Art and the poetry of solitude: Stuart Dybek and Edward Hopper

 

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Stuart Dybek at the Art Institute. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Last week I spent an hour wandering around the Art Institute’s Modern Wing with Chicago poet Stuart Dybek and a bunch of other poetry fans. As I described in my article on Third Coast Review, the Pop-Up Poetry event was designed for a poet to discuss works of art that influenced him—and how they related to the writing to be discussed.

Dybek talked about a period in his life when he was interviewing for jobs and used the Art Institute as a place to hang out between interviews. Its pluses were that it had phone booths and clean rest rooms, but it also had light—light streaming in from skylights, but also the light glowing from the paintings of the Impressionists. He read a section from his book of short stories, The Coast of Chicago, called “Killing Time” about that experience.

He talked about standing in front of those paintings and feeling that he could walk into them. He wrote, “I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.”

But he would always end up standing in front of Edward Hopper’s iconic “Nighthawks,” because he felt he needed the darkness to balance the light of the Impressionists.

While talking about Hopper, he mentioned a book I was not familiar with. It’s The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper, with poems collected and introduced by Gail Levin. He mentioned that the works of many well-known as well as obscure poets created word paintings that brought new meanings to Hopper’s imagery.

Hopper’s work is quiet, even when several people are in the space within the picture frame. Are they lonely? Not necessarily. Being alone doesn’t necessarily mean loneliness. Lovely solitude.

NSBJ-HopperbookThe book sounded fascinating and I looked it up when I got home. Nope, it was not in any bookstore I could find. Since it was published in 1995, I was afraid it would be out of print. But not so amazingly, I found it on amazon.com, for sale from one of the Amazon Marketplace vendors. I’ve had very good luck buying quirky, hard-to-find books that way, so I immediately ordered a copy that was described as being in very good condition. I was thrilled to find it in my mailbox yesterday and it is a treasure. It’s hard cover, a slim 80 pages, with a dust jacket. The size is 7.5 x 7.5 inches.

Levin’s introduction is a lovely essay on the themes of poetry and solitude and the public awareness and appreciation for Hopper’s work. (The Art Institute’s 2008 exhibition of his work was beautifully curated with thought-provoking legends about his life and his work.)

In The Poetry of Solitude, poet Larry Levis tells a story about the woman in the 1931 painting titled “Hotel Room.” He suggests she has just finished arranging her mother’s funeral and her small estate.

Her face, in shadow,
Is more silent than this painting, or any
Painting … .
You sell the house and auction off each thing
Inside the house, until
You have a satchel, a pair of black acceptable
Shoes and one good flowered dress. There is a check
Between your hands and your bare knees for all of it —
The land and the wheat that never cared who
Touched it , or why ….

Four poets reflect upon the 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” and the stories of the four people in the painting. Joyce Carol Oates writes,

The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest, she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand thinking
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him?

Of the 1930 painting, “Early Sunday Morning,” showing a row of storefronts, John Stone writes,

Somewhere in the next block
someone may be practicing the flute
but not here

Where the entrances
to four stores are dark
the awnings rolled in

Nothing open for business
Across the second story
ten faceless windows

In the foreground
a barber pole, a fire hydrant,
as if there could ever again

Be hair to cut
fire to burn ….

As I described in my post about my hour spent with Stuart Dybek, he read his own poems and the work of other poets and reflected on the nature of words and images. The book gives even broader meaning to the relationship of words and images, narrative and abstraction.

A note on the paintings mentioned here. You can see “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. “Early Sunday Morning” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. “Hotel Room” is at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

If you do a search for “Edward Hopper paintings” online, you can see and enlarge thumbnails of all of them.

 

 

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