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On the Gift of Basil King’s Devotion

Eileen Tabios reviews
four poetry books by Basil King

Mirage — a poem in 22 sections, 149 pages. with 7color plates. Marsh Hawk Press. US$15.00. 097247854. paper.

Warp Spasm, 116 pages. Spuyten Duyvil.US$20.00. 1881471543. paper.

The Complete Miniatures, unnumbered pages. Stop Press. Limited Edition of 100. 0952996103 paper.

Devotions (Stop Press, 1997), unnumbered pages. Stop Press. 0952996154. paper.

I felt guilty
it is there in the photo
Black Mountain is closing
and I hadn’t gone to jail
Charles had spent an evening
talking me out of it

he also talked me out of
going back to New York City

“Don’t go back you
know too much
you know nothing
if you go
you’ll wake up
between silk sheets
and you’ll be
in the south of France
and you won’t know
who she is
or how you got there

“Go away
and when you are ready
come back
with something
for us”

                — from “Mirage” by Basil King

Mirage: a poem in 22 parts by Basil King was one of my favorite reads among 2003-published poetry books. I loved it so much that I followed up to read some of “Baz”‘s other books. Previously, I’d not paid attention to Baz as a poet or writer and knew of him mostly as a painter. As it turns out, Mirage is the culmination of a larger project which includes The Complete Miniatures and Devotions, both published in 1997 by Stop Press. I read these earlier books, as well as Warp Spasm (Spuyten Duyvil, 2001).

Warp Spasm (WS) can be seen to collect ars pictura pieces inspired by some of Baz’s paintings: “Meat,” “Karla Faye,” “Abuse/ A Color Chart,” “Gwen” and “Identity.” Inevitably, because he is both painter and writer, WS also informs how his poems came to offer a voice that adds to, rather than simply relies on, inherited poetic forms.

“Warp Spasm.” Baz explains it in his WS Preface:

Sally Hunt sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She is a huge young woman. She is black. Sally Hunt opens her instrument and her anger. It mourns. It sings. It contorts. It gravitates. Her republic has not stood beside her. She sings, she contorts. She is in the midst of what the ancient Irish called Warp Spasm. She sings, she contorts. Her artistry fuses content with imagination. Oh great Cuchulainn, it’s told in the Irish epic The Tain that you would have Warp Spasms. That before you went into combat the Warp Spasm would seize you and make you into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. That your body would contort so violently that no description can do justice to the menace that you would become. It’s told that your strength and fighting powers were unstoppable. It’s told that your mother was a goddess, and that your father may have been Delacroix, who said, “One can never paint violently enough.”

The notion of one’s republic not standing by in support is a concept familiar to most artists. Baz — and his wife, poet/ writer Martha King — like others chose poverty in order to be artists. As Martha puts it in her own moving and evocative memoir Separate Parts (Avec, 2002): “Our poverty was voluntary, as anyone could tell us. We chose this way, rejecting others. We chose rejecting other people. We wrapped our arms around our trunks, pulled in our chins, trudged head down. Ours. Snow poverty offers death by freezing, a gradual loss of all sensitivity, urgency, drive. As white as heroin. As quiet and seductive.”

The loss of sensitivity, if it needs to be clarified, is to the republic that marginalizes culture, not to one’s art. To read Baz’s poems now is not to argue — indeed, it is to praise — Baz’s choice. Mirage is an expansive amalgamation of memoir, verse and reproductions of paintings that, ultimately, is a pure POETRY project — the whole of it is poetry by using what yogis would call an integral approach (which is to say, the project is also all about painting). And its expanse testifies to that ye olde goal/ saying of “a life well-lived!” Or to paraphrase Frank O’Hara to whom this book is dedicated, a life lived variously and with Grace.

Mirage also includes a portfolio of seven reproductions of Baz’s paintings; they illustrate poet-art critic Vincent Katz’s observation that “King makes use of a free reference to human physiognomy... allowing its emotional and formal valences to take precedence.” Marsh Hawk’s official press release notes, “While [King]’s first love was abstract expressionism, he has forged a rugged, independent surrealism.”

This ability to find himself a new form — his own “voice” — is something Baz accomplishes as much in poetry as in painting — a telling achievement for someone described by Donald Phelps (who wrote an introductory essay) as a “sometime poet,” when most poets will never get beyond mimicking inherited styles. Mirage, for instance, is structured to alternate between prose and verse with very thin columns formed by lines of one or very few words. Phelps says Baz is among writers “guided considerably in their respective testimonies, by the landscapes of personal history melding with the history of place.” But such writers do not always achieve an extension of the poetic form as well as having provided “testimonies.”

