A light veil covers the hair and forehead of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That veil is the organizing image of Roark’s book Mona Lisa’s Veil:New and Selected Poems (1979-2001) where he reflects on ‘the beautiful’ in his life and in his experience of art.
As the painted form of the Mona Lisa reveals her beauty, it famously veils her state of mind. It can be normal in poetry to find the language that gives us beautiful forms, also veils our efforts to ‘know’ our experience of those forms. Keats expressed the problem in his Ode to a Grecian Urn: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/As doth eternity….” Here, from Roark’s book, is, a ‘silent form’ that teases me out of thought.
ESTES PARK IN WINTER
Silence is the weight of wool
on your shoulders, the damp
frost melting on your sleeves,
a deserted backroad under elms
that brush against each other and
whisper, until suddenly the moon
opens over an orchard and
two distant starlings,
wings almost touching,
dip into the field.
The luminous flow of images almost yields the meaning in the whisper of elms “that brush against each other,” or in the way the distant starling’s wings almost touch. The images render the meanings tangible: we can ‘hear’ the whisper, we can feel the wings touch, in our imagination, but what they signify remains veiled.
The rich flow of Roark’s book reflects a poet’s pilgrimage: the roads he’s travelled, women he’s loved, poets he’s befriended, masters he has written ‘after’, paintings he’s examined, music he’s absorbed, authors he’s read. Some elements of the poems, as we saw, are veiled. Some of the poems are so transparent to me, I feel as if it they came from my own mind, or wish they did, such as these poignant lines on a late autumn night sky:
and I saw a comet, red and
trembling, perish like a rose
gleaming into jet,
so young and sad already
and heaven knows
sweet and blank as they say,
like a night when no stars shine—
emeralds her eyes, and the fragrance
of her gown as it fell
made a circle of light
beneath us, glistening like
a thousand tiny violets.
THE TITLE POEM
What to make of the four-part title-poem?
In the first part, Roark seems to be mulling over personal questions accumulated from histories of the work and lives of sixty-nine artists— famous painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, architects. ” Why can I never remember it’s the Venus of Willendorf…? Will I forget what the shoes mean/in the ‘Arnolfi Wedding’ or the/ dog?…Why am I drawn to Massacio…?and couldn’t care less about Rubens?”
His inquiry expands through anecdotal reminiscences of little-known information about these famous names such as: “Watteau died in the arms of his dealer”; “Monet lived only because Renoir brought bread to his table”;
For “Death of a Virgin” Caravaggio
used the bloated body of a drowned corpse.
Joshua Reynolds went deaf in the Vatican’s cold rooms
painted himself in Rembrandt’s clothes.
The tone is monologue, the lines arranged on the page in verse form and stanzaed. This method lifts each ‘moment’ devoted to an artist out of art history and frames the aphorisms as cameo’s in Roark’s gallery—“Renoir painted with his penis” In the cases of Turner of Van Gogh and others, Roark’s meditations are extended in portraits that are ‘character pieces,’ filling a dozen lines or more. The poetry of Roark’s gallery manifests like echoes from his opening questions, often bringing into perspective each artist’s ‘Ruling Passion’. Turner: “To be poetic it is necessary to be incomphrehensible.” Degas:” Women in general are ugly.” “Decomposition excited Rosso/ lived with a baboon, dug up corpses….” “Delacroix always ran a small fever.” Rodin:”… his secret law was incompletion.” From Matthew Brady who documented the American Civil War and died penniless, Roark gives us his reason for going to the war: “A spirit in my feet said go, and I went.” Van Gogh:”What I am doing is not by accident.” Gericault “studied lunatics in an asylum.” “As for Camille Claudel/ committed to an asylum her final forty years/”the gold she mined was her own.” Each of these observations suggests an equation that defines the subject artist’s work.
In the first part of “Mona Lisa’s Veil,” Roark has curated an exhibition of pictures that behave, generally, like icons: they point to a bigger vision—a mystery we can glimpse through their agency, as the mystery of the feminine is veiled/unveiled by the Venus of Willendorf, or as the mystery of human community emerges from the winter fog that slightly obscures the scene of Brueghel’s “Hunters in the the Snow.” The key to Roark’s ‘icons’ is the notion that appearances in life as well as in art arise out of a mutual interdependency. As the transparency of the veil and the ‘chignon’ appearance of La Giaconda’s hairdo are interdependent, so the lives of Monet and Renoir, or Watteau dead and his dealer’s arms are interdependent. A better word than ‘interdependent’ would be ‘co-emergent’, which carries the sense of ‘non-duality’, or ‘not-two’. An example would be the Morning Star and the Evening Star that appear in the sky as two different bodies. Despite the difference in their way of appearing, they are the same body: they are ‘not-two.’
