Patricia Spears Jones reviews STUDY by Yuko Otomo
- Book: STUDY & Other Poems on Art
- Author: Yuko Otomo
- Press: Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, NY 2013
- 288 pages
Strolling Through a Life in Art—Review of STUDY & Other Poems on Art
by Patricia Spears Jones
Yuko Otomo has been writing and performing poetry and texts for three decades printing many in limited edition chapbooks. Her poems offer a range of perceptions about art from her vantage as an artist, as a viewer, as a poet. Reading the poems in STUDY is to relive the art world and its contents and discontents through those three decades. As she remarks in an epistolary poem, “A Letter to Christine”: “How visual I am!” And yes, she is very visual.
As someone who has seen many of the same shows and/or artists she considers in these poems, I am intrigued by her approach. Her well-trained observant artist’s eye pairs with psychological observation—deepening our understanding of image and image making. As she notes in her introduction, “I noticed two things . . . One is the lack of poems of my “favorite” artists (e.g. Matisse; Goya; Pollock . ) & an abundance of poems on art I care less personally for.” Moreover, she sees how some work such as Louise Bourgeois invites her to enter both the poetic and critical world. As she looks at her output, she realizes that “I’ve learned one of the most vital truths: ‘liking’ & ‘disliking” have nothing to do with art.”
What her poems do is meditate on images or image-making to expand her artistic vision. “10 Poems for “The Americans” by Robert Frank” concretizes in language the stark, erotically charged photographs that Frank is known for. Otomo looks sideways at his images in these stanzas in “Parade—Hoboken, New Jersey”:
into different shapes
by the (window) frames.
Arms of a woman
Palms of a boy
An afternoon breeze waves
a flag of IDEALS, DREAMS & the VOID
But of course, this is Frank whose images of Americans are deeply engaged in his subject’s complications and the poem ends:
As cheers fill the streets,
a new sense of HUNGER
nails the interior darkness down.
Otomo is comfortable with exploring the abstractions : ideals, dreams, the voids in artists’ work. Also, she is fascinated by the fluidity of identity especially gender in the artists’ work: “a man is a man, a mother, a brother” is a line from “Joseph Cornell in his Garden (Hans Namuth 1969)” and in the Cornell Box Poems, she dynamically explores androgyny. It seems to this reader that the poems about the photographs of Cornell’s studio are more expressive than the ones on the actual Cornell boxes. It may be that focus on image making-what did the studio look like; what were the items he would use; how did the photographer orchestrate these images? Indeed, “Studio Details of Storage Racks (Hans Namuth 1973)” is a delicious list poem that ends: snow flakes, birds, nest, feathers which pretty captures the basis for a Cornell box!
While many of the poems are lyric or meditative, the most notable texts here are epistolary—letters to specific persons both living and dead. These pieces offer the reader a more intensive view of Otomo’s own artistic practice-how she thinks through her work and the work of others. “A Letter to Christine (for Christine Hughes)” is a piece de resistance. Back to the strolling—Otomo uses that well worn New York writer’s exercise, a walk around the city—and here the stroll sparks one side of what appears to be a very long and useful conversation between two artists. But more importantly, the letter considers Otomo’s own creative inspirations: that stroll; her love of music; the issue of location (where is one when one works) and her enthusiasm for her friend’s “botanical art” which leads her to a book on wildflowers. Much like Maureen Owen and others who use lists to illustrate a particular point—she finds the wildflowers that grow in the city: “Loosestrifes; Milkweeds; Purple Cornflowers; Asters; Blazing Stars; Vervains; Bell Flowers; Gentians; Dayflowers; Chicory; Golden Rods . . .” and in the next stanza she notes: “Nothing is so mesmerizing as the colors and forms of plants”. This letter allows the reader to enter into the intimacy of artistic conversation-the ways in which one artist recognizes and encourages the work of another and simultaneously, recognizes and advances her own. I don’t know the work of Christine Hughes, but after reading this piece, I really wanted to see what she does with her “botanical art”.
