Friday, February 7, 2020

Arleen Pare’s The Girls With Stone Faces

Arleen Pare’s The Girls With Stone Faces is a loving, creative, historical tribute to, and adoration of, Florence Wyle and Frances Loring, Canadian sculptors and lovers. Throughout the poetry collection, the focus is on the artists’ work, a welcome approach where much creative biography instead teases out speculative explorations, psychological fantasies that illuminate more the authors' obsessions than the mysteries of the artists under study. Pare enjoys the symbolism of both women shaping and refining their visions through the transformation of gross materials into spiritually revealing products which retain the earthiness of the source material. “How much a pink marble mouth/must lift at the left corner,/almost into a smile”, the concluding lines to “Technicalities of Neoclassical Sculpture in the Beaux Arts Tradition”, is particularly effective and suggestive. Much of Pare’s other material, though, is less subtle. From the same poem: “Point, line, and depth: these form the dimensions of sculpture”. The short sentence fragment and the frequent space-pauses create an additive effect which work when outlining the sculptors’ tools of the trade, and how those resources are marshalled for work. Elsewhere, however, the clipped approach irritates by leaving either a scattered or faux-heightened effect, i.e., “The northern lights. The thought of. Violet/and shape-shifting green.”

The biggest flaw in The Girls With Stone Faces is the project itself. We’re inundated with poetry collections that have a unifying theme or narrative. In rare cases, a gifted poet can carry the subject along by exploring many facets (different voices, complimentary interlocking stories, tonal shifts, a resulting speculative future, etc.) of the material, but in almost every instance, an elevator pitch, grant-friendly proposition like this will include a lot of weak and redundant poems. Pare’s volume is no exception. Here’s one example I’ll include for illustrative purposes because of its brevity. In full, this is “The Mothers”:

there were mothers
one for each girl
Frances and Florence
each in their place
there was no poison there
at least
not enough

Now in the context of the book as a whole, this poem isn’t egregiously bad because it keeps the narrative clicking along. But divorce it from its nesting place on page 21 and thrust it into a journal, or read it to someone on its own, unenhanced by its backstory or surrounding associations, and it sinks like shares in a junior mining start-up after the CEO appears in handcuffs on an MSNBC perp walk video clip. Nothing even slightly interesting happens in those twenty-four words, whether in diction, rhythm, lyricism, structure, voice, emotion. Again, you could become as near an expert on these two lives as is Pare, but that in itself would only (and only possibly) create some biographical interest. A poem’s responsibilities lie elsewhere. I harp on this point because the book-length study is now endemic in CanPo. Poets defend the project-book with the argument that the ‘process’ is more important than the individual poem. But a poem is an individual unit. (Pare’s poems are separate entries, each with its own title.) Poets try to get around this by eliminating titles and linking ‘entries’ by double spaces, a series of dashes, ‘part thirty-eight’, or epigraph interruptions, to name only a few ploys. There’s a long history to this, of course. But for every Whitman, there’re a thousand Olsons.

Pare could have pared and sculpted a lot of clay from this volume, and the reader would have been left with a half-dozen fairly good poems. And maybe that’s more than could have been expected anyway, given the subject’s constraints.

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