Still Life: A Review of Nick Twemlow’s Attributed to the Harrow Painter

by Nathan Mader

Nathan Mader lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. Recent poems have appeared in Vallum, PRISM International, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and The Puritan, and he has been a finalist for the Walrus poetry prize.

Attributed to the Harrow Painter
Nick Twemlow
University of Iowa Press, 2017.
$18.00, 91 pages.

 

The glass chose to reflect only what he saw
Which was enough for his purpose

— John Ashbery, “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror”

 

Nick Twemlow was born in New Zealand, raised in Topeka, Kansas, and currently teaches at Coe College in Iowa City, Iowa, where he now lives. A noted experimental filmmaker and the coeditor of Canarium Books, his first collection of poems was the critically acclaimed Palm Trees (Green Lantern Press, 2012). His second collection of poems, Attributed to the Harrow Painter, pushes further beyond the bio on the cover copy and brings in enough personal experiences and psychology that, if forced to make distinctions, we might now position him in that strain of poetry that is problematically called “confessional.” I say problematically because for some the word is shorthand for unartful emotional directness, a connotation that fails to take into consideration the real work involved. As with Sharon Olds, Morgan Parker, or Ariana Reines, the “Twemlow” of these poems is constructed and dramatized by expert craft, regardless of how skillfully the mechanisms behind the work are subdued as the speaker viscerally connects with the reader. No wonder the great technician Robert Lowell—to whose Life Studies the term “confessional” was first applied by critics—never liked the label.

Yet what makes Twemlow’s poems so compelling is that they often openly acknowledge this tension between the intimacy of the voice and the artifice through which it is articulated. In the collection’s title poem, he wonders:,

I don’t know
If it matters
What a poet
Was like in
Real life. Some say
You just read the poems
Sans biography.
Others are obsessed
With ethics.
Do you try to glean
A life from a
Collection of poems?

Far from falling into a cold meta-poetics, Twemlow’s speaker inhabits this space to raise real questions about the ways life affects art and, perhaps more interestingly, the way art mediates a life equally inflected by the other forces that shape personal history—particularly the mould cast by parents and the shattering effects of trauma. These themes are at the centre of Attributed to the Harrow Painter.

Palm Trees is mostly comprised of lyrically charged prose poems, including the sequence from which the book gets its title. As reviewer Dennis Jarrot points out, other poems like the darkly comic “I Love Karate” and the exuberant lines of “Topeka, Topeka” showcase the “driving anaphora” characteristic of the collection. The form Twemlow uses throughout Attributed to the Harrow Painter, however, is short lines of free verse—ten syllables is the rare maximum—with the first letter of each line capitalized. The result is a speed of expression under the auspices of control: the weight that the capital letters give to each line in concert with their brevity imbues them with a split second of added resonance, slowing down the eye just enough for the mind to register the line as a distinct unit:

History was just a shell game,
Its hands appear to move
Too fast only if you take
Your eye off long enough.
How
My father’s mother,
A Maori named Marion,
Was collected thus,
As many before & after her,
From her whanau
By well-meaning white
Reps of the Queen’s
Colonialist Enterprise.

These lines are from “Burnett’s Mound,” the long poem that bridges the collection and, in my view, vies with the titular poem to be its governing one. The quick accumulation of distinct lines results in a layering effect that speaks to the poem’s—and the collection’s—concern with historical convergence and accretion, while the fluidity of the free verse creates a personable tone.

Stories of alien abduction, ‘Cutting class to smoke / Some Lamb’s Wool,’ and ‘Shirley / Fucking MacLaine!’ materialize at the mound.

Memories and myths and self-medicating trips swirl through the poem. Stories of alien abduction, “Cutting class to smoke / Some Lamb’s Wool,” and “Shirley / Fucking MacLaine!” materialize at the mound. Twemlow consistently balances deadpan and often surreal humor with tragedy.

