featured in The Best American Poetry blog for essays about India and the nexus of basketball and poetry.

Fellowships and awards include Playa, Ragdale, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Sciences and Hambidge Center for Creative Arts and Sciences, Women’s Voices for Change, Unshod Quills and Willow Review.

A former newspaper and new media journalist, Woodard volunteers with the News Literacy Project. She was an early digital journalism editor who led coverage that Columbia Journalism Review hailed as “the most ambitious” and “delightfully irreverent.” At New York Newsday, she won reporting public service awards about the social and political impact of AIDS and HIV, how NYC dodged a possible epidemic of drug-resistant TB and at Newsday how poor school districts were cheated by feudal tax assessments on Long Island.

Woodard has a MFA in poetry from The New School, MS in journalism from Columbia University and BA in history from Wake Forest University.

She is a former president of Artists Space, one of the nation’s oldest spaces for emerging visual artists. She is married to Nelson Blitz, Jr. and is the mother of Perri and Allie Blitz. She writes and plays basketball in New York City.

www.catherinewoodard.com/
Twitter.com/cathywoodard
Instagram.com/catherinewoodard
Facebook.com/catherinewoodardwriter

About the artist

Margot Voorhies Thompson is a calligrapher, painter, printmaker, and designer. In Oregon, her work is represented by the Russo Lee Gallery in Portland. Her paintings and prints have been collected by the Portland Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, the Stanford University Hospital, the Printmaking Workshop in New York and internationally by several US Embassies. Her work is also in many private and corporate collections. Margot’s public art commissions include the University of Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), Portland; Portland State University; Kaiser Permanente, Tualatin, OR; the Woodstock Branch of the Multnomah County Library; Doernbecher Children’s Hospital; the Oregon State Capitol on the mall; and the Oregon State Hospital in Salem. Margot’s work in the book arts includes commissions by the University of Oregon’s Knight Library Press in Eugene, OR and lone goose press, also in Eugene, both headed by Sandy Tilcock. Margot’s past work with Sandy include books and broadsides with Kim Stafford, Pattian Rogers, Wendell Berry, John Daniel, Rennard Strickland, and Kathleen Dean Moore.

About the publisher

Since her childhood, Sandy Tilcock has been enchanted and inspired by the physical presence of books. She loved to read, but was also drawn to the weight and feel of books, their symmetry and order. It is this enchantment that led her to establish lone goose press. Over the past quarter century, her work has been recognized for its imaginative designs and impeccable craftsmanship. She holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Alabama, where she studied printing, typography and letterpress printing with noted printer and teacher Richard-Gabriel Rummonds. She was Founding Director of Knight Library Press at the University of Oregon, and served in that position for seven years.

As a mathematics major in college, she developed a disciplined, analytical approach to problems as well as an appreciation for what mathematicians call “the elegant solution.” A love of nature led her to photography back in the days when this craft inevitably meant contriving a darkroom and becoming intimate with chemical trays and timers. She was captivated by the sense of revelation in the play of light on surfaces. Over the years she became a passionate gardener. In that domain she tends to shun regimentation—she is the gentle advocate of chaos, delighting in the wild and unexpected. She has recently discovered the art of Bonsai, and enjoys the patient dialogue between plant and person, the gradual teasing out of the elegant solution.

Beyond her backyard, Sandy has long been an environmental advocate, devoted to preserving and protecting wild lands and waters. lone goose press derives its name from a passage in Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s curious observation of the occasional solitary Canada Goose during the spring migration resonated with her sense of sudden isolation starting a one-person enterprise after leaving the collegial support of the graduate program at Alabama.

Sandy is devoted to her dogs, current census three. They would describe her as loving, generous and attentive, though they would probably agree that she works too hard.
In her work as in her life, Sandy values not just the elegant solution, but peace, harmony and understanding. She still seeks to venture to the outskirts in visual and verbal expression, nurturing an endless supply of dreams.

