I didn’t know who Joan Mitchell was. I am an art enthusiast. I live in a cool art city. I live within walking distance of two museums and an art institute. I’ve taken my share of art history classes.
Never heard of her.
So, first and foremost, I want to thank Allison Blevins for introducing me to Mitchell’s work through her lovely chapbook, Letters to Joan. I blame the usual patriarchal bullshit for failing to give Mitchell the attention she deserves, despite being a contemporary of Pollock, Rothko, and de Kooning, and, from what I’ve seen of her, I like her better than those dudes. Mitchell passed away in 1992, after a long, distinguished career. She spent most of her life in Paris, but she was originally a Midwesterner, like Blevins. Mitchell’s work is frequently described as violent, physical, athletic—her brushstrokes, the moods she was trying to evoke; a gallery owner remarked, “She approached painting almost like a competitive sport.”
I found all this out after the fact, so I actually read Letters to Joan twice, once without having viewed the art, then again after I had. I wasn’t able to view all of the paintings online, but enough to give me an idea of Mitchell’s style, to see what Blevins had seen. Without the art, I was still able to appreciate Blevins’ poems. But the poems were infinitely richer when paired with the visuals.
In Letters to Joan, Blevins offers more than mere ekphrasis. She carries on a tradition of female interiority: quiet, meditative, dreamlike, deep. She offers poems that are keenly attuned to the body, which is fitting—not only for women, who I think inhabit our bodies in a way that men do not. But also because a book of poems inspired by Joan Mitchell should focus on physicality—for her ferocity, and because Mitchell fought so tenaciously against a series of debilitating illnesses: oral cancer, resulting in a dead jawbone; osteoarthritis; hip dysplasia; and then, ultimately, lung cancer. Women are more likely to suffer from chronic pain, from a variety of physical and mental health issues that don’t seem to affect men as much. Women are socialized to believe our bodies are all that matter, we who are charged with protecting our bodies from violation, and for having bodies that are capable of housing new life. Blevins offers poems that are sometimes self-recriminating, exploring themes about ambivalent motherhood and disappointment in our own mothers. Sometimes she attacks the sacred cow that is motherhood, referencing Susan Smith and such women who do the unthinkable.
The book opens with mothers and children in, “Watching Dust Glow in the Window Light,” which describes the poet’s complicated feelings towards her daughter, and towards her own mother who left. She juxtaposes, “I want to keep you safe,” with “On days I wish you’d never been born.” Its images suggest helplessness: floating, shaken, caught, “caged-bird lips.” The idea of being caught in a snow globe that’s been shaken is a womblike image, a round ball of fluid, something small and self-sustaining, yet delicate and precious. The next poem, “Moored,” a word that implies being tethered, feels like a progression. It describes mothers worn “transparent as nightgowns,” the toll being a mother exacts on a person, bodily, mentally, spiritually. “The Color of Tearing” explores separation and separation anxiety, the distance between bodies in all relationships, and the inevitable demise that awaits, both in the relationship itself and for us, individually, as mortal beings.
“How to Explain Fertility When a Friend Asks Casually” digs into bad mothers, “all the women and children dead/a history of female drowning.” Drowning does feel like something iconic in the deaths of women (Ophelia, Virginia Woolf). Drowning has also been a preferred method of infanticide, especially with unwanted girls. Water subsumes mother and child alike (again, a replica of the womb). At the same time, there is deep sympathy for the people involved in these situations. The title implies undertaking fertility treatments, which, for women who have trouble conceiving, can be a taxing endeavor in every possible sense. Imagine going through all of that only to find you don’t like motherhood very much, or that you aren’t very good at it. Drowning can feel like a way of erasing your mistake, of coming clean.
In a series of body poems, Blevins focuses on the female form, though not in the way a male artist would, asking, “What is this burden of estrogen?” Blevins describes hair falling out, excessive perspiration. This reads to me like a meditation on age, dealing with mood swings and night sweats, and the anxiety that accompanies these seismic hormonal shifts. “Say my body, drooping and defiant,/ is a thing I can possibly control,” Blevins says, when, obviously, we all knows it’s the opposite. Yet, Blevins celebrates the body in “The Actual Size of the Rifts in the Human Heart May Vary Depending Upon Age and Use,” with erotic descriptions of explosions, “when a tongue figure eights/in your mouth” and “your bones draining into the basin of another woman.”
My favorite image comes “From My Box of Tangled Memories,” of a girl, “with sirens for hair/and flashing blue and orange where her mouth/should be.” In a book rich with sensory imagery, I found that very evocative, the meshing of the mythological sirens with a beacon of warning.
Water is a recurring motif—the feminine/womb imagery, as I mentioned, but water is also a powerful natural symbol on its own. I hear the quiet of the Midwest in the waters, in images of ponds, both wet and dry (even in its absence, water leaves an indelible mark). I hear the hills and plains. Blevins also weaves in combines, semis on back highways, stones, chicken, and deer. Even wood paneling and a rifle make appearances, which you will find in almost any mid-century home in the dozen states that make up the Heartland.
Another recurring motif is color, which makes sense for poems that were inspired by visual art. “Promises Attached to this World” is a simply beautiful poem inspired by Mitchell’s No Birds, which, in turn, was inspired by van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows. Mitchell believed that this was van Gogh’s suicide note. This poem is the most overtly ekphrastic, referring directly to “the blue in the corner,” the suggestion of blackbirds in flight on the canvas. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that this is one of Mitchell’s less abstract pieces.
Now that I’ve viewed Mitchell’s art, I can see why it would move a woman poet to such an outpouring of expression. I am impressed that Blevins would undertake such a project—transliterating abstract visual art into words is ambitious, to say the least. I’m pleased to say that she rises magnificently to the challenge.
Purchase Letters to Joan on Amazon.
Also, be sure to check out The Harbor Review, an art and literary journal of which Allison Blevins is the publisher/editor-in-chief. They are currently open to submissions.