In Mirage, the form reflects Baz’s painting background — and why I am always interested in artists with multidisciplinary perspectives. Mirage’s prose/ verse structure can be considered an “assemblage” that reflects a painter’s — versus writer’s — experience in handling material that is tangible as well as imaginary (more physical than text). Poetry can, of course, be influenced by anything and everything and I often find that those poets who experience widely come up with more interesting poems. In Baz’s case, his painting background clearly energizes his poetry in ways that may not be possible for a poet trained solely through the literary.

The assemblage structure is one of my favorite components of Mirage, but the text is also effective with their deceptive simplicity. The words resonate long in the mind despite the seemingly simple diction, bespeaking the alchemized compressions of minimal forms like the haiku or hay(na)ku. Here is an excerpt of Baz’s poetic assemblage:

I used to daydream an awful lot in pictures. I could get carried away and visualize all the fairy lands in the world. I guess it was just my natural way of working. Keaton, 1964


The (visual) combination of verse and prose seems to highlight Poetry through contrast, in the same way that black may seem darker when juxtaposed against a light color. The thin columns of verse also evoke a type of scaffolding for the creation of a memoir, which is to say, Poetry becomes the structure from which a life may be discussed. It’s an apt approach for sharing an artist’s life when that story includes how that artist looks at the world and brings it into the work.

Baz’s inclusion of other authors’ words reflects the large expanse of a mind interested in everything. In his books, he flows freely from a wide variety of references to his autobiography. It is an approach that prevents solipsism. It is, WS, reveals, an approach consistent with his painterly vision as revealed by his focus on Soutine: “Soutine stole freely from Chardin — and Rembrandt. It was personal. He only took what he needed. / / On the days Soutine applied paint to canvas he was putting one foreign matter onto another. That’s what painters do. Imagine, what would Goya say if he knew Soutine had insisted that he paint on old canvas, canvases that had already been painted on.”

Yet, as Baz notes, “One can never paint violently enough.” This “personal” selectivity must disrupt linear narratives, an approach that mirrors back how historical records are formed from disruptions. In Mirage, Baz writes


What makes this Poetry is how the reader is moved, even without knowing its inspiration, Baz’s friend Gene Swenson who died in a car crash. It is an effect that bespeaks how, in art-making, one may paint (or write) violently but there is no destruction even as one destroys, that there ultimately will be, and it is will-ed, creation.

As Baz says in WS, “Gwen John said, ‘Religion and art are my life...You are free when you have left everything behind. Leave everyone and let yourself be left. Only then will you be without fear’.”

Equally telling, Baz shares the story of Karla Faye Tucker who, at age 23, along with a companion Danny Garrett “put over forty pick-axe holes in a man and a woman. Later Karla Faye Tucker was to tell a friend, ‘I came with every stroke’.”

From that horror, Baz surfaces with this conclusion: “It’s Karla Faye Tucker’s passion that interests me. Passion. ‘I came with every stroke.’ It’s not that common in the theater or in the pools of the Olympics, or on the walls of museums that someone can say, ‘I came with every stroke.’”

But what is the commitment for? For what or who does the artist struggle? For Baz, I sense the answer is to share joy — joy in the sense that it is inevitably the result of his paintings or words when they please their audience. To accomplish this, it seems to me that Baz practices the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness; in WS, he says, “It is my habit to bring disparate things together. If I can see them, if I can feel them, how far away can they be?... [M]y paintings have no final solution. They initiate my hand. I put my hand inside you and squeeze your heart. I want you to feel what I feel. I want you to feel what you feel.”

Interconnectedness is relevant since Baz also notes how “Rilke said Rodin made an alliance with art so he could question everything.”

Relatedly, one can get a sense of the wide scope of Baz’s eyes, including the recognition of the necessity of commitment (despite an absent republic) from his poetry, not just in MIRAGE but also in these excerpts from The Complete Miniatures:

Hieronymus Bosch strikes a match for the pleasure of it is he hears the voice of the candle. He hears St. Anthony and they speak to each other.


