Reviewer: Lynn Levin
Gail Peck’s new book, her eighth collection of poems, is The Braided Light, the winner of Main Street Rag’s 2014 Lena Shull Contest. This graceful collection comprises mostly ekphrastic poems, that is, poems that describe works of art, in this case paintings by the Impressionist Claude Monet and the post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh. Blending the painterly, the poetic, and the biographical, Peck responds with tenderness and poignancy to a number of paintings. Far more than mere descriptions of the canvases, these poems bring us vignettes of the artists’ lives, the speaker also frequently wending her way into personal meditations, some happy, some dark.
Most of the poems take as their starting point a specific canvas. Peck titles the poem after the painting and adds a headnote denoting the painter and date of the composition. The poet then, with her own paintbrush of words, may begin by describing the imagery in the painting, say irises, a willow tree, a Japanese bridge. She then slides into a dialogue with the painting. At times, the poet puts us en plein air, describing the landscape or garden as it is today. From the poems, one gathers that the writer has actually visited Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny. What a lovely trip that must have been! The sensory imagery is so true-to-life that I can almost smell van Gogh’s roses, breathe in Monet’s cool garden air.
I particularly responded to the way in which Peck brings us into the artists’ lives. In “Water Lilies” (a frequently referenced work), she imagines Monet staying out late painting while others wait for him to come in for supper. Amid the placid scene, I get the sense of the artist’s stubbornness:
Already the crickets singing of night
He’d separate each sweeping one
the bridge has turned black
flowers from the kitchen garden
It seems that Peck can tell from the artist’s palette, the pastels combined with the darker values, that Monet was painting in late light. She is able to add a brief poet’s interaction with the painter when she interjects, “Oh, do come in—.” The twenty-first century speaker gently chides Monet to quit for the day and take his meal. In “Water Lilies,” we see Monet as a wealthy and acclaimed artist, but Peck also shows him in his years of struggle and poverty. In the biographical poem, “Monet’s Early Years” (one of several not based on a painting), Peck tells us:
The prices of his paintings
Peck alternates poems about Monet with poems about van Gogh. The reader gets to know the brilliant and driven, although often ill-tempered Monet, who seems always to have been surrounded by family and famous friends. By contrast, we grieve at the loneliness and suffering of van Gogh. Peck conveys the painter’s emotional state by direct statement and by descriptions of his painting style and often morbid choice of subject matter. Here is a glimpse of Peck’s “Death’s-Head Moth”:
The moth has lit upon calla lilies
At intervals in this poem, Peck incorporates journal notes, evidently made by van Gogh himself, about other tormented souls at the monastery: “A man has arrived, who is so worked up he smashes everything and shouts day and night, he tears his shirts violently too….” Van Gogh also meditates upon his own state, telling us, “But I cannot live since I have this dizziness so often….” The poet’s research adds poignancy and historical dimensions to the poems. I appreciated learning about the painters’ lives as much as I enjoyed or was disturbed by the poems.
In “Wheat Field with Crows,” based on the well-known painting, Peck reveals how the imagery in the painting evokes van Gogh’s mental agony:
Earlier they’d locked him up
The poet’s descriptions are very true to the paintings. I looked up a number of the canvases online and saw the images that Peck faithfully reproduced in words. At the same time, Peck enhances our experience by weaving present-day thoughts into the visual description and historical narratives. This, I believe, is the best way—or one of the best ways—to write ekphrastic poetry: combining descriptions of the art with personal or other observations triggered by the image.
One of my favorite poems in the collection is a love poem, “The Valley of La Falaise, Calvados, France.” Here Peck describes a husband and wife’s visit to France as she imagines them in a place similar to one painted by Monet:
In Provence we stayed at a house
In town, I’d search for the best goat cheese
That is a life of love and beauty made all the more precious by a life in art. Gail Peck, thank you for your painter’s eye and your poet’s pen.