“Mona Lisa’s Veil” part II takes a surrealistic dive into “mental patients and criminals—“, tracks tragic anecdotes like that Jackson Pollock “attacked a piano with an ice-pick”; that Maxim Gorky “Losing his wife, his health and his work in a fire, / Gorky hung himself in a woodshed”; and Adolf Wofli, imprisoned for much of his life as a psychotic criminal, who produced paintings and music in his asylum that Andre Breton described as “one of the three or four most important oeuvres of the twentieth century.” The drift of these stanzas outlines the breakdown of interdependence between the artist and the world, the art and the viewer, as they were in the time of Brueghel’s “Hunters in the the Snow.” Signs of the breakdown are the withdrawal of 20th Century art into extremes of iconoclasm (Wolfli) and formalism (Pollock, Mondrian). This section of the poem concludes with Roark’s observation that in the last century, “because the world mourns—” the “handwriting of the painter” is replaced by “multicolored canals of color,”
oscillating chevron designs and the incest of studio life
where the savage was chic.
In Part III, Roark continues tracking the union of abstract art and concrete jungle as he traces the drift of the ‘Style Moderne’ into the “grid and glass,”— the “blocky right angles” of 20th Century architecture. His morbid view extends into Part IV, where the horrors of Holocaust are seen disguised as “acrylic Dick Tracys,” and where “Donald Judd got rid of any emotion.” “Roark allows “Mona Lisa’s Veil” to wind down with a backward glance in the direction of the anonymous artists of the Venus of Willendorf, the cave-paintings of Lascaux, the Parthenon, and the Egyptian pyramids. His poem that began with questions about an earlier phase of Western Art ends by looking back to pre-historical art for encouragement in deciphering the enigma of abstract art in our time:
Champollion deciphering hieroglyphics and
Carter uncovering Tutankhamen—[i]
THE ‘AFTER’ POEMS.
This book offers sequences of poems Roark wrote ‘AFTER’ poets like Louis Aragon, Federico Garcia Lorca, William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, S.T. Coleridge, and Li Po. He includes other ‘named’ poems, ones paying homage to Henry James, the Marquis de Sade, John Milton, Ezra Pound, Hieronymous Bosch and his friend Tai Chi master Jane Faigao. Other titles include the names of Jim Cohn (a fellow poet at the Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics), and other poets and artists in Roark’s ‘Kerouac School’ circle–Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Andy Hoffman, Stan Brakhage, Darrin Daniel, J. Gluckstern, Crystal Brakhage.
The catalogue of these names reminds me how the life-blood of Roark’s writing circulates through a symbiotic network of the people he names. There is a sweet lyricism in the presence of this element of names remembered. Even as titles in the Table of Contents of Mona Lisa’s Veil, these names, —“some are dead and some are living”— bring a whiff of wistful fellowship redolent of Paul McCartney’s “Penny Lane,” and John Lennon’s “In My Life.”
However, we are not talking about nostalgia here, unless we mean by it something like the homing instinct of sea turtles or salmon. And if we are talking about nostalgia here, it is in the manner of the gypsy wanderer Melquíades of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, who learns that nostalgia is a force that has a life of its own, one that has overcome in him the “the solitude of death.” Would it be an exaggeration? to suggest that as Melquíades has the power to cure the insomnia of his audience in the town of Macondo and bring them into ‘irreversible history,’ Roark’s poems secure for his readers hand and footholds in the disconcerting rockface of our common time. For this view to hold, one needn’t agree with his opinions. For instance, he writes:
When Ansel Adams was twelve
he brought a Brownie box camera
into Yosemite Valley
and never got bored—
what one feels with Steiglitz,
Weston, or Strand.
Ansel’s vision is consistent, I agree. But Steiglitz on Manhattan or Georgia O’Keefe are not boring to me. Weston’s “Pepper No. 30” has Rodin muscles. Paul Strand’s “Powerhouse Mechanic Working on Steam Pump” is a nobler work than Chaplin’s Modern Times. Bored with their art I am not. But so what? I am happy to listen as Roark has his say because what I hear is a writer in tune with himself. Because Roark agrees with himself, in disagreeing with him, I agree with myself, and that too is very agreeable. But I have strayed from the ‘AFTER’ poems themselves.
“Dramones (After Federico Garcia Lorca)” is convincing Lorca. I am reminded of what Leonard Cohen said about Lorca in his speech accepting the Prince of Asturias Award for literature:
I studied the English poets and I knew their work well…, but I could not find a voice. It was only when I read, even in translation, the works of Lorca that I understood that there was a voice. [He] gave me permission to find a voice… that struggles for its own existence.
In “Dramones (After Federico Garcia Lorca)”, Roark has a voice—however there is no struggle in it—only surrender:
Under a dark persimmon sky,
in a field of Persian Jasmine,
she ran her hands over my
chest with fists full of cinnamon,
her fingers wet with honey in my mouth.
