I’m thinking today of the eclipse of the sun that happened in August 2017. My husband and I had just spent three nights on the Mendocino coast in Northern California and were driving to our Bay Area home under an overcast sky. We didn’t see the whole eclipse, but we did notice a change in the light’s intensity as the moon began blotting out a portion of the sun. Instead of the sun making everything hard-edged and clear, there was a softer quality to what I saw from the car window, reminding me a little of how the earth looks under a full moon.
That takes me back to the female impressionists’ show I saw some time ago at San Francisco’s De Young Museum. The images in these women’s paintings resembled how things look under the full moon’s subtle glow. Less distinct, as if there was a layer and/or tissue between the object and the viewer. Softer. Nuanced. Suggestive. Not necessarily conforming to the objects being limned in the paintings.
Of course, not all female artists view things in this way, and I could probably apply what I noticed in the female impressionists’ show to a number of male impressionists. But so, too, do other artists, including writers (and I’m one of them), aim for something besides realism in their creations. And why is that?
There’s the old saying that the world is too much with us, and perhaps that idea prevails for those of us who aren’t interested in exactly capturing the external world. Like many abstract painters, some poets even go so far in avoiding representational work that their poems don’t make much (if any) literal sense (I’m thinking of Susan Howe and some of Leslie Scalopino’s work). These poets use abstract painterly techniques with language, more interested in playing with language, their medium, letting it lead into unexpected places, exploring new terrain. In some of their work, placement on the page conveys the feel of musical notation and phrasing, the page itself a theatre where the interaction of language makes meaning rather than recreates a remembered event. Or they treat words as paint and the sheet of paper as an expressionistic canvas.
When writing, rather than conform to an external version of things, I try to surprise myself, whether in poetry or prose, letting go of my usual expectations for a poem/story and entering into—hopefully—new ways of perceiving and feeling. But sometimes we need something as dramatic as a total eclipse to remind us of how mysterious our planet is and how much more there is to discover beneath the mask of everyday reality.