Painting sonnet 95: Art in the light of conscience

Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.
Lena Levin. Sonnet 96: How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame. 2016.

How sweet and lovely dost thou make the shame
Which, like a canker in the fragrant rose,
Doth spot the beauty of thy budding name!
O! in what sweets dost thou thy sins enclose.

That tongue that tells the story of thy days,
Making lascivious comments on thy sport,
Cannot dispraise, but in a kind of praise;
Naming thy name blesses an ill report.

O! what a mansion have those vices got
Which for their habitation chose out thee,
Where beauty’s veil doth cover every blot
And all things turns to fair that eyes can see!

Take heed, dear heart, of this large privilege;
The hardest knife ill-used doth lose his edge.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 95

This sonnet was hard to connect with at first, but then it happened with uncommon ease.

I had to engage with, and then reject — not for the first time — the conventional “unfaithful lover” meaning, which makes the sonnet so incredibly shallow. Incredibly, if one assumes (as I do) that the author of the sonnets and the author of the plays are one and the same man. Telling someone you supposedly love how really evil and sinful they are, their vices barely covered with beauty’s veil — it isn’t really love, is it? This is about as common, shallow, mediocre pastime as it gets — and it’s just not what one would expect from Shakespeare the playwright, with his boundless-as-the-sea bounty of universal humanity and compassion.

So, if not an unfaithful lover, who is it he is talking to?

He gives an answer, right here in the sonnet — by first repeating name thrice, and then actually naming the addressee: dear heart. So, is his own heart the addressee of this sonnet? Of course, “dear heart” can be addressed to a person, too. This is not common in Shakespeare (this address occurs only five times in all his works, and only twice in the sonnets), but this possibility is there, on the surface of the sonnet, even though no single person is ever named in the whole sequence…

There is more: it is not just any name, it is thy budding name. What does it mean? Here is my wild guess: can it be art budding within heart? Can it be Art itself the poet is talking to?

Art would certainly “fill the bill”. It does all those things the sonnet laments, far better than any human, enclosing sins in sweetness and covering vices with beauty’s veil. In fact, this sonnet reminded me of an essay by Marina Tsvetayeva’s, “Art in the light of conscience” — another great poet writing about Art’s maddening and utter indifference to human morality. Art has no shame, it knows no sins (Art didn’t eat that apple in the Garden of Eden, Tsvetayeva says at one point, Adam did). Art is a mansion where sins and vices can reside with impunity, veiled by its beauty and seductive power.

People tend to think about Art either as something good and useful (occasionally, even as therapy), or as something irrelevant and useless — not as something utterly unconcerned with us at all. That is because they believe it is something humans make. But that’s not how great artists — those who know Art most intimately — experience it. They don’t make art. It’s more like a force of nature expressing itself than a product designed by humans for human consumption. Tsvetaeva calls it one of the elements: the Russian words for “the elements” and “poem”, стихии and стихи, sound even more alike than heart and art do.

For an artist, this interaction with art as an objective force is a matter of subjective experience. But there is a science to it, too.  Richard Dawkins, in “The Selfish Gene”, introduced the concept of “meme” — a gene-like unit of another layer of evolution, which uses our brains and our nervous systems as its building materials, its vehicles for survival.

We live side by side with a whole population of such memetic “life forms”. Languages and arts are certainly among them. We are essential for their continued existence (just like soil, air,  water, and all the life forms we eat are essential for ours), but they are as “selfish” as genes are — and as unconcerned with our individual needs and desires. They live and evolve according to their own laws, which have little (if anything) to do with our morality, our vices, and our desires. Humans have lamented language change from the very beginning of recorded time, but this has never prevented languages from changing (and, occasionally, dying).

Art, poetry, language — the survival and procreation of these life forms depends on their ability to “plant” themselves in as many humans as they can muster. But what happens in the inner world of a human in whom their evolution makes a major leap forward — in a poet as great as Shakespeare? For all I know, it must have been an intense and dangerous relationship — it can even be called a love affair.   

My reading of the sonnet has been vacillating between it being about Art and its ability to veil every vice with beauty — Art in the light of conscience, and it being about a human heart — and its ability to enclose in sweetness and loveliness all kinds of things which the mind (and the conscience) would hurry to label as sinful. These interpretations, however, are closer to one another than it might seem. After all, its our hearts — not our minds or our consciences that Art enchants for survival and procreation. It is in our hearts that it hides itself from the light of conscience.

In my painting translation, there are close-up fragments of a rose in the foreground, which transform themselves into (almost completely abstract) glimpses of a mansion, and of beauty’s veil — its lines and images as utterly unable to contain the flow of colour as the human mind is unable to control the flow of art.

