'Georgia O'Keefe' by Campbell McGrath

This morning on the train to work I re-read some poetry and essays from the latest issue of Salmagundi. I wish I'd been a regular Salmagundi reader for longer. I once raided a big stack of books that Geoffrey Hartman was giving away and pulled out two issues of Salmagundi; I should have taken it as a hint that this is one of *_the_ *journals to be reading. But like most people, I need to be beaten over the head with a thing before I'll notice it. So this is me beating you over the head: go buy a copy of Salmagundi

Today I'm reading the prose poem 'Georgia O'Keefe' by Campbell McGrath. . This is the first prose poem I've looked at, so here goes:

Grey is the color of blindness, but also of sight: white rocks and black rocks, the moon and her daughter, equally grey. The door into the dark is the door into the light, neither can exist without its opposite, women and men, the living and the dead, we belong to their long marriage quarrel, everything grey in the cloud-forest of the mind. Grey of milk in a shadowed pitcher, grey of goslings, grey of rivets. Grey being the color of eternity I commend myself to its embrace, grey potato-skins slopped for mud-grey hogs, the dead piglet consumed by its kin, old snow in the coal-ash arroyo, almond and violet gravel, grey as affirmation, grey as union, the doe at twilight, the mesa by moonlight, cloud-drawn dawn like a brindled flank. Color of Third Avenue mornings flush with fresh linen, roman numerals in basalt, the Chrysler building an awl to pierce the sheep’s caul through which an airplane descends with bursts of illumination befitting the immodesty of 20th Century gods. Grey as the void of memory in which I imagine the feel of a brush in hand but can’t recall its purpose, can’t envision the cream of jimson weed, the slashed throat of a dahlia—what else did god intend us to paint beyond the flowers he saw fit to bequeath us, rocks and flowers, say. Bones as a last resort. Color of ghosts, color of clouds and Manhattan, of everything Steiglitz ever touched or photographed, my body unrecognizable as the city’s erotic stone-work—who is that woman with hips like the weathered horns of an antelope skull? Where has it run to, in this desert, the lavish water of her hair?

Text from the Salmagundi website

How do you begin to talk about a prose poem? There are no formal divisions you can use to say "Look at this part" and "Look at that part." Everything comes out in a rush, even if you read it slowly. If there is a movement it is in the type of images. We move from abstraction and nature imagery (common nouns) to specific people and places (proper nouns). It moves from definitions (grey is this; grey is that) to a question ("who is that woman?") the only answer to which can be: Georgia O'Keefe. And how beautiful is that last question: "Where has it run to, in this desert, the lavish water of her hair?" It might as well ask
I don't usually associate Georgia O'Keefe with the color grey. From experiences of her , I expect bold colors. Bold colors are a sort of loud renunciation of grey. A boldly colored painting says, "No! Not grey!" Doesn't this mean, though, that the artist is fixated on grey, just as the immaculate saint is fixated on sin? Now that I'm thinking about it, though, I can't help but concentrate on the grey spaces in her work. Look what you've done, McGrath!

There's a little passage in there that's a mash-up of two Gerard Manley Hopkins poems. "cloud-drawn dawn like a brindled flank" comes from

dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon

and

skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow.

I don't really know what McGrath is doing here with this play on Hopkins. I know it's fun to play with these things, as a poet, but what's he trying to say by playing with Hopkins in a poem about Georgia O'Keefe? I don't really know enough about Hopkins to comment, or O'Keefe for that matter, or whether there was some connection between his poetry and her painting, but it's a mystery I wouldn't mind getting to the bottom of.

"Pied Beauty" Tweet