Monday, February 18, 2008
I only just got my copy of Hillary Gravendyk's new chapbook The Naturalist, from Achiote Press. Every time I turn around, it seems like Hillary's gotten some large thing accomplished, like winning a prize or getting a fellowship or completing a manuscript or, say, publishing a chapbook.
The Naturalist, like the nineteenth century naturalism that I've been obsessively pondering of late, contemplates the relations of bodies to environments, and the relation of perception to those bodies. Several poems titled "Diorama," a "Shadow Box," and an "Arboretum" consider environments as framed things, environments estranged by miniaturization, as if placed in a museum exhibit by a naturalist.
But if the voices of The Naturalist belong to a distant curator, it is a curator who lives and is embodied inside the exhibit; the exhibit is the world, and the world itself is framed. "At some points, it's quite pretty," Hillary writes in the first "Diorama," posing the aestheticization of nature as both an inescapable affect of observation and a hopelessly meager substitute for a wider angle of perception.
It's not that Hillary wants to do away with the limits of perception, the framing of the diorama -- it's that she wants to investigate the frustration, and the embodiment, that it entails. Living in a small world, a "safely kept scene strangely bound" produces distortion, and that distortion has a poetics and a place.
inside, things are sizably arranged, each
to a season. They may appear quietly and more
elaborate than they are, but sheltered against
the elements, how could they appear otherwise?
"Here" is distant; "we" are a naturalist; "we" are placed by our bodies inside dioramas, making miniatures of our environments with the only perceptual apparatuses we have, and thus making presence far and embodiment strange. "Both are a strange border: our own/ hands and our own faces."
Benjamin Burrill's photographs of inert bodies -- mannequins, severed bird-wings -- play a counterpoint to Hillary's poems. The poems, so cautious of boundaries, nestle these photographed objects inside the bounds of the photographer's composition.
In the centerfold photograph (which can be found at graybirdimages.com), mannequins strangely hung, and with no pretense of lifelike positioning, are lit from behind and from overhead, appearing as little more than shadows. The top third of the photograph is entirely black except for the overhead light fixture, which is so feeble in comparison to the backlighting that it appears simply as a lit object in itself, a relieving something in the blackness, rather than a source of light. The overhead lamp, in fact, is the only lit object in the photograph, apparently shedding light only on itself.
The two strata of the photograph therefore appear as inverse or negative modes; whereas the mannequins below are negatively outlined against the lit windows, the overhead lamp above them is the more traditional lit object against a dark background. It is therefore impossible to say which is more centrally the subject of the photograph: the mannequins, appearing in negative, details effaced by shadow, or the overhead lamp, positively visible in contour and in detail, that is purportedly there only to light the mannequins below.
Bodies and potential scenarios are bounded by grid lines -- the window panes, the two strata imposed by the photograph's composition -- and interpenetration and motion seem foreclosed -- even though in the very center of the photograph, just below the overhead lamp, a pair of mannequin feet (usefully tilted downward to accommodate the high heeled shoes that are the fashion among mannequins) hangs downward from the ceiling, revealing that at least part of a mannequin must be somewhere up there in the blackness. Positioned by light, positioned by position, the viewer can only regard those dangling feet (or are they resting on that beam of blackness formed by the windowpane?) inside the limited frame in which they appear. "But," as Hillary writes, "who names one frame merely eye-straight, one frame true?"