Painting sonnet 94: lilies as they are to themselves (October 10-14, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 95: To itself, it only live and die. 2016.

They that have power to hurt, and will do none,
That do not do the thing they most do show,
Who, moving others, are themselves as stone,
Unmoved, cold, and to temptation slow;

They rightly do inherit heaven’s graces,
And husband nature’s riches from expense;
They are the lords and owners of their faces,
Others, but stewards of their excellence.

The summer’s flower is to the summer sweet,
Though to itself, it only live and die,
But if that flower with base infection meet,
The basest weed outbraves his dignity:

For sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds;
Lilies that fester, smell far worse than weeds.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 94

What struck me in this sonnet is this little insight, this line hidden within, almost as an aside — seemingly almost unconnected to the sonnet’s “message”: though to itself, it only live and die 

This tension, the contrast between what a thing is to itself, within itself, and what it is to others, to the world — to the summer. There is a first approach to this tension in the opening quatrain, in that do not do the thing they most do show. But here, while the sonnet stays in the realm of human affairs — the inner world remains impenetrable, unperceived. Unmoved, as stone — this is not a view from within, this is said by an outside observer.

It’s only when the sonnet goes into the realm of flowers — so beautiful, so fragile, so fleeting even on the human time scale — that this trembling, living line, to itself, it only live and die happens. And then, the sonnet closes with proverb-like, objective-sounding generalities.

Thus the structure of the sonnet really enacts its insight: it has a stone-like, unmoved, “objective” outer shell, in its opening and closing lines. But hidden within, there is this living, subjective thing-to-itself. A sudden penetration into the inner world of a flower, as though the poet momentarily becomes the flower’s subjective consciousness.

And so I got myself a bunch of lilies, and tried to feel them from the inside, as they are to themselves, in the painting process. As they are to themselves —without a care in the world about how they appear (or smell) to us. And I enclosed them into this inner frame of flatter, stone-like outer areas of the pictorial space.

Roses in the storm

Lena Levin. November 9, 2016.
Lena Levin. November 9, 2016.

I woke up very early today, just after four in the morning.

I journaled a bit, and then meditated — one hour instead the usual half-an-hour: although I thought I was calm, the inner turmoil was too powerful.

Looked around the internet, and through my inbox — filled with a confusing cocktail of fear, anger, blame, disappointment, and hope, and compassion. Made an effort to listen to both speeches…

And then decided to paint a bit, with no other intention than to experience the unity of life that emerges in the painting process. And something unexpected happened…

I had this little, 12”x12”, study I started on Monday — as a preparatory study for the ninety fifth sonnet, and the bouquet of roses I painted from was still there in the studio. I abandoned it at a rather disharmonious and very abstract stage — not because it felt complete, but because I was ready to begin the sonnet painting itself.

So the idea was to return to it, and — to just let everything that wanted to express itself do so, without intervening too much in the process.

I expected some darkness to merge, some suggestion of a gaping hole in the fabric of reality — but instead, this happened: the blossoming of roses, the movement of light around them… So this is, I guess, my contribution to peace and courage on this stormy day.

On being an artist

Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.
Lena Levin. Magdalene (after Boris Pasternak). 2014.

Why don’t I “put myself out there”? The usual accessories of an “art career” — gallery representations, art competitions, solo shows: I neither seek nor want any of this. Why?

And, more interestingly perhaps, why this question bothers me at all — enough to be writing this?

An easy answer to the second question is that there is a social pressure to “put yourself out there”, to do all these things. That’s what professional artists do, that’s what gives you the “title”. In fact, there is a belief system in which it’s only recognition by the “Art World” that transforms what you are doing into “Art”.

But not only is this answer easy, it is also “lazy”, because, in the final analysis, I “generate” this social pressure myself — through books I read, mail lists I subscribe to, websites I visit, and so on. Nobody else can put this pressure on me if I don’t cooperate.

It won’t be too hard not to feel it (which will make it, for all intents and purposes, non-existent). Even if I don’t want to withdraw from all these networks of information completely (because there are other reasons not to), it should not, in theory, be a problem to tune myself out of this pressure — just like I am tuned out of loads of other things that neither interest nor “trigger” me in any way.

But it doesn’t work this way: although I am genuinely not interested in all these career opportunities, but I still do put all this pseudo-social pressure on myself, and, what’s more, I am as genuinely curious about why it is I am not interested.

I see it as a contradiction, a tension — something to explore and to live through, if only to know myself better. But it is also possible that this — relatively superficial and personal question — covers a deeper and more general one hiding behind it, just out of mind’s reach.

So why does this question bother me?

The usual suspect is fear: it’s often our fears that make us avoid something we really want.