To argue the sky’s the limit, Hieronymus the painter and St. Anthony the hermit-saint sit by a river. They do not look at the screaming face in the water. They look out at what they cannot see. Memory rents and acquires from the palm the sky’s ease. Once creatures clustered around St. Anthony, not for his company but to mock him and tempt him, to do, to do what? Those mordant creatures that invaded St. Anthony’s life are now separated from his body. Greenish yellow sort-of sand. An unopened umbrella. A sort-of building. Each stroke of paint delivers an elbow, then a knee, then a tongue. Modesty roots, rises, and then there is blue. A sort-of contemplation erodes St. Anthony’s disposition. And the dream becomes Hieronymus Bosch’s last painting.

Or, also this excerpt which, among other things, reminds me of that saying “We are all born poets and it’s the living that leaches the poetry from us.” I recall this saying because this excerpt calls us to emancipate our art by, say, thinking of it as food — food we make as well as of which we partake:

Food. Do you use too much salt? Do you ask stars for their autographs? Duchamp said everyone can participate.
             Touch it. Hold it and it dissolves. Speak of it. Speak to it. Strike a match for the pleasure of it is — the object is benign. There are no superstitions. No unknown creatures. No bottomless pits. The night is for sleeping. The day is for working. Art defines the object’s space. And space is a calling.

And if art is a calling, it is a calling by all to all. In WS, Baz notes several times, “Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves.”

But to not paint for one’s self, to paint for the world, requires a commitment based on attention. That is, in WS, Baz quotes Simone Weil’s thoughts on attention as that “rarest and purest form of generosity.” This, Baz notes, creates effects like:

Gwen John wrote more than two thousand letters to Rodin. Vincent Van Gogh wrote to his brother every day. I wrote to my mother. “Dear Mother, today I read Holbein’s letters to his father in German. “Dear Father, today I climbed a tree.” Gwen John drew 734 drawings of two small girls in Victorian dresses on 68 sheets of paper. Charles Olson and Robert Creeley wrote letters to each other. Ten volumes have been published, with more to come.

One doesn’t flag. Despite the absent republic, one continues because one is committed. And when one hews faithfully to the attempt, well, then, sometimes, the impossible happens. As example, Baz says about Gwen John, one of Rodin’s former Muses:

Gwen John’s ego is as visible as Snowdonia and as black as the Black Mountains. She did something that had never been done before. She mixed oil with water, and it worked. The impossible is possible. Water gives, and oil, in Gwen John’s employment, oil is constant. In “Interior, Rue Terre Neuve”, it’s Gwen John who wants to be invisible. She wants the paint to do everything. Comb her hair, boil the water, pour the tea, stir the sugar, and go out and talk to everyone. Why me? she asks, “Why is everyone staring at me?
          For thirteen years she warmed herself on Rodin’s chest, and it was the warmest chest she had ever known. For thirteen years she watched him, as his hands entitled her. For thirteen years she scrubbed herself clean of any distraction that might make her unattainable. After Rodin wouldn’t see her, she continued, she continued. Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. Nobody...
          Gwen John’s last three years were spent in a hut. Closed off from all visitors, she wanted to purge herself of everything. Gwen John wanted to become a saint, a Saint Teresa, who complained, “Human affections brought me nothing but bitterness.” “Green Leaves in a White Jug,” 1928.

“Interior, Rue Terre Neuve.” “Green Leaves in a White Jug.” Gwen John did the impossible. She mixed oil with water and it worked. She continues to live, through her paintings, and then a poet named Basil King writing about her.

How do Baz’s words become poetry? Partly by exposing what cannot be captured by language. It — Poetry — cannot be captured by language in part because the author relies on memory and memory is uncertain. From WS, “Half of memory remains unprimed. The other half is not always what you think it is, but sometimes it’s like the white line in the center of the road. It’s possessive. I walked it. I drove it. I hitched it. My father was very possessive.”

But, for the artist, it also may be necessary for memory to be unreliable. Also from WS: “In witchcraft one method of killing is to make a picture of someone and then destroy it. I have painted over many paintings. When I was 14 I painted a panel of my parents and my grandparents and I didn’t paint over it. I don’t have that painting anymore. When I was 23, my mother gave the Salvation Army every painting I had left in her house.”

Well, in the face of all that, why not, as Baz posits, “Forget the line and draw without it!” One may come to this point through Baz offering snippets from his autobiography, but the lesson is suspected (though perhaps not practiced) by many artists: Learn from, and then reject, the Teacher. Two poets, two poets, come to mind. Gerald Stern for saying, “I came from nowhere.” And Jose Garcia Villa for saying he wasn’t actually born in the Philippines but in a country (of his own creation) called “Doveglion.”

