Artists add vigor to poets’ verses

Peter Grippe’s images accompany the Dylan Thomas poem “The Hand That Signed the Paper Felled a City.’’ Peter Grippe’s images accompany the Dylan Thomas poem “The Hand That Signed the Paper Felled a City.’’ (The Nancy Gray Sherrill, Class of 1954, Collection)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 28, 2009

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WELLESLEY - Poems can be so ephemeral: Songs, spoken into the air, heard and vanished. They usually occupy a page, perhaps two. They are not weighty objects. That’s part of their power: A good poem might be spare, but its grip on a reader’s imagination can be fierce.

Two exhibitions now up feature works that strive to embody poems in art objects. At the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, “21 Etchings and Poems’’ spotlights a project spearheaded by printmaker Peter Grippe in 1951 and published in 1960, which challenged poets and artists to create prints inspired by and including poems. “Somewhere Far From Habit: The Poet & The Artist’s Book’’ at Pierre Menard Gallery showcases works by artists who were prompted by a poem to make book art.

Grippe was director of the renowned Atelier 17 print workshop in New York. His project drew on art as diverse as the juicy Expressionism of Willem de Kooning (who writes the title of Harold Rosenberg’s poem “Revenge’’ as if scrawling it with his finger in a pool of blood) and the more tailored, pared down abstractions of Ben Nicholson (who neatly builds an elegant visual scaffolding over Herbert Read’s haiku-like “Tenement’’). Poets include Dylan Thomas and William Carlos Williams.

The challenge was in integrating the text. It had to be readable and harmonize with the rest of the composition; to typeset the text would have stopped dead artists who were intoxicated with the possibilities of gesture and the artist’s hand.

They chose to print each poem in the poet’s handwriting. That’s not as easy as it sounds. Most of the poets had to write their verses backward from mirror images. Still, it’s the script that drives “21 Etchings and Poems.’’ Dylan Thomas’s “The Hand That Signed the Paper Felled a City,’’ a screed against unbalanced political power, is written in a squat, curling hand. Peter Grippe’s images spring from that gestural language. At the bottom, a giant, meaty hand prods and holds packs of small, inert bodies; a mushroom cloud rises along one margin.

It hangs beside Ezio Martinelli’s version of Horace Gregory’s “The Blue Waterfall (Hokusai 1760-1849).’’ Martinelli works delicately with Gregory’s attenuated script, conjuring an abstracted vertical landscape around it. The poem celebrates the great Japanese printmaker, but Martinelli doesn’t attempt to echo Hokusai; he’s more involved in the lines of Gregory’s letters than in illustrating his poem, although he makes the poem itself a kind of waterfall.

Some artists thought more illustratively. Richard Wilbur’s poem “Mind’’ begins “Mind in its purest play is like some bat/ That beats about in caverns all alone/Contriving by a senseless wit/Not to conclude against a wall of stone.’’ Printmaker Salvatore Grippi has framed the text in the mouth of a cave that resembles a skull, its brow shadowed by the shape of a bat’s wings.

Curator Elaine Mehalakes makes audio clips of each poem available on iPods in the gallery and online. In the quiet of visual contemplation, it’s startling to be reminded of the aural quality of poetry. As much incantation as poem, George Reavey’s “Omega,’’ which Irene Rice Pereira has surrounded with a whirling, dark circle and shadowy figures, is particularly sonorous: “Out of the rocked womb/ Outsprung and so old/ Om-phatic and oral . . .’’ I’m not sure a printmaker could ever capture those sounds.

“Somewhere Far From Habit: The Poet & The Artist’s Book,’’ co-curated by Mary Carroll-Hackett, Catherine Parnell, and Kerri Cushman and sponsored by Longwood University in Virginia, doesn’t need to rely on handwritten text. Books are poems’ natural milieu, and artist’s books inhabit the realm of metaphor with such ease, it’s as if both book and text might at any moment spring off some wizard’s shelf and come to life, they’re so charged by imagination.

Sometimes they do. An image from Lucie Brock-Broido’s poem about capital punishment, “Bodhisattva,’’ inspired Richard Minsky, founder of the Center for Book Arts in New York, to create a sculpture of an electric chair outfitted with an MP3 player, inviting the viewer to sit down and experience the poem as both its reader and its subject. A book rests on the seat of the chair.

Karen Kunc puts two Robert Pinsky poems in her book “Ephemera.’’ Pinsky’s language has a muscular materiality. “Rhyme,’’ which considers a Joseph Cornell box, begins: “Air an instrument of the tongue/ The tongue an instrument/ Of the body, the body/ An instrument of spirit/ The spirit a being of the air.’’ Kunc relishes her material, too; the book unfolds in a series of watery woodcut prints, with text floating through rhythmic networks and layers of bubbles.

Nearby, artist Audrey Niffenegger (better known as the author of “The Time Traveler’s Wife’’) captures Jason Shinder’s “Short Time,’’ a haunting evocation of glimpsing a girl who had “the face of the daughter I thought/ I would have.’’ Niffenegger uses a Polaroid transfer in a book that opens to a mirror. The image of a girl looks down at her reflection through the poetry’s text; she seems there, but not there, elusive not only in her downward gaze, but in the dissolution we see in her reflection.

Artists and poets succeed best when they give form to the ineffable. In both these shows, the art offers new avenues into the poetry, illuminating the verse but never weighing it down.

21 ETCHINGS AND POEMS At: Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, through Dec. 13. 781-283-2051, www.davis

SOMEWHERE FAR FROM HABIT: The Poet & The Artist’s Book At: Pierre Menard Gallery, 10 Arrow St., Cambridge, through Dec. 5. 617-868-2033, www.pierremenard

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