So maybe I really do want something of a “successful art career”, complete with solo exhibitions in prestigious spaces, but I am scared of it, too. Scared, perhaps, of being somehow hurt in the process — if not me as a whole, then my ego at least. This suspicion is not something to be cast aside lightly, even if I don’t seem to feel this fear, because fears have a way of camouflaging themselves. It’s way too easy to rationalise a fear as something more respectable. So I’ll leave this possibility open for the time being — it may be that what bothers me here is the fear of fear, the suspicion that I am succumbing to a fear without realising it.

The other usual suspect is contribution: if an artist is supposed to make a contribution to the world, and to art, then the work needs to be seen, right? If nobody sees it, then it might as well have never existed at all. If I believe my paintings can contribute something, then I should really care about shows and “exposure” — so why don’t I?

Well, that’s not quite the case — because I do show my stuff on the internet. It’s not exactly the same thing (or rather, absolutely not the same thing) as seeing paintings “in person”, but there is an option of visiting my studio, or getting paintings sent over to your home to live with. Letters I receive from people who live with my paintings on their walls are often filled with such depth of emotion and vulnerability as to leave me in no doubt that the paintings do their work — that some sort of contribution does happen.

But still — shouldn’t I make more of an effort to “be seen”, to make it easier for people to see my work? And aren’t shows, and other conventional kinds of exposure, the only way to do so?

The problem is, there are just too many shows. Too many people trying to be make a contribution by being seen (and not enough people trying to see). Collectively, we create a visual equivalent of a room in which everyone is shouting in an attempt to be make easier for others to hear them — and this noise all but drowns any real potential for contribution.

To my own surprise, this metaphor — the image of a room filled with shouting people — revealed, for me, the real question; the real, general tension hiding behind my personal turmoil.

This is a tension between two concepts of art, two stories.

In the familiar, old story, few people are artists — those who can show something for others to see; there are artists, on the one hand, and audiences, on the other. This is the concept embodied in nearly all existing frameworks and social structures known as “Art World”.

The alternative concept is that being an artist is the only way to being fully human. I would call this a “new story”, except it was created in Ancient Greece. This is how Gottfried Richter describes this insight in “Art and Human Consciousness”:

“<…> the human being who simply gives himself up to the workings of the forces of life remains dull, passionate, immoderate and akin to the animal. Whoever simply shoves these forces aside in favour of the spirit may gain clarity and a measure of morality, but he also becomes a withered intellectual and can never be sure that they will not come back to him some day and exact a terrible revenge. The man who really overcomes them and attains his freedom is the “muse-filled” or artistic human being who stands in the middle between the other two like Pythia, Apollo’s priestess, who sat over the pit out of which the dragon’s vapours rose and at the same time received inspiration from the divine forces coming down to her from above. This is man between the animal and God, where the breath of freedom blows that becomes one with a higher necessity.”    

However old, this insight has never been more relevant and urgent than now, when the rise of productivity and automation is rapidly freeing human beings from the necessities of labor. But it doesn’t really “fit” the established social structures — if we try, the result is the room where everyone is shouting, and no conversation is possible. The ideal world, a world in which everyone is fully human, needs another, new way of being an artist, neither attached to nor defined by result-oriented things like showing work to audiences and being accepted by the art world.

And for this new way of being an artist to emerge, it needs to be found and explored — and that is, I guess, what I am doing, and a conventional “art career” just doesn’t fit the bill.

Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara)

Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.
Michael Goldberg. Sardines. 1955.

Frank O’Hara: Why I am not a painter

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Frank O’Hara

What makes us what we are?

Why am I a poet and not a painter? — asks Frank O’Hara in this poem. I’d rather be a painter… 

But what kind of answer is possible here? It’s obviously not about some deliberate, conscious decision — free will or not, one doesn’t really get to choose what they are. The only marginally answerable re-wording of this question would be something like “What is it in my inner make-up, in the way my perception and cognition work, that makes me a poet, and not a painter?”

And that’s the question O’Hara seems to have had in mind. At least his answer — if it is an answer — comes in the form of two short stories, one about the process of painting, the other about the process of writing a poem. And there seems to be a clear difference in underlying cognitive processes:

  • The painting starts with a thing (“It needed something there”— says the painter; something = some thing) and transforms into an abstraction, because the thing was “too much”.
  • The poem starts with an abstraction — a thought about colour — and transforms into pages of words (in prose), much more descriptive than the painting. Here is the beginning of these poems, “Oranges”:

Black crows in the burnt mauve grass, as intimate as rotting rice, snot on a white linen field.”

