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Poems Living with Paintings:
Cole Swensen's Ekphrastic Try
Michel Foucault opens part 1 of The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences with a now-famous tracing of the gaze and the "cycle of representation" (in which representation comes into being, reaches completion, and is dissolved once more into light) in Velázquez's masterpiece Las Meninas. His description of the painting begins:
The painter is standing a little back from his canvas. He is glancing at his model; perhaps he is considering whether to add some finishing touch, though it is also possible that the first stroke has not yet been made. The arm holding the brush is bent to the left, towards the palette; it is motionless, for an instant, between canvas and paints. The skilled hand is suspended in mid-air, arrested in rapt attention on the painter's gaze; and the gaze, in return, waits upon the arrested gesture. Between the fine point of the brush and the steely gaze, the scene is about to yield up its volume.
Foucault uses Las Meninas, which dates from 1656, to demonstrate the shift from the Renaissance to the classical episteme, a reordering of signs as well as a breaking off of knowledge from divinitas that took place as one system of thought replaced another. While marking the culmination and the dissolution of the Renaissance order, Velázquez's artwork is also seen as suggesting, via what is crucially invisible, the key change that will initiate the modern episteme, the invention of man.
Foucault's way of thinking about and representing the painting provides a foil useful for setting off Cole Swensen's 1999 volume of [End Page 176] ekphrastic poems, Try, since her approach to paintings in some ways accords with but also contrasts significantly with his. Swensen's poetic engagements with paintings suggest a fundamental concurrence with Foucault that works of visual art allow profound insight into historical epistemes. In part her project is, like his, an intellectually ambitious archaeological one, in Try's case aimed at illuminating some of the key differences between Western ways of knowing or systems of understanding at the close of the twentieth century and those of earlier times, particularly the late medieval and early Renaissance eras. However, just as Swensen avoids inventing narratives like Foucault's that firmly position the painter "back from" the canvas, she eschews Foucault's own pose of "stand[ing] . . . back" from the painting to provide a confidently objective analysis of its dynamics. His distanced stance is the same one taken not only by most art historians when they interpret paintings but by most ekphrastic poets as well, and it is a positioning Swensen deliberately rejects.1
Foucault accomplishes his epistemic analysis by tracing the gaze–whether the gazes of the represented figures, Velázquez's artful complication of perspectival sight lines, or the spiraling movement of the viewer's gaze. He explores especially the ceaseless oscillation between the viewer's gaze and the painter's (because the painter's gaze is directed at someone positioned where the viewer stands, the spectator is also the spectacle, and that spectacle is constantly changing), as well as the "metathesis of visibility"(8) proposed by the mirror at the back of the room in which appears the image of the royal couple, who are gazed upon by most of those in the painting, but positioned outside it:
In the realm of the anecdote, this centre is symbolically sovereign, since it is occupied by King Philip IV and his wife. But it is so above all because of the triple function it fulfils in relation to the picture. For in it there occurs an exact superimposition of the model's gaze as it is being painted, of the spectator's as he contemplates the painting, and of the painter's as he is composing his picture (not the one represented, but the one in front of us which we are discussing). These three "observing" functions...