A more poignant piece is “Myself: Self Portrait (for Emma Bee Bernstein). This elegy for the beloved young artist who took her own life in a kind of last “self-portrait” responds to the extraordinary body of work Emma Bee Bernstein made and to the issues raised by Bee Bernstein’s artistic practice. Moreover, she interrogates that practice in light of her own well-considered self-examinations and how the younger artist made her consider the desire to see one self mirrored, reflected in control of one’s image. “I don’t particularly/ like to face my reflected self in a cornered room with harsh/ artificial light . . . but, for some reason,/ the situation always takes place in this kind of imagined space./Ah, how much I wish I wee a Narcissist, but I am not.” As she shies from the kinds of staged works the young artist made, she also notes: “I know that she knows me better than I know her”.
Throughout the piece she lists titles of Bee Bernstein works, which go from abstractions “Faith/fate” to nature “a Tree/Trees”. In the second and most complicated stanza of this text, she offers the artist’s view of boundaries—going from abstract to concrete and back again: “I once told my dear friend that I was not curious/ about what’s behind the wall, but about the wall itself & what I/was looking for was not who/what I was, but what I was made/ of.” Bee Bernstein’s important conversations with older women artists offered her a way into audacity. That she left the world so early confounds and in Otomo’s delicate re-working of her ideas in this text, we see what the art world lost.
Otomo’s often works with her partner, Steve Dalachinsky and Study includes a major collaboration entitled “Arena”, based on a Joseph Beuys artwork. It has moments of clarity, hilarity and occasional frustration—one can hear the marriage of two different, but equal voices, a true rarity (Steve Dalachinsky =sd and Yuko Otomo ==yd).
sd you listen to air through copper tube & wax
yo I see the heart beat of the air
a perfect loop, a perfect malice, a perfect dust
sd the wildlife on stilts is frozen by removing its innards
yo I am crossed with an triangle & my bones ache
to be with time is tearing me apart
sd I hang like a hand like a hangar on a hand on a nail
on a cross where I hang
yo a perfect bath tub, a perfect profile
As one can see, Otomo is in search of that perfect line, the perfect loop, the right word to say what she needs to say about Sarah Sze, Bourgeois, Caravaggio, Beuys, Cornell, Bruce Nauman, August Sander. At times, that word is not found—the poems in response to Nauman’s exhibition don’t quite work. But when she goes into depth, it can be startling.
In one of the last and most ambitious poems in this book, she delves even more deeply into women’s lives and art—the poem “Intra-Venus” that is in part dedicated to Hannah Wilke. I met Wilke before cancer began to destroy her almost other-worldly beauty, so I am always interested in the ways in which people approach her work, not only her early work, but also her end of life portraits that are harsh and powerful. Otomo does not disappoint here. In deft stanzas she catches the artist’s work, but also that decay and in her own way, the particular significance of women, women’s bodies and how they are used in art. Here are excerpts from “Intra-Venus (for Hannah Wilke and Lona Foote)”
time to timelessness
assaulted & forced
is it your eyes that we are facing?
is it your navel that we are looking at it?
is it your thighs that we are marveling at?
in a sense of metaphysics
how a raw road leads
to the bottom of the well
where all those inspirations
for life pour out
in a sense of metaphysics
a flower petal—
to be or not to be
in the Origin
the sun was a woman
The poem in many ways sums up Otomo’s sensibility-she seeks the eternal in art, but always is in touch with the ephemeral-art may endure, but each of us will die. Wilke, Beuys and Bee Berstein’s art endures.
Ugly Duckling Presse has made it possible for readers to see a poet’s confidence grow as she considers art in our time. Yuko Otomo’s Study is a great addition to the proud New YorkSchool sensibility of connecting poetry and visual arts. Her strolling through galleries, museums, in and out of friends’ studios and in and out of her own is a major document of the past three decades. It was a pleasure to join her.