- Waking Stone: Inventions on the Life of Harriet Hosmer
Whenever any author gets involved in a biographical project a unique and frequently intimate relationship inevitably develops between author and subject. They can become acquainted in wholly unanticipated ways, and when the end product is not a conventional biography but rather a creative literary or artistic project, the results can be as startling as they are satisfying. This is exactly the case with Carole Simmons Oles's remarkable new book, Waking Stone, which traces the life and career of the nineteenth-century Massachusetts sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who defied her culture's gender conventions and the art world's odds by leaving New England to study in Rome with the English sculptor John Gibson and eventually setting up a studio there in the 1850s. Her circle of Roman acquaintances included the Brownings (she slipped unobserved into a convent one night, wearing Robert's trousers), Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James. In Rome she produced monumental sculptures, including figures of Medusa (1854), Oenone (1855), the Palmyran princess Zenobia in chains (1859), and the large, commissioned bronze of the Missourian Thomas Hart Benton that followed a competitive commission and was unveiled in St. Louis's Lafayette Park on May 27, 1868, as well as an extraordinarily popular small figure of Puck that was repeatedly copied during her lifetime. In Europe Hosmer became the center of a group of women artists and sculptors before she largely abandoned sculpture to pursue a project involving a perpetual-motion mechanism.
Waking Stone will remind readers of Oles's earlier collection, Night Watches: Inventions on the Life of Maria Mitchell (1985), which traced the life of that pioneering nineteenth-century American astronomer. But twenty years has deepened and made richer and more resonant the ties-the depth of experience and emotion-that the poet now discovers between herself and her subject in this new collection. The poems in Waking Stone are sometimes in Hosmer's voice, sometimes in Oles's, and sometimes in a sort of fused voice that seems to shift effortlessly and seamlessly between them. The personal and aesthetic interconnections are many, and they include both Hosmer's and Oles's own families, which Oles tells us is one reason why she undertook her project in the first place. Two poems, for instance, remember their supportive fathers. Harriet-whom Oles addresses familiarly throughout as Hatty-muses soon after her arrival in [End Page 196] Rome on her mother and siblings, dead of consumption, while she works on her early sculpture, Hesper:
How lucky that Father thinks my art no hobbybut profession. Lucky am I in fathers.I will never say aloud what weighs on me:Mother, Helen, the babies Hiram and George.Beating my hands to beat out from stonelives indestructible, calm. Hesper.I wish my loved ones such awakenings:after each night, rising as morning stars.Star at her crown, moon beneath her breast,poppy capsules woven in her hair,my Hesper's eyes are half-closingto a music just beyond our power to hear.("From Backyard Studio, to Rome, 1852")
Carving the great stone block of her morning star woman, revealing like Michelangelo before her the full figure hidden in the massy block, Hatty does indeed wake the stone, shaping a figure whose life will endure, though frozen in rocky sleep. Her father, unusual among the American male establishment, sees her art honestly and her work professionally, and Hatty is both proud and grateful.
No less so the poet, who sculpts with words, creating sharp and recognizable shapes from the raw mass of language, awakening them to a no less indestructible existence, as she does with her own father, whose memory is implicated with Hatty's:
In my Rolodex, one relic remains:"Henry Reginald Simmons, representingArchitectural Sculptors and Carvers Association"the only business card my father ever carried,in a little plastic sleeve,his thick, tool-roughened fingersfumbling to slip one out.His masters mostly Italian-Girolani, Guarino-except for Donnely at the Corcoran Art Gallery . . .And Daddy the...