By Gabrielle Brant Freeman
A few days ago, I was reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word, and I came across his explanation of Richard Diebenkorn’s use of color in his paintings from the 1950’s. Doty explains that Diebenkorn’s abstract representations “look so alive” because of their “Sheer push and pull of shape and line, the restless energy inherent in these masses and their dynamic relations” (67). Given that I am always interested in studying artists I don’t know, and given that Google affords me a reasonable out for not working on what I’m supposed to be doing…namely grading papers…I looked Diebenkorn up and hit “images.” Whoa. Swathes of color, line, swirly thingies. Yes, I said “thingies.”
Since I was strangely attracted to these paintings of…something, I decided to read what others said. Google is magic, you know. And I came across the following line in the blog design journal by blogger Brittany Stiles, “I don’t like things too pretty or too perfect or too planned […]; if something is a little ‘ugly’ or awkward, I tend to like it more, and I find it a lot more interesting.” My immediate thought was Yes! Never have truer words been spoken.
It is with the idea of imperfection or “a little ugly” in mind that I bring Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon: A Vision to my post today. I read this book at the suggestion of writer RT Smith, and let me tell you, I wasn’t too excited about it. Why? I don’t know. Yep. That’s it. Gut instinct. Could not have been more wrong. I fell in love with this book immediately, and I believe it is precisely because its language is a little ugly; it shows perhaps a bit more than we’d like of humanity, and therein lies its truth.
In section II, “The Dream He Never Knew the End Of,” RPW writes:
The face, in the air, hangs. Large,
Raw-hewn, strong-beaked, the haired mole
Near the nose, to the left, and the left side by firelight
Glazed red, the right in shadow, and under the tumble and tangle
Of dark hair on that head, and under coarse eyebrows,
The eyes, dark, glint as from the unspecifiable
Darkness of a cave. It is a woman. (7)
This is not a parody of an ugly woman. This is an actual woman, a woman living on the frontier with her sons, a woman willing and able to slit a man’s throat to ensure her survival and livelihood. It ain’t pretty, but it resonates.
The same woman is described later in the same section in a barely veiled segment comparing the pure rawness of survival mode to sex to the idea of murder for personal gain:
Against firelight, he sees the face of the woman
Lean over, and the lips purse sweet as to bestow a kiss, but
This is not true, and the great glob of spit
Hangs there, glittering, before she lets it fall.
The spit is what softens like silk the passage of steel
On the fine-grained stone. It whispers.
When she rises, she will hold it in her hand. (10)
This woman is sharpening her blade on a whetstone using her spit. She is fully prepared to kill her paying lodgers in order to further herself and her sons in the American wild. It is at once practical, sensual, brutal, and honest. RPW’s description is beautiful and grotesque, and this is exactly what makes the characters in this narrative poem real; it is exactly what makes them interesting.
In a world of airbrushing, photoshopping, and otherwise making people “perfect,” it is precisely the imperfect, even the monstrous real in this collection that makes me read it again and again. In these “ugly” details lies truth, and that is what compels us to create.
Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2010.
Stiles, Brittany. “Art History Thursday – Modernism in America.” design journal. 28 Oct. 2010.
13 Sept. 2012. Web.
Warren, Robert Penn. Audubon: A Vision. New York: Random House, 1969.