Author: Harriet Levin
CavanKerry Press, 2018
Ekphrasis Hybrid: Portrait of the Mermaid in a Mirror for Harriet Levin’s My Oceanography
Review by L. Shapley Bassen
What do you know about Modernism? The Process Art Movement? How do you feel about Modern Art? You don’t have to answer to see that My Oceanography is a collection of excellent poems, but it helps to know something, just as it does to wear those headphones in a museum or visit a gallery with cognoscenti. Harriet Levin has written the poems about, and in the voice of, major twentieth century artist/sculptor Eva Hesse. If you know Hesse’s biography and work, you’ll be hard pressed to detect artist from poet. If both are new to you, the twin experience will be a journey to depths.
Some of the poems share their titles with Hesse’s artworks. They mirror this mid-twentieth century artist’s passionate rebellions in her art and her marriage. As a child, Hesse survived cataclysm and catastrophe but soon found recognition and success before her tragic death in 1970 at 34. She had gone from Cooper Union to Yale School of Art and Architecture where she became Josef Albers’s favorite student. In 1961, she had her first show and met a sculptor she quickly married. Bradley Cooper’s latest incarnation of A STAR IS BORN may cause you to mentally cast Lady Gaga as Eva Hesse; she married a successful artist whom she eclipsed. Also, as topical as #MeToo outrage, many of Levin’s most incendiary poems describe Hesse’s 60’s marriage and breakup. By 1963, Eva Hesse had her first one-woman show. In Berlin, she saw the marble “Laocoon,” whose title she took for her first large sculpture.
That which springs
back, how grass was invented,
strands and strands
so that things could start moving on their own
without being detected,
free even as a gaze.
like a caterpillar feasting on leaves.
I wanted to be a boy
who sat turned in the direction of his mother,
felt his way into sleep,
played with her hair.
I fidgeted, couldn’t map
the noises that pulled me.
I twisted a strand, coiled it
around my finger, like rope tied
to mooring, and tugged on it,
forcing it to break.
For Eva Hesse, the union of art/life was even more existential than aesthetic. Sometimes quoting from Hesse’s Diaries, always channeling the artist, Levin succeeds in honoring this fusion. Hesse’s life/work here become twenty-first century objects for poet Levin, joining a tradition that includes Keats’s urn and William Carlos Williams’ wheelbarrow that so much [still] depends upon. Ekphrasis resonates in this new collection, often obliquely enough to prompt a nagging question: where is the poet?
Though the poem My Oceanography was not a title for any of Hesse’s art, it epitomizes her manifesto:
My second impulse is to keep it [“a strand of algae”] as a totem
of subterranean life, a scrap chiseled
from things that are meant to sink. Deep is form,
like a snail that burrows into silt, shell
growing out of sludgy cravings.
The recurring images of Hesse’s life/art in “Smoke” are arresting:
If I could use smoke as a medium,
I’d have no trouble creating great art.
I tilt my head back and imagine
a cigarette pressed against my lover’s lips.
Three more left in the pack.
This is the last of him.
Smoke fills my mouth,
passes down my throat and into
my lungs where it infiltrates
every cell in my bloodstream.
I smoke past the redline on the tip,
his body’s imprint –
jawline, nape, neck –
tuck the stub into my jean’s pocket
for his scent to seep through,
linger, live in my pocket as a remnant,
as I throw open the car door,
step forward and out of him.
PBS recently devoted an episode of American Masters to Eva Hesse. Among cognoscenti, she is to twentieth century art what Louise Glück is to contemporaneous poetry. With an artist as young as Hesse was, the adolescent impulse is strong [and intentionally irritating], but the epochal breaks of the nineteenth-twentieth centuries necessitated evolution. Modern art retested basics, experimented with materials/process, all the while in various ways mirroring/expressing fragmentation, anxiety, of loss, change, despair, hope. Wrestling with received forms is always a Jacob/Angel bout that results in limping with a new name. But it also calls to mind what Picasso said when he first emerged from the Lascaux caves, “We have invented nothing.”
In the modern era, the [Romantic] emphasis on individuality/novelty ironically resulted in ‘schools’ of similarity. Much modern art looks like repetitive culs de sac. “Confessionalism” crowded twentieth century poetry. What is Levin’s connection to Hesse? The poet writes about and in the voice of Hesse, and while the poems are confessional in form/content, they are not Levin’s confessions per se. They make you wonder where she is or isn’t in the words. They are familiar modern lyrics, without meter, with emphasis on ellipsis and oblique comprehension. Modern poets often chose consciously or not to assert/write poetry like mathematics, as a foreign language that only initiates/adepts can speak, possibly to make readers learn to think in poetry as a unique point of view reality. “So much depends upon/a red wheelbarrow…rain” could be modern poetry’s E = mc2.
Harriet Levin’s My Oceanography is a voyage to surprising depths. You are called upon to think about  the artwork that shares the titles of many poems;  the biography of the artist, especially the crisis in her marriage;  the language/knowledge in each poem;  the motives/presence/absence of the poet;  your own reactions to the vivid metaphors and events of each poem … maybe more, but that’s more than enough. Most of all, the hybrid tension of Romantic self-absorption [by the artist] and Classical self-effacement [by the poet] compels reflection. It’s a mirror of the artist, of the poet, and you.
L. Shapley Bassen’s first poetry collection What Suits a Nudist? is forthcoming in 2019 from Clare Songbirds Publishing. Her short story, “Portrait of a Giant Squid,” was the first place winner in the 2015 Austin Chronicle Short Story Contest. Former fiction editor for Prick of the Spindle, Bassen works for Craft Literary. She is the author of Summer of the Long Knives (Typhoon Media), Lives of Crime & Other Stories(Texture Press), and Showfolk & Stories (Inkception Books). Bassen won the 2009 APP Drama Prize, was a finalist for the 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award, received a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship, and is a first reader for Electric Literature and poetry/fiction reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, and other journals. Check her out on her website and see the coda chapter of her new novel New Marwa here.