Quite a lot of things — which are, in some mysterious ways, generated by the thought of “orange”. Perhaps as mysterious a transformation as the transformation of sardines into a flurry of colours in Goldberg’s painting:

The painter starts with the image of a thing and transforms it into colour because the thing “was too much”; the poet starts with the idea of colour and transforms into words, because “there should be so much more, not of orange, of words, of how terrible orange is and life”. Orange is never enough for a poet, sardines are too much for a painter.

Is this the answer to the initial question? In a sense, yes, but not quite. The poem is more complex than that, and the complexity resides in how these two little stories fit together.

Both stories — the one about the painter, and the one about the poet — are written (mostly) in the characteristic, and overly simplistic, “I do this, I do that” style, in a mixture of simple present and continuous present tenses. This makes it seem as though the second story followed the first in the real-life unfolding of the events.  

But this is not really the case: the poem, “Oranges”, was written in 1949, and the painting, “Sardines”, was painted in 1955. But there is a connection —  beyond the mere contrast of cognitive processes; it might be invisible in the poem, but it’s obvious once you see the painting. This painting’s colour harmony is orange-y: mix all its colours together, and you’ll end up with orange. It is this colour that connects the first story to the second, as though it’s Goldberg’s painting that inspired O’Hara’s thinking about orange. Not in the realm of real time-space (where it might well have been the other way round), but in the internal logic of the poem itself: after all, O’Hara could have chosen any of his poems to compare the processes. I believe it’s the colour: orange that led him to recall this particular one (or rather a series of twelve, as it happens).

And this creates a kind of semantic circle, which belies the overt simplicity of this poem’s structure: the painting follows the poem in “real life”, but invokes it within the logic of this poem.

And there is another circular movement which replaces the logical, narrative one. This is not mentioned in the poem, but the second story, the story of “Oranges” has a real-life painting-related sequel: in 1952, another painter friend of O’Hara’s, Grace Hartigan, painted a corresponding series, also entitled “Oranges”, incorporating O’Hara’s words into the paintings. So there was a painting process directly inspired by the poem.

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But the poem ends quite differently, with O’Hara seeing Goldberg’s painting in a gallery. It is entitled “Sardines”, even though there are no more sardines in it, just like the poem is called “Oranges”, in spite of having no oranges in it. Both the poet and the painter retained the original “source” of the work in the title, even though it had as well as disappeared in the process. The poem circles back to where it started — to disappearing sardines, and concludes itself with a similarity between two processes, not with the contrast which might explain why the poet is not a painter. Instead, the two processes emerge almost as two sides of the same one, two different views of the same phenomenon.

Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O'Hara). 2016
Lena Levin. Why I am not a poet (after Frank O’Hara). 2016

Since my fun in this life is (mostly) in painting poems, how could I resist the temptation of responding to this poem “in kind” — by a painting entitled “Why I am not a poet?”. I honestly believe the answer given by this painting is about as clear as the answer given by the poem. At least to me it is…

    

Painting Joseph Massey’s “Polar Low”

Lena Levin. Half-sheathed in ice, after Joseph Massey’s “Polar low”. 12″x12″. 2016.

Half-sheathed in ice
a yellow double-wide trailer

mirrors the inarticulate morning.
The amnesiac sun.

And nothing else
to contrast these variations of white

and thicket
choked by thicket

in thin piles that dim the perimeter.

Every other noun
frozen over.

Joseph Massey, “Polar Low”

The poem starts as a landscape — a vast expanse of ice, or snow in morning light, with a single concrete, human-made object, the yellow double-wide trailer. It is described with some precision, but it is half-sheathed in ice.

This half-sheathed is, I believe, the first key to the poem, the first glimpse of it being not only an image, not just a landscape. There is an inner tension in sheathed — a sheath covers a weapon (thus protecting its owner and others from it), but sheathed in the modern usage also invokes the idea of protective covering. It’s also the thing itself that requires protection, rather than others needing protection from it.

Primed by the idea of sheathing, double-wide invokes double-edged (sword). But the trailer is not a sword, is it: it is not only sheathed, but it is also inherently unpowered; it needs another one to move it. Alone, it is truly stuck there in ice, truly forgotten (preparing us for the amnesia of the sun).

But it does something — it mirrors the inarticulate morning, a morning that cannot express itself. By the way, it is the only agency in the poem, filled as it is with passive verbs. And it is the dubious agency of a mirror, which can only reflect — not act.

Why is the morning inarticulate? Perhaps because everything is so white, there is not enough contrast to create a clear picture? This inability of the morning to express itself prepares us for the coming: And nothing else // to contrast these variations of white. Nothing but yellow.

