Book Review Archives

Falling into Velázquez

By: Mary Kaiser
Reviewed by: Russell Helms
Slapering Hol Press, 2006
$12, Paperback

Much like the canvas of Joan Mitchell, which “leans so all her drips go down,” Mary Kaiser writes with her paper leaning forward, words too heavy for the task slipping to the floor. Bound within a serene yet austere hand-sewn cover, Kaiser’s seventeen poems weave together a seemingly dissimilar community of master artists. From the brilliant and fleshy images of Velázquez to the curiously sterile yet surreal box art of Joseph Cornell, Kaiser imagines them into a combined reality to illuminate the magic of eternity.

Kaiser is a professor of English at Jefferson State College and a graduate of the program in Modern Poetry at the University of Denver, and this, her first book of poetry, contains blind, untried perfection—creative waters accumulated behind decades of travel, thought, life, reading, and writing. It’s the kind of effort that frightens a reader: Is this first book a controlled release or has the dam been breached?

Regardless, the moment is now and while the “sun’s yellow blade chisels elbows, knees, cheekbones…” and the giant’s shadow “runs like motor oil down the white paneling,” Kaiser needs to tell us something about the world, about life, about her own indeterminate take on what it all means. Confessing her own “milk-fed nihilism,” her disparate subjects lead us down that path of questioning the void between the reality of the artist and the subjectivity of his canvas, her basket, her photograph, her cutting stone.

What’s real? Manet’s nude model or the image? Gerhard Richter’s intense blurs or the toilet paper that inspired them? Can they both be real? Rather than provide distinct answers, Kaiser relegates the task to process. Throughout the seventeen poems, readers watch painter Eakins as he “counts his grid to see where the sun hits water and how far / beams stretch into summer”; smell basket weaver Patsy Elkins as “he wrestles willow till the stink works / into his skin and glues his hair to his scalp”; photographer Diane Arbus “lunging, crouching behind the Nikon’s snout…”

The struggle of it all. It’s the process that makes it real, and makes it magic, makes it worth writing about. If nothing matters, that’s okay because the artists are with us creating art, creating eternity. The forcefulness of the artist with flowers and swans leads to something higher than the artist, than the subject, Kaiser hopes. When she falls and flows into Velázquez, it’s the permanence that makes her fall that makes her briefly believe in magic and wash downstream into unthinkable eternity.

Russell Helms is a writer, editor, and owner of Absnth, Inc., a publisher of literary journals.