Or, as Baz shares, “I always begin to paint with an immaculate white-on-white surface. I’ve brushed as many as twelve coats onto one surface before I begin, and I could have gessoed more. I gesso until I am ready to paint. Take care. This white line is not like any other white line. I painted this one.”

The lesson is understood even without Baz adding, “My mother is annoyed. She adjusts her glasses and blows her nose. She picks up the newspaper and holds it up so that she can’t see me. She knows I transformed my father into an immaculate white canvas that I destroy as I paint.”

So Baz forgets about the white lines except those he himself painted. He accepts, and works with, the unreliability of memory and history(ies). He does all that so that he can live out his true identity. es, in an essay entitled “Identity” in WS, he writes:

This way to the canvas. This way to the clouds. The sky’s the limit. Three colors, three faces, three winds. Not our faces, not our colors, not our faces. Not my face. Not my father’s face. Which face? Which face. My face, “Endurance.”
          Paint endures. Paint and canvas. Dots, colored dots, tricolored dots, paint and the canvas. Walls covered with drawings. Uncolored drawings. Uncolored dots. The sun and the moon. Paint and canvas. Do you hear the wind? My mother drifts in without calling. She is a hydrangea. If I don’t cut her down every year she becomes unmanageable.
         ...I open the wall. I own the wall.

Why? Because, he says in WS, “Art makes life available.”

Art makes life available. Baz emphasizes about his paintings, “They initiate my hand. I put my hand inside you and squeeze your heart. I want you to feel what I feel. I want you to feel what you feel.”

He also plays the other role, the one responding to others’ paintings, in Devotions. The collection contains his responses to such painters as Pollock, Vermeer, Seurat, Gorky, Holbein, Morandi, Degas, Lautrec and Franz Kline. He says in his introduction, “If you know the works of these artists you can float their images as you read; if you do not, you nevertheless know something of devotion from somewhere else.”

That somewhere else is what makes us care about the excerpt (above) from Mirage without knowing anything about its underlying inspiration, Gene Swenson. That somewhere else is Poetry because the words can suffice to create what its words cannot embody: the Sublime. Here is an excerpt from Devotions after Poussin and Cezanne, when Baz feels, senses, that Cezanne “became ferocious” when he wanted to do “something different”:

Who will you fight?
Mother? Father?
A lot of it.
Who will you fight?
Who will you fight?
No metaphor but a left and a right.
Who will you fight?
— “Monet is nothing but an eye, but what an eye!” said Paul Cezanne.
Turn to the left, turn to the right.
Who will you fight?
The thing that is as hard as a wall?
Something touches your toes.
You want it.
Who will you fight?
Not many.
Just a few.
Something touches your toes.
You want it.
You want the devotion.
Are you afraid?
No child is born without labor.
No birth is without grief.
No poem is without Zen.

If it is light that changes night to day, then it is light my voice finds. When I talk, figures clear their throats. When I open my mouth, I am beside myself. It’s not that I’m afraid of Uncle Dominique, the paint, or the pallet knife. I am in transition. I’m in the midst of a changing digestion and I get angry because the distance between two jars is not always what I think it is. It moves and not always when I expect it to. It causes me to have sensations I do not understand — and mathematics tells me I must work on division and learn to compound that which is still unknown to me.

In this excerpt, I see again the prose/ verse juxtaposition I first admired in MIRAGE. And it occurs to me that if Baz is to write a memoir, he must use poetry to do so. Poetry’s unique truth — where fiction is real — needs to be the scaffolding since memory and history inevitably are uncertain.

After I wrote the first draft of this review, I found slipped into his book a press release about his book. On the back of the paper were some of my handwritten words. I seemed to have attempted a poem on it. I must have given up on it because I don’t remember the words.

The draft’s existence within Baz’s book implies that something he wrote must have moved me enough, in an earlier read, to attempt a poem — it often happens that way with me: when I read something that inspires, I can’t just continue reading but must stop to write a poem “after” what I just read. I look now on those newly-discovered words. I think I gave up too early on this attempt for a poem. There are some lines that satisfy me now, like: “you’ve become a footnote / longer than the book.” And so I must now go play with the text some more ... and do it with more devotion than in my first effort that ended with my giving up on it. Baz has given me not just his poems but also possibly one of mine.

Poetry as gift. Art as gift. But it’s not a gift from the artist to the audience. It also was a gift first given to the artist. So that, Baz also says in WS about making Art:

“Give, even if it is the last thing you will ever give. Give, and don’t ever remind yourself that you have given.”

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