But the question arises: are mornings even supposed to be articulate? The first hint of anthropomorphism in the poem, immediately followed by the amnesiac sun — we don’t usually think of the sun as something having memory. And if you cannot have memory, how can you be amnesiac? Here is the rub, isn’t it — mornings aren’t supposed to be articulate, and this one is not; the sun isn’t supposed to have memory, and it doesn’t. But by stating these truisms in these anthropomorphic and negative terms, the poem implies that they should (or might) have these abilities: to express themselves, to remember.

How does the trailer mirror the morning? Is it because there are reflections in its surface, or in the ice sheathing it? Or is it because its yellow on the surface of the earth is the counterpart of the amnesiac sun in the sky? The trailer is forgotten, the sun is amnesiac.

And there is nothing else.

Wait, but there is: thicket chocked by thicket — the image of bare branches struggling with one another, obstructing one another’s breathing and (possibly) movement. Another meaning of choke: “overwhelm and make someone speechless with a strong and typically negative feeling or emotion”. Are thickets inarticulate too, unable to express themselves because of one another?

But if there are thickets, then it isn’t just (variations of) white and yellow — there is also the black of the branches. Perhaps the branches are also covered with ice and snow, but they are visible, they dim the perimeter — so there are some dark lines in the landscape. But the perimeter of what? Of the trailer? Of the field of the poet’s vision? Of the morning itself? Of the poem? Dim: Do they make the morning and ice less bright? Or less distinct? Less intense?

And the thickets are piled? Are the branches cut, or are they also just frozen? Thickets in thin piles — there is both thickness and thinness in the same thing.

And with this linguistic conundrum between thickness and thinness, the poem finally reveals itself as not-a-landscape: every other noun frozen over.

Are nouns frozen because it’s so cold, so it’s difficult even to utter them — and when they are uttered, they get frozen in the air? Or is it about “freezing” of words, their becoming less warm, less alive, less connected to their relatives and their underlying metaphors.  Thicket might signify anything thick, but now it is frozen in one specific meaning.

So in the end, it seems as though it is language itself — rather than the double-wide trailer with which the poem started — that emerges as being half-sheathed in ice, half-frozen. But it still mirrors things that are, in themselves, inarticulate and amnesiac.

Isn’t this what poetry is for?

Sonnet 92: What is so blessed fair that fears no blot?

Painting sonnet 92 (September 12-16, 2016)
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20"x20". 2016
Lena Levin. Sonnet 92. 20″x20″. 2016

But do thy worst to steal thyself away,
For term of life thou art assured mine;
And life no longer than thy love will stay,
For it depends upon that love of thine.

Then need I not to fear the worst of wrongs,
When in the least of them my life hath end.
I see a better state to me belongs
Than that which on thy humour doth depend:

Thou canst not vex me with inconstant mind,
Since that my life on thy revolt doth lie.
O what a happy title do I find,
Happy to have thy love, happy to die!

But what’s so blessed-fair that fears no blot?
Thou mayst be false, and yet I know it not.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 92

There is this traditional, commonly received, reading of the sonnets sequence  as a story of the poet’s infatuation with a “fair youth”, almost a romantic diary.

But the longer I stayed with the sonnets, the more I felt how utterly incomplete, how almost absurdly shallow this interpretation really is. Again and again, I had to reach out to much deeper — and much less “romantic” — layers of their meaning, because there was just no other way for me to paint them. With this sonnet, this “infatuation with fair youth” interpretation broke down completely.

This poem is so definitely not about an untrustworthy lover and planning a suicide (or anticipating dying from broken heart) if they abandon you. It’s about the unity — identity even — between love and life: by the end of the sonnet, these words are just two phonetic variants pointing to the same thing.   

What is this thing?

Well, what is so blessed-fair that fears no blot? Thou may be false, and yet I know it not.

Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628.
Rembrandt. The supper at Emmaus. Oil on paper on panel. 39 x 42 cm. Circa 1628. Click to read more about this painting.

There is no answer — only the question. When I first started to contemplate this sonnet, Rembrandt’s “Supper at Emmaus” floated to my mind — a figure which might be there, or it might be not. I know it not. I wanted the painting to be a structural and coloristic equivalent of the poem’s love/life music, possibly with a glimpse of a figure that might not be there.

To my mind, the ninety second painting — finally! — embodies this idea I’ve been dreaming about, and visualising, for so long: the pure movement of colour, barely restrained by geometry and lines. There was something in this sonnet that finally let this vision manifest itself in a painting: something liberating in its way of communicating the idea that life and love is one and the same thing, that they are both in constant flux of revolving inconstancy.