Leonard Cohen, even in the best work of his youth could not surpass these lines. Further into this remarkable poem is a description, uncanny for being accurate in every detail, about an experience I myself self had one psychedelic night:
…like the mind’s
eye in nightmares
when you’re at the wheel and
the road’s black corduroy
ripples like a whip,
flashing in the black
cold shower of the stars,
vague yellow petals
drifting in the breeze
like constellations in a haze
and the sightless nightingales
and the blue light of innumerable shapes
and dry monotonous greys are
almost scultpural in the dark….
Continuing to report from personal reactions, I wonder that across a gap of forty years, Coleridge’s companionable moons in his poems “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection and Ode” are perfectly recalled to me by Roark’s poem “The Briarwood (After S. T. Coleridge),” where, in the company of a dear one, he captures moonlight for a lover:
–like when we were in the parlor,
and the moon enveloped you—
the room’s dark shadows blackening the
light, the withered leaves
a deeper yellow, the sky flat
as the thin cloud in the front room
where you found light enough to read
In these “After” poems Roark seems to surrender to the haunts of old poets to gain for himself impressions and expressions. He goes deeper with the matter of surrender in the poem “Hiking to Silver Howe,” one of the several poems ‘after’ or in homage to the Wordsworths (William and Dorothy). Here we read how Roark, an inveterate walker of rough terrains, makes the connections he is after, not by striving, but by surrendering. He writes that during a tough climb, he becomes so focused completely on what he’s doing in each moment, that he loses track of his destination. He begins to doubt whether “we’re on the right path/ or that the climb is worth it.” Instead of trying to recovery his certainty, Roark records that he surrendered to that doubt:
Only then does the sky appear
and stark figures silhouetted on a ridge
and tiny spots that might be others below
There are different ways to say how this passage provides a key to what Roark’s poems are ‘saying’ about finding revelations: having an intention is good because it’s what you can let go of so that genuine revelation can appear; knowing what you’re after is fine, because when the energy of the moment overtakes it, you are in the moment with everything else that belongs to it. There is a certain cunning in this way of conducting oneself. It is what Dryden is saying in his characterization of the crafty Lord Shaftesbury in the poem “Absalom and Achitophel”; it is what Polonius proposes about his effort to figure Hamlet out, and it is what Hamlet proposes in trying to connect with the mind of Laertes. The phrase Shakepeare uses (and Dryden after him) is, “By indirections find directions out. ”
In “Deus Ex Camera (For Jim Cohn)” Roark discusses ‘indirection’:
irony is a way of not shooting straight
of indirection somehow, lack of direction, lost direction—
Some blues-singers have a saying about this strategy of deliberately abandoning a sense of direction: “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” In such cases, one allows situations to develop on their own, and in this way one is led to revelation, and such moments of revelation, or what Roark refers to as ‘presence,’ are what the poet is after. It happens this way in his poem “This (for CBG)”:
She came out of the sea
luminous, plankton adhered to her flesh,
shining like sunglow in the shape of a girl.
However, revelations of this kind are not necessarily nice. Towards the end of this poem, we find a fullness of revelation akin to what Keats’ knight found “alone and palely loitering,” at the end of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci”:
A year later she was off again,
& I was in a wood adjoining the garden
among all the lovely things my love had never been—
my fingers numb with cold,
the brown leaves stuck to my skin—
MORE ABOUT SURRENDER
The poem “After Li Po” (that is also after Pound), has a lovely detail: “the fragrant coriander moon.” It is a perfectly poetic phrase because, while there is no natural reason to connect coriander and the moon, the expression is redolent with suggestions. On the off-chance that there is in China a tradition, discovered by Roark during his extensive travel or reading, that recognizes the association of ‘coriander’ and ‘moon’, I did some research and was rewarded with this connection: coriander is an ingredient in Blue Moon Beer that is brewed in Golden, Colorado, a few miles north of Roark’s home in Boulder.
The poem “Sketch” begins with a teasing irony: “she pulls on the red underwear/you took forty minutes to take off—” then Roark riffs glimpses of ‘she’ that flicker through time and space “before she turns and disappears.” The tone is playful. The woman is fickle. The poet is lonesome.
“Entering the Tetons,” is about a few moments Roark had with a waitress in a cafe. I have a short poem made out of that situation. Bob Dylan worked his version of it into a very long ballad called “My Heart is in the Highlands.” Roark gets the mood of his poem and mine and Dylan’s right when he writes that there is something ‘slightly edgy’ about the scene. The edge is lonesomeness.What makes his poem outstanding, apart from the accuracy of it, is that Roark fashions it, without commentary, entirely out of bare details of the scene:
There are mallards on the lake & my waitress is beautiful and young & there’s a dying sunflower & some dried daisies on my table. The sun’s out & when I spoke with her there was a slight smile, shy & nervous, her dark hair pulled back with a barrette. I gave her a nice tip because it’s Sunday & we shared a moment here, & when I said it was beautful she said thanks as it it was her lake, & it is in a way, the blue sunlight, the shadowed mountains, the air which finally cleared of smoke & haze….
