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  • Painting with Poetry
  • Paul Oppenheimer (bio)
This Caravaggio. Annie Boutelle. Hedgerow Books/Levellers Press. 102 pages; paper, $18.00.

Think Caravaggio, think chiaroscuro? Think modernist and even postmodernist poetry, think ekphrasis, or descriptions of works of art? At this distance in time, these casual equations may seem more or less self-evident. If they also seem a bit pat—both Caravaggio and modernist-postmodernist poetry are about a lot more than chiaroscuro and ekphrasis—still one's recognition-buzzer may not be wrong or misleading.

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) lived a criminal, on-the-run life about as dramatic as the white-versus-midnight-black technique that he perfected in his paintings. Hauling a local prostitute into his studio to pose for his Death of the Virgin (1606) hardly pleased the Roman clerics who had commissioned it and then rejected it in a huff. Murdering his opponent at a tennis match—if that is what he did—was unlikely to advance his artist's career. Contempt produced its difficulties.

It may also have contributed to his signature style now known the world over as an acute way of looking at life, or at least at some of the informative emotional powers of light. Early on as well, he seems to have yielded to a desire to shock as opposed to that other impulse of formidable writers and painters, such as Leonardo, to satisfy, and this with a canny representation of the ordinary world.

Which is only to say that by the end of the sixteenth century, the ingredients were already in place for promoting his attraction to a modernist-postmodernist sensibility at the beginning of the twenty-first. Intimate relations between post-Renaissance ideas of anarchy and the new anarchy of modern human struggles awaited rediscovery. His braiding of light with blackness anticipated latter-day conflicts. His bristly dark, invoked with a coolness that seemed natural when it was artificial, hinted at the wilder forms of modern confusions, despair, ecstasy, and senselessness.

His art also appealed to a modernist-postmodernist yearning for an anchoring in the concrete and sensual as opposed to lofty religious messages, and more than the art of Leonardo, which seemed brilliant but a trifle staid by comparison. It was thus no wonder that ekphrasis, or the rhetorical approach which to the ancient Greeks and Romans meant any type of description—but that even then had begun to veer into its modern, limited sense of descriptions of works of art—caught on among Romantic poets and their modernist and postmodernist successors. How better to expose modern pleasures lashed with terrors than to describe ambiguous, established paintings and other artifacts? If Keats had his Grecian urn, W. H. Auden had his painting by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (in his "Musée des Beaux Arts"), William Carlos Williams his other paintings by Brueghel (in his Pictures from Brueghel [1962]), and the Polish poet Anna Kamienska her paintings by Rembrandt.

Given Caravaggio's splashy way of displaying men, women, grapes, and boys, plus his insolence and propensity for violence, his reinvention as a postmodernist poetic hero-type was probably also to be expected: it remains unclear, for instance, whether he died of heat prostration on a beach while chasing a ship sailing off with a mass of his paintings or, as also seems possible, that he met his end after accidentally running into a wandering assassin in Porto Ercole. In her third volume of poems, Annie Boutelle seizes on the chance to explore Caravaggio's rich, revealing connections with the present, or the postmodernist world. If her choice scarcely avoids a certain charge of predictability, still she deserves ample praise for making it.

The best of her 74 brief poems on tap here, along with five reproductions of Caravaggio's paintings, all aptly set off with a cover photograph of his The Taking of Christ (1602), are solidly ekphrastic. An art gallery of oils blends with a poetic gallery of postmodernist insights. The book's pattern forms a meditation on his life, from his beginnings in Milan and Venice to his ragtag time in Rome, where he came to know Peter Paul Rubens at...


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pp. 21-22
Launched on MUSE
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