The Brain is just the weight of God

Painting Emily Dickinson

Lena Levin. The Brain is just the weight of God. After Emily Dickinson. 2016.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

Emily Dickinson


A dramatic shift in pace and in age — I’ve been painting an Emily Dickinson poem these days. On the one hand, it is a part of this grander quest for a space of unity between poetry and painting. On the other, I am following ModPo 2016 at Coursera.org, and this week’s assignment was close reading of a poem by Emily Dickinson. The painting is — possibly — still in-progress, and below are my close-reading notes informed by this attempt at painting translation.


1. Brain

Dickinson uses this word in such a way as to override the mind-matter duality: brain “stands for” both the material tissue inside one’s head and the mind. In my dictionary, these are two different meanings for brain (1. Tissue; 2. Mind). In lexicography, this structure implies that these meanings cannot be present simultaneously: in each individual usage, the word means either one or the other (otherwise, they would be listed under the same number, in a comma-separated list). I believe my dictionary is correct as far as everyday usage of this word is concerned.

But in this case (as probably in many others), the English language is smarter than its users and lexicographers. Ask a scientist, and the mind and the brain turn out to be the same thing — or rather, two alternative ways to describe the same thing. But the language knew that already, and that’s what Dickinson sees and brings out here. She “wipes away” the duality and falsifies the artificial boundary between the two meanings. In the poem, brain has both meanings simultaneously: the “matter” meaning is evoked by talking about dimensions and weight, the “mind” meaning — by its ability to contain the sky (and the sea, and God). Had she used the word mind here, the poem would have become both trivial (we all know that one’s mind contains the sky, and the sea, and God, too) and false (mind has neither spatial dimensions nor weight).

2. Contain // With ease — and You — beside

An interesting — pseudo-rational — argument of why the brain is wider than the sea. It’s simply because once we put the sea in it, there is still place for You. It can be my (the speaker’s) brain containing the person I talk to (you), or it can be your (the listener’s) brain containing yourself (apart from the sea). Here, too, I believe both interpretations are invoked at the same time.

3. Blue to Blue

This quatrain begins as though it is going to be structurally and semantically parallel to the first one: wider than the sky, deeper than the sea. This expectation is interrupted by the puzzlingly surprising idea that Brain is Blue. Why is it?

On the one hand, it invokes the meaning of blue as “sad, melancholic, depressed”. On the other, I am reminded of Kandinsky’s insight into what he calls “spiritual meanings” of colours. For him, Blue stands for spiritual (as opposed to material), divine, heavenly. This is related to the fact that blue recedes: if something is bluer, it’s generally perceived as being more distant, or even moving away (this effect is often called “atmospheric perspective”). I am not sure, of course, whether it was Dickinson’s intention to invoke this quality.

4. Absorb As Sponges—Buckets—do—.

Because of the non-conventional punctuation, and because the first meaning of bucket is “container”, I first interpreted Buckets as an alternative to Sponges (a kind of “correction”, where the brain is compared to a bucket, rather than a sponge). But then, buckets don’t really absorb, do they?

So the intended meaning is probably buckets as in “large quantities of liquid”. But I think it’s important that the language’s pervasive tendency to conflate “containers” and their contents as meanings of one single word is invoked here, in the reader’s momentary confusion over which meaning to choose. I think it’s important, because its reminiscent of the core motive of the poem: the brain as both a container and its “contents”.   

5. just the weight of God.

The poem suddenly moves from truisms (“the sky is wide, the sea is deep”) to an (almost) blasphemy: God is heavy? You can heft him (or her, or it, or them) Pound for Pound? The idea of God being heavy is smuggled in almost imperceptibly at first, through the lullaby quality of the sky-is-wide-sea-is-deep comforting parallelism.

It’s really this Pound for Pound that brings it home, strikingly, especially after the much more lyrical Blue to Blue of the second quatrain. It invokes a rather disturbing, Dali-worthy, picture of a person carefully hefting a pound of God in one hand and a pound of (their own?) brain in the other. In its turn, this picture brings with it the Merchant of Venice, and his pound of flesh just about to be cut off.

How did it happen, that God becomes as heavy as the sky is wide and the sea is deep? One image that comes to mind is an ocean shore, where all one sees is the sky, and the sea, and the rocks breaking the waves. Now here is something as prototypically heavy as the sea is deep. It is as though God replaces rocks in a familiar seascape.

Interestingly, there is another expectation broken by this quatrain. The width in the first quatrain, and the depth in the second, prime the reader for the third spacial dimension, height. And indeed, God is high would be much “easier” than God is heavy.

6. As Syllable from Sound

Which is of these is compared to God, and which to Brain? Dickinson leaves the question open. But even if she didn’t, it won’t help us decide which might turn out to be a little heavier, because how do we compare Sound to Syllable?