OPENING THE MOUTH OF THE DEAD
Poems by Catherine Woodard
Art by Margot Voorhies Thompson
lone goose press
Available in Trade Paper and Limited-Edition Letterpress
Publication Date: September 17, 2017
https://www.lonegoosepress.com/
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Tribute to Marie Ponsot at AWP

Friday, Feb 10, 1:30pm

Poetry Society of America at AWP, Washington, DC

Marie Ponsot is an award-winning American poet, essayist, teacher, and translator, whose books include The Bird Catcher, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the new Collected Poems, both published by Alfred A. Knopf. At this Poetry Society of America tribute reading, Ponsot’s work will be held aloft by Alice QuinnKevin YoungMarie Howe, Jonathan Wells, and Catherine Woodard, as they celebrate her unique place in contemporary letters, sharing and discussing their favorite poems, and conveying the impact Marie has had. Marie Ponsot reads as well. (Photo by Rachel Elkind at Writers Resist on the steps of the New York Public Library.)

Washington Convention Center
Level Two, Room 209 ABC

The Traveler’s Vade Mecum

I’m honored to be included in Helen Klein Ross’s new anthology by Red Hen Press. The original Traveler’s Vade Mecum, published in 1853, contained thousands of telegrams. Ross chose telegrams as titles for poems solicited from dozens of poets, including Bollingen Prize winner Frank Bidart and former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins to create a digital-age compendium of old-world poetics.
Available at Amazon and other booksellers.

 

Solidly Ethereal

Erased Drawing,2009, oil on canvas, 60″ X 40″
All artwork by Desirée Alvarez
The poems, paintings and fabric art of Desirée Alvarez are solid and ethereal at once: solid because all her art reflects the rigor of her literary and visual training, and is grounded in the specific details of the world; ethereal because the specific details of her poems and paintings are suffused with contradictions and longings, and seem to reach into other realms for all those elusive feelings and qualities and constructs that we can never pin down or fully grasp: loss, truth, love, self, what it means to be human.

Alvarez paints “to give face to that which is hidden.” Her art – whether in words or images, whether about what is hidden or revealed – centers on transformation and metamorphosis, or as she describes “the vibrations between creatures and their surround, and the structure of desire.”

Alvarez, 46, has long been a trans-genre artist. She received a BA in fine art and English literature from Wesleyan University, and an MFA from the School of Visual Arts. She writes poetry and non-fiction, and currently teaches in the art department at New York College of Technology, CUNY.Alvarez, who has exhibited her work nationally and internationally, is part of an international drawing collaborative, Weather Report. Her numerous awards, for the visual arts and writing, include an Urban Artist Initiative 2006 grant and the Cork 2005 European Capital of Culture Award.

Her practice involves often working in different mediums in the same day. It is not unusual for her to begin by writing poems in the morning, followed by fabric art in the afternoon and painting at night. In many ways, her large printed fabric installations are a bridge between images created by words and by brush strokes. These installations often incorporate words and poems, which in turn create alternative spatial dimensions for both, whether literally above the viewer’s head as inIf The War Goes Very Well,, a poem from the fabric installation pieceBook of Spells, or fabrics suspended vertically which evoke the presentation of ancient tapestries.

Because the fabrics are delicate and translucent, the words and images float in the air in a ghostly way. In this sense they illuminate and resonate with the New Oxford American Dictionary definition of ethereal: “extremely delicate and light in a way that seems too perfect for this world.”

One example of Alvarez’s mixing of written and visual art is Erased Drawing. The poem is included but partially erased on a 60″ X 40″ canvas painted in 2009. The vibrant colors of a green and purple water plant are a stark contrast to the mood of a poem filled with loss. Alvarez paints aliveness; in color and composition the painting appears in full growing season, bathed in glowing yellow light. Yet this painted aliveness includes “extinction” in the words of the poem, in contrast to a hearty green braid of a water plant intertwined within the title and the poem, both the words readable and erased.

