April 24, 2013KR OnlineReview

On Art and Katrina: Brad Richard’s Motion Studies

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Washington, DC: The Word Works, 2011. 87 pages. $15.00
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Brad Richard is a man obsessed. Obsessed with paintings, obsessed with drawings, obsessed with photography. And it’s not just art objects themselves that Richard is obsessed with, but also what happened to them before, during, and after they were made. His poems poke around artists’ studios, examine their brushes, get under their cameras’ hoods. From multiple formal angles, Richard contrasts art from the nineteenth-century with his family history in Texas and Louisiana and with Hurricane Katrina, drawing us into the relationship between creating images and meaning. It’s Richard’s thoughtful, wide-ranging intelligence that holds Motion Studies together as he asks questions about the roles and responsibilities of the artist when portraying moments of suffering.

Though it’s central to his book, Richard doesn’t broach the subject of Katrina until almost halfway through Motion Studies. Instead he begins by responding to the work of unknown photographers of the terminally ill before moving over to Thomas Eakins, the great Philadelphia painter whose specialties included the human figure and portrait. An iconoclastic teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins provided his students with plaster casts from medical dissections and controversially had female students work with male nudes. He was known for making multiple studies of his subjects, often in a range of materials, in order to “peer deeper into the heart of American life.” Richard does not announce any such claims for his own work in Motion Studies, but like Eakins, he does want to peer into the challenges of grief, and he uses Eakins as a guide for doing so.

Richard uses one of Eakins’ most celebrated paintings, Swimming (1885), a detail of which is on the book’s cover, as the subject of several poems. Eakins set his figures at Dove Lake, a meadow that had been recently flooded for a new copper mill, and arranged them in a pyramid, three atop an earlier mill’s foundation, one diving off the structure, and two in the water. He painted each man so accurately that art historians have been able to identify them by name; some were Civil War veterans. The painting is homoerotic and not; the men’s muscular bodies are expressively painted, celebrated as Walt Whitman might, yet each figure is in his own discreet space, looking in a different direction. The men comfortably express their sensual presence against a lush, earthy backdrop, yet the moment has been staged in Eakins’ studio. Indeed, half of them look like models posed for figure studies, lending the painting a feeling of artificiality. They bathe, Richard says, “in freedom / imagined.”

Richard’s specialty is the long poem, and Motion Studies includes several: “Three Essays on Swimming,” “From the Dark Chamber: Five Daguerreotypes,” “Susan Macdowell Eakins at the Memorial Exhibition of Her Husband’s Work,” and the title poem itself with its meditation on Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. These poems combine elements of portraiture and personal experience, the historical record and the imagined past, as well as questions from Greek philosophy and the Romantic concerns about the self and time. In the last section of “Three Essays on Swimming,” he recalls an episode from his childhood when he waded in a creek one hot afternoon, his mother resting nearby. As a way to both narrow his focus and suggest all that he has said before, he lists the swimmers’ names:

              Call this one Jesse Godley, and these
                            Benjamin Fox, Talcott William

Laurie Wallace, George Reynolds,
              Thomas Eakins and his setter,
                            Harry, swimming back to the rocks,

or a life’s unsettled shadows . . .

Sun’s going down; time to dress
              for the long ride home. We’ll return
                            in the fullness of our other selves.

The litany of passing names emphasizes the fluidity of time; the names become containers for the complexities Richard works with throughout the poem: change, sexual identity, and loss. Remembering the boy he was, haunted by the presence of his mother, the speaker merges with each of the painting’s swimmers. The experience of viewing the painting isn’t over. It moves through time, reshaping the past—swimming as a young boy—giving a glimpse of the new self he will become.

Richard’s emotional restraint over Hurricane Katrina is palpable. Richard typically focuses on the suffering of others and its depictions in art, but over the course of the book, one learns that Richard and his family suffered the destruction of their homes and belongings in the storm. The first image of Katrina occurs in “Waterlines,” a poem that suggests the composition of a painting by listing all the fluids that left their marks throughout the city “like flatlines like cross-cut strata like shear / of mountainside freeway-gouged.” The flooding of the studio of his father, New Orleans painter Jim Richard, is a terrible loss. In the second part of “Motion Studies,” the speaker wanders through the studio’s sagging door and sees the sodden canvases.

              I remember those paintings.
                            They were good. And I remind myself:

He’s already repainting them.
              They’re still good.
                            Stop acting like a ghost.

These moments of self-reproach are among the book’s most moving. It’s a note that’s struck in other books about Katrina, notably Cynthia Hogue’s When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina and Alison Pelegrin’s Hurricane Party, in which the speakers try to stop their overwhelming feelings of grief, by more or less saying, “my suffering wasn’t as bad as others,” asking themselves why they can’t move on. Pelegrin uses a combination of humor and anger to confront her pain, whereas Hogue includes photographs to convey the scope of the disaster.  Richard is direct and spare. His Katrina poems are the book’s emotional core.

Motion Studies concludes with, “Barton Springs,” a poem of great vulnerability. Addressing his husband days after Katrina struck, Richard clarifies the book’s central question: how does one make art out of suffering.  Richard answers by suggesting that art, through the process of creation and recreation, connects the individual to something larger and sustaining: “I take a breath, kick off from the ledge, / and swim out, past extinction, / to touch.” By looking so much outside the self, the speaker grapples with the many difficulties of grief.

Joelle Biele is the author of White Summer and the editor of Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence. Her new collection of poems, Broom, will be published this fall.