On the one hand, Syllable is a kind of Sound. It is a linguistic sound, a component of speech, and there are certain structural constraints (there ought to be one vowel, and — possibly — one or more consonants on either side of it). So Syllable is something much more defined than Sound, and much more human: it is a part of human language, whereas sounds can be non-human. It is also the stuff of poetry: syllabic structure is much more salient in a poem than in the language in general.

With the most general sense of sound in mind, one can say that Syllable is something much smaller (lighter?) than Sound. But Sound can also refer to a single phoneme (or phone) of language (as in “the sounds of the English language”): if we focus on this meaning, then a syllable consists of one or more sounds — so it is potentially larger than a sound, but not necessarily (/a/ is both a sound (in this sense) and a syllable).

So, in the end, which is which? Which of this strange pair is Brain, and which is God in Dickinson’s comparison?

I am inclined to think God might be to Brain what Sound is to Syllable (that is, that this is the insight of this poem), because Syllable is more human, and more structurally constrained, and more unambiguous than Sound. But the puzzling quality of the comparison might be even more important than any answer after all.   

Still, I cannot help thinking that Colour is to Painting what Sound is to Syllable.

Sonnet 91: But these particulars are not my measure (August 26 – September 1, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 91: But these particulars are not my measure. 20″×20″. 2016.

Some glory in their birth, some in their skill,
Some in their wealth, some in their body’s force,
Some in their garments though new-fangled ill;
Some in their hawks and hounds, some in their horse;
And every humour hath his adjunct pleasure,
Wherein it finds a joy above the rest:
But these particulars are not my measure,
All these I better in one general best.
Thy love is better than high birth to me,
Richer than wealth, prouder than garments’ cost,
Of more delight than hawks and horses be;
And having thee, of all men’s pride I boast:
Wretched in this alone, that thou mayst take
All this away, and me most wretched make.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 91

August 26, 2016

It’s a strange sonnet — it doesn’t seem too flattering or uplifting, to put the supposed cherished love roughly in the same category as horses or new garments (badly sewn to boot), does it? How would you feel if your lover said to you that they certainly cherish you more than a new piece of cloths?

Inexplicably, the first image that emerged in my attempt to see the future painting is a circle. Maybe because the essence of the sonnet is vanity, a circular multitude of nonsense.

August 27, 2016

This night’s meditation opened up a deeper understanding of the sonnet.

In the first two lines, there is a hidden opposition between the outer, worldly possessions (wealth, garments, horses), and the inner, personal qualities (skill, body’s force). But when this list is revisited in the last quatrain (Thy love is better than high birth to me), the inner side is conspicuously absent. This makes the ostensible compliment even more dubious.

At the heart of the sonnet, there is this special rhythmic power of But these particulars are not my measure.

In harmony with this realisation, the composition clarified itself as a juxtaposition of a circle and an upward-looking triangle. It is as though the circle “stands for” the never ending wheel of vanity and worldly possessions, and the triangle, for one general best (which I am reluctant to equate with thy love).

August 28, 2016

The vision is now clear: the painting will be a variation on “Table of desserts” (both de Heem and Matisse).

August 29, 2016 — September 1, 2016

In the painting process, two ideas became clearer than ever. One, it is not about romantic love, or infatuation (at least not exclusively so). The other: don’t take all this too seriously, it’s all vanity, dissolving into thin air. We are the stuff dreams are made of.

The initial circle has evolved into a swirling spiral broken by the upwards-moving triangle.

Set me light: painting sonnet eighty eight (July 5 — July 20, 2016)

Lena Levin. Sonnet 88 (Set me light). 20″×20″. 2016.

When thou shalt be disposed to set me light,
And place my merit in the eye of scorn,
Upon thy side, against myself I’ll fight,
And prove thee virtuous, though thou art forsworn.

With mine own weakness being best acquainted,
Upon thy part I can set down a story
Of faults concealed, wherein I am attainted;
That thou in losing me shalt win much glory:

And I by this will be a gainer too;
For bending all my loving thoughts on thee,
The injuries that to myself I do,
Doing thee vantage, double-vantage me.

Such is my love, to thee I so belong,
That for thy right, myself will bear all wrong.

William Shakespeare. Sonnet 88

Reading through my notes for this sonnet, I see that my idea (hope, really) that the previous subsequence, The Paradox of Muse, was the deepest, lowest, darkest part of this journey was both true and false. I am moving faster, that’s true. And it is getting lighter (as in “more light”) — that is true as well. This tells that it may, indeed, be the beginning of the upward leg of this path. But it is by no means easier. It is steep, and dark, and fuzzy, and I don’t know what I am doing most of the time. And this the first time that the process of painting a sonnet had such noticeable effects on my physical body.


