For our Stanzas web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite poets by way of a handful of lines. This week, Dana Levin, whose poem “Into the Next Eden” appears in our Fall 2021 issue, takes a closer look at “Pollock and Canvas” by Jorie Graham.
More than any one stanza, it’s the pregnant stanza break between “think” and “now” that always calls me in “Pollock and Canvas”: a long, complex, and thrilling poem from Jorie Graham’s The End of Beauty. In it, Graham suspends the moment before the paint Jackson Pollock has flung from his brush hits the canvas—before the painting is finished and form becomes fixed:
Look down here into this open sepulcher
(unstretched) what has he planted? What’s coming up?
Is it a shape a dead thing?
We used to think that shape, a finished thing, was a corpse
that would sprout—Easter in every heart—what do we
This fixing of form, this nailing of beauty to the finished, troubles Graham: I feel her disturbance, the urgency of her query, in the thrumming space of that stanza break. The break puts tremendous emphasis on “now,” which demands we consider “then”: a time when fixing beauty was the unquestioned aim of any artist. So, what do we “think // now?”
In the “now” of 1987, when The End of Beauty was published, many assumptions about beauty in art were being upended by theory: post-structuralist, post-colonial, queer, and feminist. A thinking poet could no longer remain unthinking about beauty, which, in this poem, is beginning to seem not like a vehicle of resurrection but the death of potentiality. “(and you must learn to feel shape as simply shape whispered the / wind, not as description not as reminiscence not as what // it will become)” a muse-like figure says toward the end of the poem; it’s a whispered call to resist defining and cementing intention in a work of art. But if beauty—Easter in every heart—is at an end, is art the biggest error the artist makes, the most profound avoidance of truly encountering the world? If beauty is at an end, isn’t this a devastation? Will such resistance to definition lead to a new kind of art, one where we will encounter the world more truly and more strange? What if the most profound beauty is in process: not in finishing, but in the pregnant middle: an open stanza break, where the drama of questioning, the suspense of impending, thrums.