by Michael Turner
Our mailbox hangs beside our door and is visible from the street. When I pull up out front, it is the first thing I look at. A couple months ago, Canada Post announced its plan to end home delivery. In the future, mail will be delivered to a community mailbox at the end of the block. Not sure what we will do with our mailbox, whether we will leave it be or add it to a larger box we keep in the garage — a box half-filled with land-line telephones.
As I returned from the grocery store this afternoon, I noticed something bouqueting from the mailbox. By the time I stepped past the snowdrops and the single crocus at the foot of the stairs, it looked less like flowers than a baseball mitt.
The Capilano Review is the last hard copy magazine I subscribe to, and to see it sticking out of our mailbox is a long letter that has me imagining the time I will make to read it — but only after a couple of hard bends in the direction opposite the one the postie bent it to make it fit our box.
Time arrived mid-afternoon, after I returned home from the local postal outlet, where I mailed off a Critics and Curators grant application to the Canada Council. This was an application I put a lot of work into and, on my walk back, had me worried I did not go into enough detail about the artist practices I have applied to write on. As well, a gender imbalance with respect to artists I have written on and included as part of my support material. But then this bouqueting, this mitt, this magazine, and my mood shifted.
It is late-afternoon and tea is made. I clear space on my desk and, after re-bending the magazine, examine its front cover: an image derived from a painting that stretches over the spine and onto the rear, but not all the way. Is it the whole painting or just a detail? Does it matter? It shouldn’t, because this is not a painting (by the artist Margaux Williamson) but an image derived from one — a reproduction.
At some point someone will ask me what I think of the cover, and it is likely this person will refer to it as a painting. I will tell this person that it is not a painting, for the same reasons mentioned in the previous paragraph. The conversation will shift, and depending on who I am talking to, this person will tell someone who will tell someone else who will eventually say to me, So you don’t like the painting on the cover of the latest TCR.
The first painting I fell for was a reproduction of a protractor painting by Frank Stella, entitled Saskatoon 1 (1968), a painting made while the artist was visiting the Emma Lake painters in Saskatchewan. I found its reproduction in a Thames & Hudson book called Art Since Pop (1975) at a College Street bookstore in Toronto in the fall of 1993 while on a reading tour for a book I wrote called Hard Core Logo. Ten years later, while on a reading tour through the United States for another book, I visited New York City’s MoMA to see this painting in the flesh, for the first time. What a disappointment! The colours that first drew me to this work were based on a colour palette that owed more to cheap printing than to what Stella had in mind when he painted his painting.
Yes, yes, yes — but why don’t you like the painting? Apart from what it is to “like” something, what can be said about a painting without seeing it as work of paint. Again the conversation will shift, but this time I will steer it back in an effort to talk about its narrative, the condition it is attempting to relate, because that’s the least we can do. And depending on who I am talking to, this person might have ideas about its narrative, its condition. For example, if it is Clint Burnham I am talking to, the narrative or condition might begin with Lacan’s idea that the unconscious is structured like a language, and that the redacted portion of the figure might be seen as monochromatic space, an imaginative dérive space that “represents” the unconscious, in which case I would badly need to experience the painting’s brushwork, its surface density. And it is here that I will think about what it is that I am seeing of the body that suggests a body, and I will offer this to Clint, and from here perhaps the image will become less a reproduction of a painting than the title of our play.
The title of Thea Bowering and Sheila Heti’s entry is “a portrait of thinking”, which is lifted from a text that begins with Thea’s words and ends with Sheila’s. For those reading along with the magazine, note that their text does not announce itself as an interview or a conversation but a “portrait of thinking”, and it is here that I think of Gertrude Stein’s portraits of Matisse, Picasso and Sherwood Anderson, and indeed Thea’s father George’s portraits, those in his Coach House book Curious (1975), where he draws his peers in words — sometimes their words, always his own.
A drawing is what comes to mind when reading Thea and Sheila’s double portrait. However, rather than Thea beginning with a line, she begins with its shading, its ground — gestures that suggest Sheila’s contribution of line and figure, and where that would, in turn, take the thoroughly open, available and informed Thea, and from there, the strategically diffident Sheila. The result of course is a portrait, but one drawn not by Stein but by Miró.
Following “a portrait of thinking” and a story by Sheila is a poem by Paul Nelson, whom Thea’s father has chosen as this year’s recipient of the Robin Blaser Award. The title of the poem, “The Day the Weather Decided to Die”, is parenthetically subtitled “(After a Haida tale told by Robert Bringhurst)”, which sets off bells given the controversy over Bringhurst’s right to tell these tales, but also the form he tells them in, which is poetry, not prose. As Haida scholar John Enrico has argued, these (oral) tales belong in paragraphic prose form, not as Western poems. And while I, like many others, agree that Bringhurst has made something pretty with these poems, I appreciate Enrico’s point, for it too carries the title of a play.
Following Paul’s poem is Mark Goldstein’s “Poems for Alice”, an excerpt from a book called Medium Point Blues. The first line of this poem returns me to everything I have read in this issue thus far: “Voice of Alice/ voicing Anna Mendelssohn no other/ arising.”
Time to take a break, make supper. For a book mark, I use another piece of mail: a query from a realtor who wants to sell our house.