2016-07-22 14.59.21Here is this sonnet’s initial colour chart. The colour harmony, it seems, has mostly clarified itself from the very beginning: the dominance of red/pinks, underlined by muted bluish greens.

At that point, I thought the painting was going to be a landscape, a Cezannesque pre-cubist landscape. I seemed to see something like a mountain, or a roof, and some back and forth movement of colour: greenish patches receding, and reds/pinks popping forward. But I didn’t see any connection: why should it be a landscape? No idea.

Set me light rang like the key phrase to unlocking this sonnet. It seems to strike such a different emotional chord, out of tune with the rest of the poem.

The structure, the inner geometry of the painting emerged later on, as I was lying awake at night: it was basically the same as in the final painting, only without the foreground bushes. When I saw this structure, there was this sensation of aha-moment, a moment of recognition, but still no conscious understanding of what this structure has to do with the sonnet.

Later, in the morning, I recognised the connection to the spatial tension in the imagery the sonnet: my side versus thy side. It’s a vision of separation, both strengthened and mediated by the longing to be on the other side from self.

The sonnet tries to present one’s own problem — the anticipation of being abandoned, set light — as the other’s problem. The speaker wants to believe that the forsworn lover needs some rationalisation for the breakup, and that he would seek this justification in questioning the speaker’s merit. This gives the speaker a chance to still be “together” with the lover, on his side — because who is better placed to provide such justification than he, who really knows his weakness, and faults concealed? (This sentence about story of faults concealed, interrupted by the line break, somehow evokes Horatio’s speech in the last scene of “Hamlet”: And let me speak to the yet unknowing world //  How these things came about.)

At first sight, this whole conceptual structure seems contrived and disingenuous: who would really want to help the other blame oneself, and find sincere joy in it? But there is a lot of psychological truth to it, for me at least. It’s really the one being abandoned, not the one doing the abandoning, who desperately needs to rationalise what is going on — and “it’s all my fault” seems to be as good as avenue for such a rationalisation as any. At the very least, it saves one from ruining what feels like the best part of oneself, love. And it does creates this temporary illusion of ongoing unity, of being “on the same side”, even in spite of the inevitable separation.

I interpreted my purely geometrical vision as a river, or some other water surface, separating the viewer from the other side. “This side”, then, should be visible in the foreground, blocking the “entrance” to the pictorial space.

The next insight came next night (I was awake for a couple of hours once again). I realised that this sonnet painting is going to be abstract, more abstract than anything I had painted before. It was not an accident that the geometry of the composition was so clear to me, while its representational motive remained vague.

And this realisation ties in with the future of my painting practice more generally: in order to move forward, I have to engage with abstraction more directly (something I had been consciously avoiding for years). In a very experientially clear sense, this realisation does set me light.   

Next day, while walking around the nearest lake, I noticed a group of dark-green bushes leaning left under the wind. This impression is the source for the painting’s foreground: some traces of representational motive, separating the viewer from the abstraction of pictorial space. Once this element clarified itself, I was ready to start the painting. Colour — these reds and pinks which were there from the start — is the unifying force in the painting. It stands for the desperate attempt at unification in the face of separation.

The painting process was difficult and scattered, partly because of the construction work still going on outside. But I wasn’t feeling too well physically either — as though my body was trying to accommodate some changes, but could not. There was a feeling of weakness, some kind of overall weirdness, even dizziness. Whatever the cause, the whole week was filled with this strange impatient tension, the sensation of being out of place, scattered. Could it be the sonnet’s sensation?

One night — awake again — I decided to confront this feeling directly. A huge, dark sadness raised from what felt like an infinite depth. Sadness, despair. I witnessed it with no understanding where it came from. And when this wave of sadness passed, there came an enormous darkness. The void of infinite night, tempting me to fall into it. I stared at this darkness within, trying to neither flinch nor fall into it. Then there was light, and then the tension was over, replaced by the feeling of calm. And I fell asleep.

All these inner experiences come mostly in very abstract form, without “materialising” (or “visualising”) themselves — there are no concrete, specific images; just darkness, and light, and sometimes some colour.

At the deepest level, where all random particulars are removed, the sonnet is about blaming oneself for separation from one’s better self — in the hope that that this will somehow restore unity. For me, it turned out to be about the feeling of separation from being an artist, from the artist self of me. From this place, the desire to blame oneself, and with gusto too, seems more than natural — it’s almost unavoidable. This may have been the cause of this weakness, darkness, tension I had been feeling all this time.

I am not sure whether the painting is complete, but this potential incompleteness now seems to be intrinsic to the sonnet, at least in the overall context of the “letting go” sequence: this process, of letting go, is nowhere near complete here (neither is the move towards complete abstraction I have envisioned for myself).