Erasure is a rich way to explore the tension between the hidden and revealed. The partial erasure of the poem in the painting is clear, is indeed only a shadow of its full text form. The text of the painting was painted once, then obliterated,then painted again, according to Alvarez.Much will be hidden. In the painting, “invisible,”white on a yellow background,is literally almost invisible. The very title becomes a meditation on art making since the process of working and reworking is integral to the final object, be it poem or painting. Each brush stroke, each word change alters what existed before, with erasure and addition.

The poem, lyric in the 14 lines of a sonnet, begins with a heart-flower image prevalent in Alvarez’s work. The title evokes what is not seen, as do the first two lines: “The center of the braid stays/ invisible. The world has a self” which begs the question of what is possibly the world’s self if we can’t even reliably know our own selves. We intuit Alvarez is also talking about every individual and the possibilities of a vital inner life. “A self/deep asleep inside extinction” is a loss but also tamer ( a word that appears often in her poems) than extinction. Alvarez embeds a recurring theme in her work: “My humanity is always in question.”

“Ashen sun under cloud” is sun obscured but multiple, “is two suns;” or if thought of as offspring, sons. That reading is amplified by a pregnancy image; “The entire day enters my belly.” This is then followed by a likely sexual and spiritual climax: “So many ways to move our bodies/toward the miraculous.” Renewal and loss are often twinned. “Before you leave, loved,/Press your forehead against mine./Abandon holds my hands,/still I cannot make a shell.”

Something is almost always moving in her transformative art, coming and going, often in wind or water. The poem ends with an important disappearance and return to the natural world: “The fish flashes back from me/ into the river’s winter.”

Erased Drawing

The center of the braid stays
invisible. The world has a self
deep asleep inside extinction.
Ashen sun under cloud is two suns.
The entire day enters my belly.
So many ways to move our bodies
toward the miraculous.
Before you leave, loved,
press your forehead against mine.
Abandon holds my hands,
still I cannot make a shell.
My humanity is always in question.
The fish flashes back from me
into the river’s winter.

 

At the time of this painting, Alvarez was reading a biography of the contemporary painter she most admires, Willem de Kooning, including the scandal Robert Rauschenberg created when he asked de Kooning for a drawing to erase. Alvarez also feels a kinship withRauschenberg, the best-known contemporary artist to print on silk. To her delight, she was in a group show, exhibiting large fabric installations beside Rauschenberg’s paintings at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her Erased Drawing shares the impetusRauschenberg describes in an interview on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpCWh3IFtDQ),the need to pay homage to a master and transcend the past simultaneously. In that interview, Rauschenberg explains that he had been frustrated with experiments of erasing his own drawings until he realized the transformation he was looking for required the collision with other art. He was pleased that de Kooning gave him a challenging piece of mixed media to erase and with the result a month later. “It’s poetry,” he said. In that spirit, Alvarez too works with a completed piece of art – her poem – to create a visual work using erasure.

Violence is also a strong presence in Alvarez’s art. Many poems include violent war imagery; however, they are far from gloomy. The full text of If the War Goes Very Well literally floats, hand-printed on white chiffon and suspended from the ceiling, the largest panel in a huge installation.


Book of Spells, from installation
9’X 35′(dimensions variable)
silkscreen, ink, woodcut, drypoint and carborundum on chiffon
Book project created for CORK 2005
Exhibited in NYC and Ireland at multiple venues.

 

If The War Goes Very Well

Something more powerful than the will,
the heart anarchic did not cease firing.

It has not finished sewing itself together.
What settles in the fine mesh:

Longing. We are tame and used to loss.
The future puts its hands into our eyes

to fall into the human. Fast, we grow,
faster than bamboo grows, than a frog bleeds.

The limit of what we had follows us
to the ocean bottom: a fish shadow

pressing the cabin door.
The human eye sees forty shades of grey.

