Kelli Russell Agodon
120 pp., White Pine Press
In Kelli Russell Agodon’s latest book, Hourglass Museum (2014, White Pine Press), the reader is immediately immersed in the fragmentary mind and reality of the struggling artist. The book’s narrator struggles to move beyond the appreciation of art and live a life in art. Beginning with the observation and ekphrasis expressions of other, predominantly visual artists, Agodon uses her narrator to first try and contextualize herself (the narrator and quite possibly Agodon herself) with art itself, and then moves both narrator and reader to the expression of a life in art through poetry.
Broken into several sections, the early poems in the book are fragmentary, highly metaphoric, and simply stunning. Here we see Agodon’s narrator asking questions (both literal and rhetorical) of artists, trying to learn how to create a life in art. It’s a painful series of questions on some level. Not the heartbreaking pain of survival and moving past tragedy, but painful in the sense that as one’s yearning to be an artist grows, so does our frustration. I mean: How do you exactly start to be an artist? How do you defend your devotion to art when others expect something different from you? Take for example these images even from the poem, “The Broken Column” which opens the first section:
Tell me how you suffer―
in brushstrokes or synonyms,
cigarettes or sickbeds.
I think we all love something we don’t talk about.
Soon enough, in poems like “A Moment Ago, Everything Was Beautiful” and “Portrait of a Couple on a Cliff After Twenty Years Together” the reader is swept into the feminine difficulties of domestic life, reminding us without beating us over the head what difficulties face those (mostly women) who have chosen to try and balance a life in art with a life in the home. The poems are not anti-male, nor do they seek to punish the male perspective. They simply and quite elegantly remind the reader that a woman’s life in art has the added complications of expectations and gender roles which are even today, still biased and stereotypical.
The fragmentation of the first section, poems which seem to defy structure and not allow the reader to settle into any consistency, are in my way of thinking, an extended metaphor for lacking the ability to exert control over the many realms upon which an artist must exist. However that in itself is a misnomer. Agodon’s poems in the first section are well crafted and organized, as to enhance the mounting frustration of confident self-expression in art. Beginning with “Line Forms Here,” Agodon confesses secrets to the reader, and after providing us with this information, she demands even more from us. The poems which follow, specifically “Frida Kahlo Tattoo,” “How to Make a Picasso Cocktail,” and, “Drowning Girl: A Waterloggled Ars Poetica” the anxiety of the artist is addressed head on, with a directness which is both delightful and stunning.
The second section is called Sketchbook of Nudes, It consists, depending on how you want to read it, one long poem, or a series of untitled fragmentary poems. Here, Agodon’s narrator takes the leap of faith very much described by Kierkegaard. As artists, we have to trust there is an audience for our work. As artists, we need to express ourselves regardless of what comes next. As is often the case, I suspect Agodon has fictionalized part of her real-world dynamics to use as material for her poetry. Early on the second section, Agodon states:
I asked if this would all work out
you said as if you were lying
and then later:
show me the escape route for artists
and later still:
we are the stories we tell ourselves
Without titles, this long poem, or series of shorter poem pulls the reader beneath the surface alongside of the poet. She is beneath the water’s surface and we struggle to breath as we swim within this sketchbook. Why? Agodon, in this section, forces us to go along for the ride with no signposts to mark our way. There is an urgency which reminds me of labor and birth. Well, the birth of self as an artist if not the literal birth of a child. Here we travel with the poet in-utero, where there is no stopping.
If the second section is the birth, then the third is almost certainly an education, a step by step accounting of how the narrator is becoming the artist, from the development of craft and technique through aesthetic (expressed primarily through the color blue), and the projection of the artist life for one’s self and those who surround the artist. The poems here reject sadness and shut out regret for the decisions made. Here we see the poet building up reasons to be the artist, justifying the poet’s life and reject the urge to apologize for making room in her life for poetry.
Something’s shifted here (her), too. Poetry is a talisman against the bad things which happen to us. Poetry becomes the channel through which grief and confusion can flow, and a context by which the poet may frame a life. It is no longer simply a means to an end, but also a place to inhabit.
By the time the third section has completed, the reader is anxious to see the artist in all her glory and powers. Poetry is no longer the thing outside of the artist; it is the world she inhabits. The final section is a recounting of the artist’s triumph---how to live a life rooted in art while living all of the other lives either thrust upon her or taken on my choice. We read of marital bliss and the realization that living a life in art has made a better life possible, even with all of the complications which the artist must endure. Where earlier poems were fragmented, the unity and cohesion of the poems in the final section reveal the secret the poet was trying so hard to discover in the first section. Art is not a distraction or a radical element. It is art which steadies the artist’s life. We practice art so our lives will make sense.
The poetry in Hourglass Museum is worth ten times what you will pay for it. There are so many wonderful metaphors in this book I hesitate to share them with you because each is so masterfully woven into the very fabric of this book I would be quoting pages at a time. You deserve to read the book in its entirety. Hourglass Museum is the first book of poems in quite a while that makes me want to tell all my friends about it, even if they already own a copy. Kelli Russell Agodon has proven yet again how devoted she is to the art of poetry and how integral it is to her life.