Basil King focuses on the details that sparkle and create the most important events in an artist’s life. His new book, Disparate Beasts, is the history of a thousand pages condensed through poetry into one.
Although he began as a painter—and still is—Basil King can count among his friends, starting from when he was a kid, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and John Weiners. When he writes about a party at Willem and Elaine De Kooning’s, he was there. Although he never met Mary Cassatt, he reads, looks at her work and thinks so much about her that not only does he know her but we do too.
Disparate Beasts begins by mentioning the 2020 election, but that doesn’t mean that it will be irrelevant in 2021: one date is part of what connects us all together in abstract and concrete ways. I think of Gertrude Stein writing about Picasso. I like Gertrude, don’t get me wrong, but asil does it just as well, and I think he knows a lot more painters better. I feel so darn good after reading Basil King; he is a pleasure.
Here are three poems that Basil King doesn’t read on the Vimeo, but I’m going to add them here because they tell us a little bit about him too.
In 1875, Monet painted Women with Parasol–Madame Monet and Her Son. The wind is behind her skirt. A green parasol and green vegetation articulate the sky. The boy, her son, looks at his father. His mother looks down at her husband. Family Photos.
Photography can be the most judgmental of disciplines.
In 1879, Claude Monet paints his first wife Camille as she lay dying. Camille slips into an impression that is the vehicle that chronicles her impending death. White, blue, black and red Camille leaves her son, an unborn child, and her husband.
Monet walks across the Japanese Bridge. Stopping to look at Green Reflections.
Orange tells him, take your time, don’t rush, there is a high tide and a low tide,
a vortex for water and art. Don’t rush Water Lilies at Twilight. Red will shake your hand and tell you how glad it is to see you. Oh, black. Ochre mumbles, breaststroke, backstroke. Cleopatra dressed in Nile yellow has no need of a palette knife.
The Two Willows demand the night peel away Camille’s eyes, her swollen body that was unable to abort the child that was never born.
In 1901, Claude Monet paints Haystacks. In 1901, Nadir takes Claude Monet’s photograph. Monet is sixty-one. Nadir is eighty-one. Born Gaspar Felix Tournachon, he legally changed his name to Nadir in 1856. He began to take photographs with his brother in 1854. By 1856, he has quarreled with his brother and takes all the photographs by himself. He, like Monet and their counterpart in America, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903), are impressionists. They all create public spaces where there are no centers, no central themes. The park. Haystacks. Rouen Cathedral. Water lilies. They are all of a series and they are all different but made of the same stuff. Art of the late Industrial Revolution didn’t speak down to the public. It flooded them, internalized their moral codes, and educated generations of romantic professionals.
Camille is fading like an old photograph
she has become a memory. Water has inhaled her, and Monet paints.
The Bridge with Water Lilies (1919)
Monet painted The Bridge with Water Lilies as a room with no windows, no doors. Where does the light come from? Imagine a place where no light but shadows menace the unprotected? Where but in the dark do we watch movies? Where but in the dark does the unspeakable sit next to us? A mother carrying her unborn child in her womb has possession of the child’s ego. And the child who knows this reinvents itself.
Nadir, (1820-1910), was a friend of Daumier. Nadir was also a caricaturist. Later he took photographs. He loved the magic, the romance of an instantaneous fix and the removal of lines that revealed secrets. Invisible things came to light. Hidden expressions. Nadir’s sitters accepted him, the men and the women. Nadar, tall, redheaded Nadar, invented and reinvented himself.
“Portrait of Madame Cezanne”
Cezanne wanted his wife to sit like an apple and in this painting she is as close to being an apple as any figure can be. She sits looking forward holding her hands in her lap. She is blue, there is a lot of blue, blue paint and blue resignation. For Cezanne time tells him to wait. Cezanne the master meditates. The wife like the apple will have to sit another day.
The Possible Can Happen
I find apartments, lofts and a house where painting and the poem are one
Stands at the foot of the bed
In the trunks of cars
In dining cars
In department stores
In super markets
Sits in a chair next to
Walt Whitman’s portrait
The one Eakins painted
The one where he is sitting
The one where
H.D. the poet
Looks like Thomas Eakins
Painted her portrait
If Eakins painted H.D.
Would he paint H.D. standing
Would he paint H.D. sitting
Would he paint her beauty
Would he paint her anger
Would he paint Philadelphia
A daughter crosses her legs
Is a mother’s daughter
Is a father’s daughter
A daughter is
Sits in a big chair
Her grand daughter
Crosses her legs
And goes to the gym
When he goes to college
He will buy a house
He will not live in a dorm
“Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is continuing to try the same approach to solve a problem but expecting different results.”
Poussin taught Cezanne and Cezanne taught us to pace ourselves. The short story has no ending but where does the long poem begin?
She told Titian
Cranach and Rubens she would
Ride her bicycle uptown
Wash your face
Comb your hair
Tuck in your shirt
Tie your shoes
Put on a jacket
High tide walks the shore
I can’t count the times I have climbed the four flights of stairs up to this room where I write. But each time I do accompanied by a short story I pass the third floor. The short story has no ending. But the paintings and drawings that are on the third floor are part of a long poem. I began to paint when I was 13. For 37 years I painted went to movies read books and poetry before I began to write.
At age 50 the poem and the painting became one continuous scroll that like Asian and Semitic scrolls tell stories as they instruct my Torah is endless
Disparate Beasts is published by Marsh Hawk Press. You can check it out here:
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