Bob Holman in Barcelona By Tom Savage
Bob Holman, Picasso in Barcelona, (la danza mixta translated by Sol Gaitan) paper kite press, Kingston, Pennsylvania, 2011, 95 pages.
When any performance poet, like Bob Holman, produces a book, the first question that arises is: do these poems work on the page? In the case of Picasso In Barcelona, the poems seem to pass the test. The second thing that must be said about this book is that Holman, while visiting the Picasso museum in Barcelona, decided to adopt the persona of the young Pablo Picasso himself in these poems. It may be an act of extreme poetic hubris for any poet to presume to speak through the mouth of the greatest visual artist of the twentieth century; it may not be. It could be an expansion of breath and breadth, depth of the poet’s range to do this. After all, Holman lived for many years with a great painter, his wife the late Elizabeth Murray to whom this book is dedicated. It may be that he draws upon this experience to allow him to inhabit the ghost of Picasso. Whether or not this is so is hard to say.
It must also be mentioned here that some of this book is in Spanish, a dance version of the poems, which seem to be largely a repeat of the poems preceding it condensed into one long poem and translated by Sol Gaitan. As I know no Spanish, I am not qualified to make statements about or to judge this part of the book. Thus, you may call this a partial review, if you like, but it still covers most of the book.
Another question that could be asked about this book is: do the poems work without the paintings from which they were derived since reproductions of those works are not supplied alongside Holman’s words? The answer to this question also seems to be yes because while Holman pretends to be speaking for Picasso, he is also speaking in his own voice, which is to say his own style of poetic writing. While these poems are shorter, individually than his poems usually are when performed, they are indubitably in his own style or manner but with less rap and rock rhythms than permeate so much of his poetry.
Is this ekphrastic poetry? It may be. One is always struck by what an ugly word “ekphrastic” is for something potentially quite beautiful: “art about art.” On another plane of language one could imagine Bob’s poem series being turned into a creative writing exercise: go to a one-person museum or gallery show by an artist whose work you love and write a series of poems pretending to actually be that artist. Some interesting poetry might result as it has in this superb collection, Picasso in Barcelona by Bob Holman.
Review by Tom Savage