This clinging to person and place
only to move on and under,

is it so with mammals and fish?
Contact sweeps across us every three seconds.

Sighted seaplane through periscope.
Sighted two seaplanes through periscope.

Surfaced. Sighted two planes, submerged.
Sighted the end, submerged.

Out there a great dark thing
will take none of the names we give it.

 

Book of Spells text, CORK 2005

The poem, in couplets, begins: “Something more powerful than the will,/the heart anarchic did not cease firing.” This uncontrolled heart is not repaired but attempts to find healing, “not finished sewing itself together.”

Throughout the poem, the future thrusts itself in violent ways, “puts its hands into our eyes/ to fall into the human.” We grow. We bleed. We die. “The limit of what we had follows us/to the ocean bottom.” Yet with an artist’s eye, Alvarez reminds us that our limits can themselves be amazing: “The human eye sees forty shades of grey.”

Militaristic images of submarines sighting seaplanes through periscopes precede the ending couplet and heighten the irony of whether any war goes well. “Out there a great dark thing/will take none of the names we give it.” Humans are the only animal to name things but naming does not mean control.

Another piece,Night Vision, at first seems devoid of optimism besides the irresistible sunrise red that bathes the background of the painting, though it’s also the color of faded blood stains. Even the title names a technological advance that improves the killing capacity of soldiers in the dark. In the painting, brown disembodied hands lead the viewer’s eye to the lines of the poem, which because they are vertical instead of horizontal, thrust up with great power into a blue helmet. And from that helmet all kinds of dangerous black guns shoot out. “They hire me to draw each thing before they kill it” radiates as a chilling line, literally from the center of the painting.

Night Vision, 2009, oil on canvas, 60″ X 40″

 

Night Vision

I never felt so close to the moon, all the animals look
naked in the woods. I have no place in the sparkling.

They hire me to draw each thing before they kill it.
Tonight I am the turtle’s draftsman.

Small, beloved world.
In labs they measure fear
.

The thread wound around my ring finger
reminds me to the stranger inside dying to get out.

 

“Often if I find a solution to a problem in a poem or a painting that informs the other,” Alvarez said in an interview. The composition and surface of the Night Vision painting was troubling until “I started inking the words in letter press and realized I could fit the whole poem which helped me finish the painting.”

A closer look reveals that the “helmet” is a turtle, an animal that recurs in Alvarez’s work to conjure the ancient. “Tonight I am the turtle’s draftsman,” the narrator of the poem explains. Yes, all in the world are vulnerable; “Small, beloved world./In labs they measure fear.” But possibilities of transformation create a kind of resiliency; “The thread wound around my ring finger/reminds me to the stranger inside dying to get out.” Dying and longing become synonyms here. Things will change for better, or worse. Without question, they will change.

Alvarez makes a compelling argument for loving one’s fate, irregardless of the philosophical debates about free will, nature or nurture, even defining what it means to be human. Her poem Amor Fatirefers to the Latin phrase from the meditations of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius around 170 AD – to love your destiny, or to accept and be at one with nature. The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) also championed the concept of accepting one’s fate, which will inevitably include suffering and loss. One need not accept Nietzsche’s argument to get Alvarez’s philosophical point that being human is at its core a parade of inconsistent and contradictory possibilities.

 

Amor Fati

Their romance is born within three rings.
Underground, the first ring, is the setting forth.

In his arms her rose scents the room
to press orange against the windows.

In the second, sadder ring, they wear mantles
of mothers and sons, ones left behind,

while all the animals who are their other selves
mark the walls in skins of accident and fear.

The third ring is the limpid world of horizon,
liquid as ships wrought of waves,

birds hatched of water. Pieces of old
dragon ie along the shore for them

to wear as the armor, heavy and mirrored,
in which they were born.

