Communication = Zero
I stood in front of the painting by Norman Lewis, entranced
with the dancing greens, blues, reds and whites. Its colors
and shapes implied "landscape," in the way abstract
paintings can. If a time of day could be detected, it could
have been night. Its title, "Evening Rendezvous,"
was not enlightening, but I admired the piece and moved on.
I purchased the exhibition catalog, "Modernism and Abstraction:
Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" and
learned a very important lesson. Pages 52 and 53 showed "Evening
Rendezvous" and jolted me with its story.
Norman Lewis was an American Civil Rights activist who made
the painting in 1962. The catalog stated that the work was "almost
impressionistic in its stippled blocks of color and diffusion
of form. Looking closer, we see this is not a pastoral landscape.
It's a bird's eye view of a Ku Klux Klan gathering. The dominant
colors are red, white and blue. Does the red area signify burning
campfires or symbolize flowing of blood?"
The experience made me think about how artwork (painting or
poem) presents itself silently, without context. The first moment
the viewer/reader is left to decipher the work without added
information. Left to our own devices, we construct meanings
based on our knowledge or simply enjoy color and movement, as
I did looking at "Evening Rendezvous." If there is
enough of an aesthetic pull (a.k.a. excitement, engagement),
we linger in front of the artwork or reread the poem.
I learned the lesson again recently when I brought an early
draft of a poem to my monthly poetry response group. There are
five of us and each gets twenty minutes for our poem. The format
we use is: the poet reads it once, then distributes copies,
one of us reads it, then we spend time in silence, jotting notes.
Verbal response begins with each of us telling something we
noticed, and occasionally identifying its "center of gravity."
Peter Elbow's classic Writing Without Teachers provided
the roots for our response format. At that point, we open up
to expand on our first impressions of the poem and offer suggestions.
When my turn came, I began by reading my poem. Twenty minutes
later, a brief summary of the response is reflected in the title
of this month's journal: Communication = Zero. Nobody "got
it." What in the world was I trying to say? Here's the
poem, with a few minor changes since that evening:
I look good in
my sleeveless black linen sheath
blue scarf looped around my neck
earrings fresh from the museum shop
proceeding through my personal lift-off
ignoring the need for a rocket
or some cocoon for my body
careening upward, away from earth,
I feel the loop loosening on my scarf
I must look like a cipher in the sapphire sky
a speck in search of a cloud
the air getting thin, the temperature dropping
it will be over soon
After response time, everyone passed my poem back to me. The
next morning, I read the notes they had made. All except one
had in some way "gotten it." The word "death"
appeared here and there, but no one had really pursued the idea
in the discussion. I felt more satisfied. Perhaps too generously,
I revised my rating of the poem's communication = zero to a
Here is the story of the poem:
John and I were driving home from visiting a friend who was
on her deathbed. I noticed that Mars and Venus were outdoing
each other in brightness. In fact, I thought Mars was Venus
when I first looked. Then I saw Venus! It was a light show that
I remembered when we got in the door and listened to the message
that our friend had just died.
That night, I couldn't sleep. Those of you who have spent hours
in bed, unable to sleep, understand how your brain drifts around,
catching on the concerns of the day. I thought about my friend
and what it could feel like to die. Poets and very depressed
people tend to think about these things regularly.
I thought about the news that day: one of the final space shuttles
was launched. It happened with a roar and an ascending column
Then I found myself trying to come up with an outfit to wear
to an event this June. I settled on the dress (black linen),
shoes (black, if I cannot find gray), jewelry (fabric earrings
purchased from the shop at the Museum of Arts and Design in
New York City).
I realized that I could be laid out in this outfit and knew
that a poem had arrived. My duty was to invite it in and find
When it came time to write this month's journal, I found Jonathan
Holden's comment on the purpose of a poem. I used it as my opening
quotation, because it presented a standard for which I could
begin to measure my failure.