In another poem, the speaker recounts a friend from his drug-fuelled younger years:

He reached for his cell
To dial 911 &
Realized this was 1991
& all he grabbed
Was air.

But despite the sense of temporal disorder as “Twemlow fades away” at the close of “Burnett’s Mound,” the poem, like the mound, remains as a site of confluence that marks an attempt to resist what time inevitably erases.

The desire in us to resist our own erosion through art might also figure into the human drive to have children. Taking up the theme of what children inherit once they’re here, “Looking at Schnabel’s The Death of Fashion with my son” ponders the speaker’s child’s confrontation with the “otherness” of art, while questioning the cultural and monetary value we invest in it. Julian Schnabel—perhaps best known today for directing the film The Diving Bell and the Butterfly—rose to fame as a painter in the New York art world in the 1980s. Along with another painter name-checked in this poem, David Salle, Schnabel quickly made a fortune. In an imagined encountered with Salle, the speaker lets him know he doesn’t quite trust these artists’ coziness with capitalism:

[…] don’t
Sweat the small
Devils detailing
Your
Lamborghini Countach.

While many buyers viewed the works of these artists as masterpieces, some notable critics of the day concurred with the speaker’s young son, who describes Schnabel’s painting as looking like “garbage.” If this was all there were to the poem, it would be fun, if slightly obvious, in intent. But Schnabel’s medium—which, as the speaker observes, often involved broken ceramics and layers of “crap paint / Clumsily / Slapped across it”—was literally garbage. Twemlow’s work thrives on such interpretive paradoxes that push the reader to see beyond the frame and into the state of unknowing, where any good poem takes us. Ultimately, the speaker asks, “are we able / To meet these / Monuments as is?” The very existence of the poem, along with the subjective associations and memories conjured by the painting, assert the impossibility of such objectivity. Only children like the speaker’s son are unburdened by this level of “poetic” self-awareness and can sometimes see things for what they are.

Twemlow’s work thrives on such interpretive paradoxes that push the reader to see beyond the frame and into the state of unknowing where any good poem takes us.

Of course, even for children, this unmediated view of the world is short-lived. Parents often create for us a world built in their image, and a lot of the work of adulthood is the struggle to make one for ourselves. In many poems, the speaker navigates the conflicted psychic terrain of being a son, a father, and a husband. The three-page poem “Mothland,” a portmanteau of “mother” and “land,” is the exception from the rest of the book in terms of form, offering a hybrid between a prose-poem and more traditional lineation by maintaining the capitalization of lines but removing the breaks. This form speeds up the language and creates a strange filmic effect suggestive of the speaker’s assertion that “I don’t do time-lapse So well.” In the poem’s blurring of time and place, we are informed that the “Name” of the speaker’s mother is “Robyn same As my wife,” and after deflecting the potential Oedipal aspects of this situation—“Why depict spiders skittering All over our dreams”—the speaker returns to the idea of how memory, like art, is unavoidably mothered by received ideas. This realization leads him to abandon his insistence on being original: “Every memory I have Or choose to have Of my mother saturated In the blues of a Dusky sky I should Cry I should inhabit The clichés entrusted to me To exhibit.”

The speaker’s relationship with his father is equally fraught with psychological baggage, but is much more confrontational. Attributed to the Harrow Painter contains a sequence of ten 45-line poems, each with the title “Responding to my father’s question.” At least one of the questions to which the speaker responds has to do with a break from the cultural identity he inherited from his father:

You want to know
Why you can’t stab a
Christmas tree into
The corner of my living
Room every Christmas
Holiday on repeat?
You have a Jewish
Grandson. It’s that simple.

On the one hand, this passage is an understandably “simple” assertion of his desire for his father to respect his independence and the beliefs of his wife and child. On the other hand, there is a very complicated and therefore ironic situation on display; the Freudian phallic violence of “stabb[ing]” a Christian symbol into his home implies the degree to which the speaker has felt the destructive force of his father’s—his creator’s—overbearing presence. Indeed, Telemachus, the archetypal son in search of his larger-than-life father Odysseus, appears in a symbolic role in more than one of these poems, but the presence of the character is especially resonant here:

I’m a relatively bad example
Of Telemachus unhinging in
The corner office of your
Inclination. Get me the fuck-
Ing music hates me. Ablate
The beat goes on with or
Without you

Taking the form of a shadow to Telemachus, the speaker realizes that the quest to reconnect with his father isn’t worth it. Still, he has inherited from his father an “inclination” to become angry and assert his opposition—a connection that no amount of time or distance can remove. Genuine originality is impossible.

The Harrow Painter is the name scholars use for the minor artist behind several serviceable (though not exceptional) Ancient Greek oinochoe, which are wine jugs decorated with figures. While the idea of the anonymous artist resonates with the collection’s overarching concern with the creation and function of art, the notion of attribution takes on an even darker valence in the final, titular poem. Turning his attention from his father to a father-figure, the speaker’s childhood tennis coach—who claims he is really an “artist”—opens the speaker’s eyes both to art and trauma after convincing the speaker to pose for his paintings:

He loved Greek vase work.
Largely, he said while
Inching his thumb
Just under the lip
Of my underwear,
Because pottery
Is pretty much all we know
Of Greek painting.
It’s all that survived.

These are very real and yet seemingly contradictory feelings and experiences. The medium of poetry, which thrives on paradox and therefore allows for nuance in a way that the discourse of the world today often doesn’t, might be best equipped to articulate such complexities. The speaker, himself now a survivor, struggles with the discordant fact that this man who broadened his knowledge of art and had a foundational impact on him in that respect—“Whatever / I know I owe him”—also sexually abused him and led him to the heavy drug use of his teenage years:

You could find me
Most days happy,
Slouched next to
A strobe light
Mainlining its perilous
Flashing queries into
My face. My face
Eating light like time
Does a frayed life

Although seemingly “happy” at the time, the speaker now sees how his life is “frayed” by both the memory of the abuse and the way it mediates every aspect of his life, including his experience of art: “I can’t look / At anything in a museum / Without thinking of him.” However, the guilt that he feels for not resisting the role of muse and model for this much older “artist” haunts him the most: “I don’t know why I stood / For him so many times.” While, at the end of the poem, the speaker is able to separate himself from the dominating influence his former-coach had over his understanding of culture—“He asked me / To read Civilization / and I declined”—the poem does not neatly resolve the tensions it evokes; but, then again, neither does life.

There is an excerpt from Michael Padgett’s article “The Harrow Painter, with a Note on the Gerras Painter” at the end of the collection. Of the Harrow Painter, Padgett says, “If … one looks beyond the quality of his line and his relatively low standing in the artistic pantheon, one discovers … many elements of interest and more than a few delightful pictures.” Although Twemlow is by all measures a “successful” poet, I can’t help but draw parallels between the Harrow Painter and Twemlow—or at least the “Twemlow” of these poems. Other than the rare exceptions, is there any type of artist with a lower standing in the pantheon than even the most lauded of poets? What are these “delightful pictures” in the face of the funnel cloud of history? The poems in Attributed to the Harrow Painter do not position themselves as monuments of the medium; instead, they subvert such ideas of art in favour of a voice that connects with the reader without sacrificing all the reasons we turn to poetry, including the charge of a distinctively crafted language that explores important themes. This is the strength of the so-called “confessional” mode in the hands of a poet equal to the task: in bringing us closer to the person of the poet, we are able to bring ourselves closer to the poetry—an act of true communication. Can we “glean / A life from a / Collection of poems?” These obsessive, wry, rending, yet intimately wrought poems hold out the possibility that we might.

 


Nathan Mader lives in Regina, Saskatchewan. Recent poems have appeared in Vallum, PRISM International, The Fiddlehead, Grain, and The Puritan, and he has been a finalist for the Walrus poetry prize.

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