 

Alvarez poems often contain trinities. The first line, “Their romance is born within three rings,” is romance not defined, nor does it need to be, since human love can extend in many directions. “Underground, the first ring, is the setting forth,” the start of all things human and not human. This is followed by a tender heterosexual reference in the second couplet: “In his arms her rose scents the room/to press orange against windows.” Scent also may be a reminder that sense encompasses all five of our senses. Although Alvarez seldom writes ekphrastic poems, individual lines or images often spring from beloved paintings, such as an orange rose painted by Rene Magritte.

“Alvarez’s poetry is exuberant and visually exciting; her allusions know no geographical boundaries and her lines are woven with color and texture,” Susan Stewart wrote in the May/June 2008 Boston Review, where the poem was a competition finalist.

“In the second, sadder ring, they wear mantles/of mothers and sons, ones left behind;” Alvarez branches out both to the intensity of Mother/Child love as well as the inevitable loss in all love, emphasized by the “ones left behind” which evokes the image of the violence of war where until recent history, women and children, whether male or female, stayed home.

And humans, while animals, are the only ones who likely ponder their future, a gift and a curse. Alvarez correctly emphasizes in the next couplet, that loss and danger are always present; “while all the animals who are their other selves/mark the walls in skins of accident and fear.” She is reminding us too that all humans are animal both in the basest and best sense.

“The third ring is the limpid world of horizon,/ liquid as ships wrought of waves.” Given that if we started in the underground, now we should be arriving in the heavens. Her heavens are limpid, which suggests freedom from anything that darkens, completely clear.

The poem ends with two couplets: “birds hatched of water. Pieces of old/dragon lie along the shore for them/to wear as the armor, heavy and mirrored,/in which they were born.”

Myth offers protection yet also weighs humans down. Armor also invokes amor, the love present in the title.The repetition of “ring” as well as “r” sounds in numerous different words, pull the poem together in sonic as well as visual ways. Another alliteration technique Alvarez uses effectively is combined with clever enjambment: “they wear mantles/of mothers.” In the fifth couplet both within and across lines, the repeated l’s and w’s, work with the assonance of repeated vowel sounds within several closely connected words: “The third ring is the limpid world of horizon,/liquid as ships wrought of waves.”

A title with several incarnations isPeaceable Kingdom, inspired by a small painting by Pablo Picasso. Picasso’s minotaur has tossed a ladder, a framed canvas, a dead horse, a tree, a rainbow, the night sky into a cart he is dragging behind as if on his way to make a painting, or a myth. In Alvarez’s oil painting, a turtle drags the New York skyline and a tree full of nesting cheetahs across a jaguar backdrop.


Peaceable Kingdom, 2008, oil on wood, 24″ X 32″

 

“Thus began a series of open-ended allegories that nod to [American folk painter] Edward Hicks with visions of harmony between the human and the natural world,” said Alvarez, who titled a 2010 show at the Minor Memorial Library Community Gallery in Roxbury, Conn.Peaceable Kingdom.

About a dozen of her oil paintings lined the walls, and two 20-foot, scroll-paintings on silk chiffon hung from the ceiling of the gallery, just barely touching the floor. Many of the oil paintings seem like allegorical tales, part of a larger myth unscrolling. Also on display were some of her sketches, dry-point etchings and poems.

Painting on silk “is very immediate, with little room for error,” Alvarez said. This method of working increases the pressure of seizing the transformative moment. “You can’t always tell if you’ve got what you want. If you don’t get it the first time, you don’t have it. It makes watercolors seem as easy as paint with numbers.”

Peaceable Kingdom has had other incarnationsas fabric art. A related poem,Design for the Lid of Pandora’s Box,was included handwritten in ink on fabric in an installation inManderino Gallery at California University in 2006, and the title influenced the visual form of its next life. Alvarez hung blue ink paintings on chiffon of extinct creatures with woodcuts and ink paintings of living creatures in an ethereal box in a New York City gallery.

Chaos tumbles out with the open lid in the start of the poem: “Anger was in love/with the world for Delacroix./Never enough violence.” The narrative voice of myth is “on the other side of hope/wanting a child of fur or feathers.” Restoration seems possible when humans can be more integrated in the natural world; “When the dirt is just dirt/we will be human again.”

Design for the Lid of Pandora’s Box

Anger was in love
with the world for Delacroix.

Never enough violence.
Which wild animal stays

in the cage tonight
so the baby can sleep?

Precise to the heart we lived
inside until the lid ripped off.

Out came the sequoias, forsaken.
Precarious little land of plenty.

I am on the other side of hope
wanting a child of fur or feathers.

When the dirt is just dirt
we will be human again.


Peaceable Kingdom,2006, acrylic ink on fabric with woodcut, dimensions variable

 

Although Alvarez lives and works in a loft on Canal Street in Manhattan, the natural world she knows best is the section of Connecticut near Roxbury. Four generations of women in her family have lived in a19th-century tobacco barn in Bridgewater. She still visits her mother there often on weekends and has a summer studio on the grounds.

She grew up hiking in the woods there. “Where I found inspiration and sketched from nature,” she said. “My paintings reflect a seamless relationship between the outdoors and my imagination.”

Evenlocating her work in the natural world, her imagination is always reaching for the mythic. She considers the paintingWhen We Put the Wings On the progeny of the paintings and fabric installations in the Roxbury show as well as the poems Giacomettiand and Amor Fati.


When We Put The Wings On, 2009, oil on wood, 32″ X 24″

 

Giacometti

I heard you say you were there
when they put the wings on the angel.

You saw the blood in its eyes,
the stains from the nails streaking the woodcarver’s

door, the ship in full sail, clover and all
the true flowers for it to be May.

Inside me all the time it is snowing.
If myth is the part of the story that bleeds

carry the rope to me gently not as a whip
but as an impossibly slender woman,

alabaster, and filled with perfume.
I no longer believe in the boundless

and the dog watches me
always now, but I still want you

to bury me so I can ride in the old chariot
of wild fig tree with oiled pigskin wheels

out of the kitchen bright into the next form.

 

The title of the painting references an altarpiece Alvarez saw while visiting a restorer friend at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She misunderstood his remark about “when we put the wings on” as a reference to the angel’s wings instead of the side panels of the triptych. Narrative references from the Merode Altarpiece also enrich the poem. Joseph is drilling holes in a piece of wood in his carpenter’s workshop in one of the painting’s side wings; Mary is reading quietly at home, adding other layers of meaning to the resonant last line of the poem “out of the kitchen bright into the next form” since the fate of this family will dramatically change as the angel Gabriel is just about to tell the Virgin Mary she will be the mother of Jesus.


Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), ca. 1427 – 1432
Workshop of Robert Campin (South Netherlandish, active by 1406, died 1444)
South Netherlands (modern Belgium), Tournai
Oil paint on oak

Central panel 25 1/4 x 24 7/8 in. (64.1 x 63.2 cm); each wing 25 3/8 x 10 3/4 in. (64.5 x 27.3 cm)
The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70)

The first half of the poem is replete with mythic images. Yet the hinge, in the bottom line of the fourth couplet, “If myth is the part of the story that bleeds,” painfully acknowledges human mortality. The next line invokes an offering: “carry the rope to me gently not as a whip,” which asks for rescue yet raises at the same time potentialviolence in the image of a whip.

“I no longer believe in the boundless” is earth-anchored by the start of the seventh couplet “and the dog watches me.” As do the two eyes in the painting that seem not of the same creature. They look both human and not human and animal and not animal and are set above an abstract heart or wings or “all/the true flowers” of interwoven circles where parts are the deep red of spilled blood. Most of the shimmering colors of the painting are lighter and seem to constantly be blending and separating depending on the time of day and nature of the light. The only constant besides the deep red is black, which begins with the eyes.

Eyes are everywhere in Alvarez’s poems and paintings, another reminder of how she is exploring I as the self. The far right eye bleeds a line of images: first a full black circle, followed by a circle fragment and then several teardrop-like images that become ships, possibly ancient, which start to sail to other places, pointing off the canvas into an unknown realm of transformation and metamorphosis.

Decisions in painting or poem making are intuitive for Alvarez. Although color is a crucial tool for her, she never studied color theory until she needed to learn the science to teach a class. Only then did she realize she mostly uses “hot, fully-saturated colors,” which means she seldom mixes in white or black. There is a similar strength to her diction which tends toward short, Anglo-Saxon words. Yet, in each case the assembly of the various individual parts creates a fluid feeling of mystery and metamorphosis.

During graduate school, Alvarez partially supported herself as a nude model for the painter Philip Pearlstein, an experience that still influences her painting and her poems. While holding a pose for hours, she used the time to make or edit poems and paintings in her head. Normally, “it would be a painting day or a poetry day.” If a painting day, she would move things around mentally to see the changes. Alvarez said her paintings usually begin as a “complete vision” but inevitably need to be revised as she begins to put it down on canvas, wood or fabric. Poetry begins for her sonically, as a line or series of lines. “If it was a poetry day, I would be hearing things I was starting or rewriting.”

Currently in her studio Alvarez is assembling a “tapestry of flight” commissioned by Central Booking, a Brooklyn gallery dedicated to book arts. When finished, the “pages of fabric” will be stitched together and hung horizontally, a book about 25′ by 4′. Completed pages include a very detailed hawk, a single feather, a minimalist bird in flight about the same size of the single feather and a huge angel’s wing from a fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, Italy. The birds look like feathers and the feathers look like birds. Diving down into this mix is a carborundum print of a fighter jet, the only image not printed as a woodcut. Nearby, the title page of her poetry manuscript The Innermost Animalsits in a not-yet-thrown-out broken printer, as if it’s her mantra to analyze “the vibrations between creatures.”

Birds are another recurring motif in Alvarez’s work. As a child, she spent many weekends sketching in Connecticut from anAudubon book. In a previous and related poem Vanishing Point, the narrator claims “I have lived long in the book of birds.” The music in the simple declarative statement comes from the alliteration and assonance of repeated l’s, b’s and vowel sounds.

Vanishing Point

My job was to dust the ancient sculpture heads.
I held their tiny clay chins in my palm and
brushed their lips with soft sable.

But since then I have lived long in the book of birds,
nests of mud and stick, and there are none that I could build. I do not think I will have a child.

The sailboat moves downriver, briefly puncturing the sky.
Now, painting, the why of movement getting louder
every day, deciding which to keep, which to keep away.

Transformation for humans in our lives and in our art is influenced by chance as much asconscious decisions, Alvarez argues. The mysterious first stanza is a literal description of dusting Perlstein’s eclectic artifacts, as much the subjects of his paintings as the nudes. She then moves to her art and life.She marvels at the intricacy of birds in flight and at rest in “nests of mud and stick, and there are none that I could build.” The following line, the last of the middle stanza, is forceful and reflective of the sorting out that creeps up in middle age: “I do not think I will have a child.”

Then the reader is right back in transformative art as if in the painting When They Put the Wings On as one of the “eyes” or “I’s” or sailing ships. A life, human or animal, like a sailboat “moves downriver, briefly puncturing the sky.” In painting, in life, “the why of movement getting louder/every day, deciding which to keep, which to keep away.”

Whatever happens will shape the future and Alvarez finds lyrical optimism in transformation while frankly acknowledging the attendant and inevitable elements of pain and suffering. She understands the core strengths of the different mediums and uses her versatility to cross-pollinate the different genres. Alvarez paints and prints as a lyrical poet; she writes with the imaginative eye of a visual artist, creating her memorable gossamer creatures.