This is bravely done in a ‘no ideas but in things’ William Carlos Williams sort of way.
Roark also commands language that takes ‘things’ in a direction away from ‘things’, out of physical existence, into pure thought. He does it in the poem “Light Likeness (for Stan Brakhage) —the film-maker who abstracted light from images in film:
seeing oneself seeing,
the optic nerves
clutching at light until even
thought itself becomes electrical
& the world is light—
In “Coltrane,” he disembodies the energy of the saxophonists improvisations into a flickering intention:
not moving forward but
falling forward, losing
pretensions of the not-me
to move my attention
elsewhere or else to
even all until any one is just like
another and somehow to
blur it too, here where we
thought we were building,
coming to, arriving, merely
falling farther than we thought,
to see we are not seen.
The poem provides me with a new way to look into the musical abstractions of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.
Roark ranges from detail into abstraction in the poignant “Elegy (for Allan Ginsberg)”, where he begins in physical detail—“you kissing my throat—” a level of imagery that dissolves progressively in the next stanza towards abstraction, music, and later in the stanza, to “The Triumph of Death.”
—rhythmic waves, riverbeds of
new selves, sounds between breaths
the way an eagle disappears into light,
defined by not being there at all—
like the air between the eye and the object it perceives
like music which shapes and forms the invisible….
There it is, and here it is again—in the poem”Written With Joe’s Pen”—where in the flow of Roark’s experience, seeing becomes listening becomes disappearing, which is revealed in this poem as the goal of his journey in this book:
I finally see it—that when I listen
I disappear—and that is where I want to be—
how that is what I really love—how in that moment
of listening, I completely disappear.
In the moment of listening the poet may disappear, but on the page where that disappearance is noted, there remains a voice, however disembodied, of the poet talking to himself, or, in Roark’s case, it is often his voice talking to a friend.
This book ends with a whale of a poem, 17 pages long, entitled “A Book of the Dead (For Philip Whalen).” The first voice on the page is that of the dedicatee: “I am not lonely, I am here—/and my presence makes a considerable difference.” Whalen’s ‘voice’ implies me, the reader, reminding me that “my presence also makes a considerable difference.” In a similar way, Roarks voice in his opening lines implies the presence of a listening ear, perhaps the reader, to whom he is telling a story: “I met her in Connecticut where I was born…” Further on, Roark is talking into ‘her’ ear: “Later, I walked up the hill to see you, and there we and the universe were restored.” Later still, ‘she’ gets a voice and he listens to ‘her’ say: “Go home then, she said, smiling. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Mona Lisa’s Veil is a Book of the Dead in the sense that the narrator seems to become disembodied in the passage through the present time of the poems. The reader gets to know the poet as one who is being deluged by a phatasmagoria of memories of his past, as is said to be the case in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In that sacred text, it is said that the consciousness experiencing passage from one life to the next may be confused by the deluge of memories that are all the more insidious because the comsciousness is no longer grounded in a material body. What could ground, give direction and strength to the disembodied Tibetan ‘traveller’ is the voice of the guru chanting passages of instruction from the Book. In Roark’s case what he hears that sustains him is “the beat of the verse, the variety of its rhythms….”
“A Book of the Dead (For Philip Whalen)” ends in an ambiguous light: “Daylight flickers on and off, not changing anything, bringing an end to us a long time ago. ” In this ending, the pilgrim-poet is sadder, possibly wiser, forlorn, but in present time. His a present is enigmatic as the Mona Lisa’s smile, insubstantial as her veil. Here are the closing lines of Roark’s book:
I’m thinking of roses this morning
and feeling sick about it all.
It’s sad to hear the music fade—
the fragile balance I was searching for.
So what is it we were about to frame?
Roses, I suppose.
“When is it really over? What is the true ending? All borders are like a line drawn with a stick of wood or the heel of a shoe in the sand: All this is artificial. Tomorrow we play another game.” Diary of Francisco Tanzer.
“In ordinary life we never have present time, only the perpetual transition from the past to the future… Only in sleep, in the religious experience and in art are we able to experience the lasting present time.” Sophia Gubaidulina, In Tempus Praesens–Concerto for violin and Orchestra (2006-7).
[i] In 1820, Jean-François Champollion published his decipherment of the Rosetta hieroglyphs, showing that the Egyptian writing system was a combination of phonetic and ideographic signs.
Howard Carter (1874-1939) discovered the intact tomb of the Pharoah Tuankhamun in 1922.