The Sleep Orchard: A Response to Arshile Gorky, Amy Dennis
Mansfield Press, 2022
How to comprehend another mind so that is fascinated with gore so that their choices make sense? Dennis’ answer is research as in companies do with 360 evaluation of what peers, self fans and mentors said. Consider at length yourself. The Sleep Orchard: A Response to Arshile Gorky is researched in depth and long considered in order to get inside the head of a painter. Gorky is less famous than some of the period. He did simultaneously abstract, realistic and surrealist art.
Dennis has a PhD in ekphrastic poetry. This is an ekphrasis of Arshile Gorky’s paintings, most painted in the 1940s while he ran with fellow artists Breton and Marquis de Sade.
He was a problematic human, I gather. He had a habit of beating girlfriends. He was a cultural by-product of Armenian genocide of death marches into the desert including his parents, a period when about a million Armenians were killed by the Ottoman empire. This is 30 years before the paintings were made. His paintings were made during the rise of Nazism.
He lived as a precarious existence before his suicide as a full time artist and as a man hunted, moving under pseudonyms and fictional backstories, or as Dennis put it, “you never aligned with the recognizable—still hiding/what you loved from the Turks” (p.64)
The modality of the collection is to try to understand another person from the inside, a peace-making act. In the last several poems Dennis explores how and when his painting make her make sense of herself, such as in times of breakup, car crash and miscarriage. From those griefs she can deduce his head space. From his head space she can see a manifestation of her own. From their combined visions, we get a scope of ways of being human.
Ekphrastic poetry isn’t my usual preferred reading because many texts rely on knowing the art, or about painting or about art history. As a result, in these poems, there is a certain amount of skim as I’m not the ideal reader, not having mental tags for cadmium or de Chirico. But the text is a springboard for learning. And there so many enviable lines— “a mystery like his/aches when it is almost/recognized” (p.59) or “the complexities/of your fauna confronting loss” (p. 64.) or “in the dark hallways of your arms” (p.88). Gorgeous.
Some books have end notes that are must reads. The end notes in The Sleep Orchard are fascinating. The poet, to find Gorky’s driving force, researched from Hayden Herrera’s biography of Gorky, from letters, from a film and from gallery catalogues.
How to understand a man with so much pain inside, who danced with ugliness, who was a dimmer, bruised smashed version of Cezanne or Matisse searching to “hit/the limits of who he is.” (p.30)
The portrait of his wife Mougouch is interesting. Dennis reveals her as sympathetic character and partner, not a trapped victim. This comes not from imagination but Mougouch's eyes wide open letters. “[A]s calamities go it had its exhilarating side.” (p.62) A mix of stoic to abuse and hedonist to embrace all that is, she knew who she was getting involved with, in daily and in the potential, a prophet artist. (p. 53)
“Living with you
was the closest I’ve come
The wife and the artist are analogues to a person and a disorder. Indivisibly tied yet separate with a needs for settlement and boundary between them.
There are some gorgeous lines in The Sleep Orchard as Dennis finds the beauty in his voluptuous decay of surrealist still lifes. For example, “her mouth spilled finches shaped with soot.” Or look at the assonance here: “Eyebright, too white, my love/for trilliums”(p.58) as she parses the fertility of his contemplation of what is ephemeral and passing. These are from a poem entitled “Ambiguous space, seemingly random angles” where “Nettles that grow over buried bodies reach a foot higher/than they would elsewhere.” The latter is a quote she pushed forward, rather than coined, but writing is curation as much as creation and contemplation.
Pearl Pirie lives in Quebec and in hope of placing poems where the readers who need them find them. www.pearlpirie.com