It had been 30 years since we had been in London. One site on my “must-see” list was the Tate Modern, that monumental museum dedicated to modern and contemporary art, occupying a former power plant on the south bank of the Thames, directly across the Millennium Bridge from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Even if you don’t like contemporary art, the museum is stunning. The major exhibition at the time was the works of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, which I would see two days later. On my first day there, I simply wanted to experience the museum itself.
I wandered. And in the corner of a large room I came upon a painting by the British painter Meredith Frampton (1894-1984) entitled Marguerite Kelsey. Kelsey (1908?-1995) was a professional model, and this painting of her from 1928 simply stunned me. I stood in front of it for a good 15 minutes, and then resumed my wandering. I went back to it before I left, and I would return twice more during that trip to see it. Two years later, I had a similar experience with Interior 1981 by the German painter Anselm Kiefer, during an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy of Art. As it turned out, that painting was part of Kiefer’s leading Germany to confront its Nazi past.
Art can move us to a stunned silence. It can also move us to write poetry, as the paintings of the Fauvism movement, roughly 1904 to 1908, moved poet Barbara Crooker to write Les Fauves, her newest collection. (The term for poetry inspired by other forms of art is ekphrastic poetry, and Crooker won an ekphrastic poetry award in 2006.)
Fauvism and its adherents, “les fauves” or “the beasts,” were inspired by the late work of Vincent van Gogh, George Seurat, Paul Gauguin, Paul Cezanne, and other Impressionists and Neo-Impressionists. It was most closely associated with Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and other Modernist painters. Fauvism emphasized the use of strong colors and moved away from the representational art of the Impressionists.
Crooker has organized her poems into four sections. The first and the last are devoted to Fauvist paintings as subjects and themes, especially ones by Matisse and late ones by van Gogh. It’s as if we’re on a tour by the exhibition curator, and we follow her as she walks to each painting, considers it, and then turns to us to explain or perhaps simply to start or resume a conversation, as she does in this poem about a painting by Henri Matisse.
Odalisque avec Anemones, 1937
Delacroix said Banish all earth colors, and Matisse
took this to heart, not a smear of clay, dirt or sand
anywhere in this painting. Anemones—red, orange, purple—
drape themselves in front of the woman lounging
on the divan, her red-striped yellow wrapper falling open.
The yellow wallpaper, too, is striped, a tiger ready to pounce.
And isn’t this the color of happiness? Like the sun
that lacquered the vineyards, filled the grapes, tightened
their skins. That glanced off the sea as we sat in the café,
the one with the surly waiter in the striped jersey
who wouldn’t bring us bread, then brought the wrong wine.
But the day was warm, and our lunch, when it came—
grilled sardines drizzled with oil—was just what we wanted,
and we were happy in the sun on the white wicker chairs,
something blooming in my heart, anemones
spilling from their vase.
Crooker asks if this is the color of happiness, and it is a question worth pondering. The near-riot of color in the Matisse painting is overwhelming, but I don’t know whether I see happiness as much as I see a kind of desperation to give the appearance of happiness.
In between the two sections devoted to ekphrastic poems are two containing poetry of a more general nature. These include several delightful poems about language, including “Seventeen Phrases You’re Probably Saying Wrong” and “The Bossy Letter R.”
Crooker has published numerous poetry collections, including The Lost Children (1989), Obbligato (1991), In the Late Summer Garden (1998), Ordinary Life (2001), The White Poems (2001), Radiance (2005), Line Dance (2008), More (2010), Gold (2103), Small Rain (2014), and Selected Poems (2015). Her poems have been published in numerous literary journals and magazines. She’s won numerous poetry prizes, fellowships, and residencies, and has even been nominated for a Grammy award.
In Les Fauves, Crooker demonstrates how poetry about art can surprise, stun, and overwhelm us. It can simultaneously deepen our understanding of and love for art. The collection makes me want to see “Marguerite Kelsey” again.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish