P O E T R Y B O O K R E V I E W
When poems waltz with paintings,
BY KELLI RUSSELL AGODON
SOUVENIRS OF A CENTURY: Magical Realism by an American Original and Son
By Sage Goodwin and Rufus Goodwin
©2000 ~ Educare Press
$29.95 || hardcover
Souvenirs of a Century combines magical realism paintings by Sage Goodwin with supporting poems from his son, Rufus, in a collection where the reader interprets not only the meanings of the paintings, but the new perspectives on the paintings through their accompanying poems. The entire collection includes thirty-three poems and paintings.
The challenge for any poet when choosing paintings as a subject matter (and especially in this collection) is to write poems that support and enhance the paintings. In this book, many of the poems expand on the images in the paintings or create new tales about the pieces. These are the poems that can usually stand on their own in the collection, with or without the paintings.
The poem “Executive Daydream” is an example of a poem that the reader can comprehend and appreciate without the painting needing to be there. One can follow the narrative of a businessman thinking about a woman who is thinking about him, and the slight love story woven in. In this case, the artwork serves to enhance the poem.
The poet uses the images from the painting, of an executive looking out his window, to move the poem along. The line “the boat of Sunday” refers to the white sailboat leaving a canal for the ocean. You can read each line and recognize where each image originated within the painting. This doesn’t stop the poem from working on its own, but is a supportive example of poetry working with the painting and not because of it.
One of the most engaging paintings in Souvenirs is “Three Quarter Time,” where a violinist plays while standing on an ocean, while women in white ball gowns dance with men in back and white tuxedoes against the foam. This in an example where the poetry suggests something beyond the image. The painting's accompanying poem, here, reflects a darker experience. The poem asks if “the man in the haunted tux” is searching for the “face of a drowned gowned wife,” then concludes with the possibility that maybe he is “just looking for himself lost in this life,” referring to the high society life of the painting.
In this case, as a reader, I was dismayed by the poem, as it didn’t capture the sophistication and surprise of the painting. On a subsequent reading, I found the poem allowed me to interpret the darkness of the painting, which I had missed initially by focusing on the beauty of the couples dancing and the elegance of the solo violinist above the waves with his stage made of ocean.
In the poem “Town & Country,” the poet explores the identities in the painting of a city girl and a country girl, and the popular question, "Who has more freedom?" The “city girl is closeted in a concept,/Like a coffin, a town apartment” and the country girl’s freedom “is like a tree/Rooted in the soil. Her hair is wild.” In the painting, the city girl is stylishly boxed in, while the country girl leans against a tree. The suggestions may seem familiar, but often such images in paintings, and their meanings, can be overlooked. The accompanying poem helps to bring the reader to a new level of exploration with the painting, to follow through with its message.
Other poems in Souvenirs tend to ask questions of the subjects in the paintings. Perhaps this is to allow the reader to further question what is on the canvas. From "Three Quarter Time," the poem asks, “Is he somehow down on this damned luck,/Or has someone told him an artful lie?” Generally, if a poem becomes too convoluted with a poet’s inquiries, there is the risk of losing a reader without some way to anchor the inquiries. But since Souvenirs was conceived as a multimedia whole, there are no issues in understanding where an image originates, as the supporting painting is always on the right side of the page to refer to.
The strength of this collection lies in the paintings, and the book seems to have been created to highlight the father’s work. The poetry felt as if it had been written purely to accompany the art. The poems, however, act as a path to navigate the reader through the artwork at a slower pace, to take time to consider the story behind the painting and not merely flip from page to page admiring the visual work.
Souvenirs of a Century allows the reader to travel the gallery of the page and to consider the paintings at two levels: alone as visual works, and then with the poems that define them. Despite the suggestion in the book's subtitle, "Magical Realism by an American Original and Son," the magical realist content of the book is much more apparent and consistent in the father's paintings than in the son's poems. But this doesn't take away from its overall value, as the book remains a unique collaboration, with the son attempting the challenge of trying to put words to a parent’s images.
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