When you start “Self-Portrait, 1864 Self-Portrait, 1896 Self-Portrait”, Ken Babstock’s first poem Swivel bracket, you might assume that you are heading to the kingdom of ekphrasis, a poet writing about a work of art – think Auden’s “Museum of Fine Arts”, Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” or the passage describing Achilles’ shield in the Iliad. But Babstock is too smart, and frankly too weird, a poet to begin a meditation on Cézanne just by looking at a picture. Instead, he follows a Twitter account of Cézanne (“the bot publishes canvases, in no discernible order”) and lists, in an almost epic catalog, the character traits he shares with the painter, based on the astrological implications of their common anniversary:
stubborn, practical, not given to extravagance, self-reliant, detached, unfussed by material goods, prone to morbidity, patient to the point of inertia, unmothered, emotionally avoidant, driven to infer meaning from context, overly fond of sardine and whites from the sandy Languedoc…
Viewing art via Twitter creates weird bedfellows: Babstock has a screenshot juxtaposing Cezanne’s “Rocks at Fountainebleau” (1898) with an Italian football scene and an excerpt from Susan Sontag’s diary: physical relations with a man.
If Sontag was put off by the male sex, observes Babstock, Cézanne was a total failure to render the body in general:
Why did you ever go near the human form, Paul? I mean, your bathers are atrocious, atrocious in your eyes even as you painted their buttocks and lumpy torsos as turnipy, waxen, over-leavened pains de campagne…
Perhaps Cezanne painted human beings, even incompetently, because the “mass and relation” of landscape and still life was not enough, because (as Babstock writes in the opening poem ) he “wanted to be freed from the mountain chronicle / cover-up” and was “alone with the stone and the branch.” Thank goodness for Twitter, where Babstock, the painter’s Capricorn companion, can find a “supportive community”, “so many topics / you might not have known / in the south”.
This last statement is bitterly ironic: the Internet’s “topic slices” are a poor substitute for real human connection. “Self-portrait, 1864 Self-portrait, 1896 Self-portrait”, it is clear, is a “self-portrait” of the poet refracted through his meeting with the painter, a nervous and rambling meditation on how the artist – or the poet – obsession analyzing, disassembling and reconfiguring the perceived world can ultimately leave that same world in fragments: “the mountain never comes back whole from being worshiped in pieces”.
A number of poems by Swivel bracket interact with works: several other Cézannes, the Paul Klee of «Die Zwitscher-Maschine“(The poem referencing the 1922 work of art of the same name), and the very strange poem” Dream of the Cerne Abbas Giant “, in which the ithyphallic English character of the Chalk Hill bemoans his plight (” I’m a stick thing ”). Babstock is nothing if not an observer, looking at poet: “I am present to you”, he writes in “Single Cell” (and with the voice of a Greek god temporarily tied to the earth), “by thunder / and by cameras on swivel brackets”.
The “swivel mount” itself is striking. A quick Google search reveals that swivel mounts these days more often than not serve one of two purposes: camera mounts (as in the Babstock line) and mounts for flat screen TVs. The swivel mount therefore signifies a sensitivity that is both active and passive, turning and scanning the world around it, and feeding on the images and ideas of a mediatized culture. Babstock’s poems are both a high-level camera and, as he suggests in “Velodome, We’re Not Out Yet”, a media viewer:
My happiness has always needed a screen onto which its forms can be cast as ghosts.
The visual arts are only part of what falls under the gaze of the poet. “Category Mistake” is a sonnet for Anna Politkovskaya (1958-2006), the journalist murdered (presumably) for her coverage of Russian brutalities in Chechnya: “She is dead / knowing the risks – or not, and has just died. / When the horse rears up, I eat sky meatballs. / When the state horse rears, I eat. “Another American Massacre” is a frightening bureaucratic tiptoe around one of our most recent national mass shootings – what a massacre, Babstock does not specify.
Swivel bracket is not a collection that revolves around a single set of themes, but rather a set of lyrical meditations, inviting us to accompany the poet as he works through ideas and impressions in surprisingly eloquent language and varied. Babstock presents a great character, intelligent and full of a sort of thwarted passion for the world. One of the most characteristic affects of poems is a kind of admiring and slightly frightening bewilderment – a feeling that the whole truth of reality is irresistibly just beyond our comprehension. The world is an infinitely fascinating and frightening place, full of joys, horrors and surprises. Babstock’s language, which pivots around surreal metaphors and wacky juxtapositions, captures this fear and fascination, and does so in artfully crafted explorations of how our language attempts – and sometimes fails – to accommodate reality.
Take, for example, the end of “Tasked with Designing the Vienna House”. (The title refers to the conception of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, with Paul Engelmann, of the severely modernist Kundmanngasse townhouse, by his sister Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein.)
In Rotterdam I sat in a very narrow folding seat while Tranströmer played ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand’ which Ravel had written for Wittgenstein’s brother who’d lost his right hand in the war. A vessel burst in my right eye. A vessel leaves port bound for my right eye. Imagine the right feelings.
We start with a moment of personal memory: Babstock watching Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer, left side paralyzed by stroke, play the piano. “Left” evokes “right”, which passes from the designation of the “hand” (that of Paul Wittgenstein and Tranströmer) to the poet’s own eye, then becomes a marker of decorum or rectitude – “the good feelings”. “Vessel” passes from a blood vessel to a vessel. The playing of Ravel’s concerto has become the game of a particularly slippery “language game”, to use one of the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein.
“Selected inventory” plays the game of the language of definition, solemnly scrolling through a long procession of articles, taking inventory of the world of human life:
A clock, an instrument of measurement, measures intervals. Your face an instrument that measures change. Change measures depletion in the self, floaters in the visual field…
Measurement here is the key, space and time fragmented according to perception: “Time is slower at the top of a six-foot ladder.” Between / the rungs are intervals. Measured / by the change in your facial muscle. Measure and its cousin comparison are both odious and inevitable human responses to the world, and the poem inscribes this tension in the growing strangeness of its inventory:
Translucent nymphs measure the quotient of evil in a city through choral singing and the rudimentary use of tools. A shark is a tool for testing the veracity of claims for pathenogenesis. Great Whites have been observed off the Cape attempting to eat the sun. Hammerheads, their own faces. Greenland sharks are an analogue for unspoken snags in your emotional geometry left for years to drift silently under layers of surface ice. The pressure is incredible. The sun, also, is incredible.
The poem ends much like that of Wittgenstein Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), whose last lapidary sentence places ethics and aesthetics outside the field of logical argumentation: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen” (We can’t talk about, we have to be silent):
There are words worth sharing, after which we should not say more. A candle in the window is a door.
Babstock’s lines, softer than those of the philosopher, tend towards the reciprocity of language; there are, after all, “words to share”, and beyond them, the possibility of sheltering from the storm of phenomena that are ultimately impenetrable, of sheltering in each other’s homes: ” A candle / in the window is a door. As twisted, anxious, disoriented and at times bewildered as they may seem, Babstock’s poems are a row of such candle-lit windows, inviting us to step in and share the poet’s engaging and compelling sensibility.
Swivel bracket by Ken Babstock (2020) is published by Coach House Books and is available online and in bookstores.