Shake Forth a Nest: Feminist Ekphrasis and the Example of Louise Bourgeois
By B. K. FischerAugust 9, 2014
IT'S HARD NOT TO LOVE an artist who can craft a bronze phallus, exhibit it on a meat hook, then tuck it under her arm and go. Louise Bourgeois’s feminist energy is contagious, and her art invites articulation — words called up to answer image. Her oneiric intelligence, equal parts bawdy and brutal, provokes poets to match her mixed-media oeuvre with verbal riffs. Carmen Giménez Smith invokes a Bourgeois sculpture as a figure for desire, a source of “milky, / blobbing […] star-fuckery.” Mary Jo Bang looks at Cell (Three White Marble Spheres) and sees “The crazy face / Of the day looking back with its blank / Brazen sky-high stare.” Camille Guthrie deems Fillette “accurate as the entrails of a rabbit.” Bourgeois’s messy, uncanny accuracy and her peculiar irreverence and disturbing scatology are for many contemporary poets a mother lode. In excavation of that lode, what follows is a rumination, a reading, and a review.
Looking into Louise Bourgeois’s Cell I (1994) reveals this prismatic sentence:
Pain is the ransom of formalism.
The words are embroidered with rust-colored thread on one of several burlap mail sacks that cover a metal cot, and they are the punch line of what may be Bourgeois’s most famous and enigmatic artistic statement:
The subject of pain is the business I am in. To give meaning and shape to frustration and suffering. What happens to my body has to be given a formal abstract shape. So, you might say, pain is the ransom of formalism.
This claim will crumble in your hands. Who has been kidnapped, and who must pay? If ransom is the reparation extorted under pressure of impending loss in order to recover the beloved, how does the artist pay for her formalism — her necessary acts of making — with pain? Does she have to pay for the audacity to look away? Must she draw her materials into a process that risks forgetting the world, risks forgetting the self and its losses, as it abstracts its own meanings and shapes? Or worse, does she have to put the pain up for sale — pimp it out?
Makers always worry about selling themselves, about trading on their losses: the fear is fiduciary, a function of an ambiguous ethical obligation to own and protect what we purvey. Any art that touches identity politics — my body, my suffering, my home — gets caught in a loop of anxiety in market terms. Elizabeth Bishop writes, among the factories on Varick Street: “And I shall sell you sell you / sell you of course, my dear, and you’ll sell me.” Go ahead, say the inner and outer critics, cash in on your blights and burdens, but we’ll be suspicious. We don’t want your depreciating snake oil. ConPo, Inc., anti-lyricisms and their discontents, mock both the impulse to articulate suffering and our agitation about it, take away the lyric soapbox that declares its own importance and leave us standing there holding a Happy Meal wrapper. But mockery is not the only option.
Louise Bourgeois would have stuffed that wrapper into a pillowcase to plump it for a mannequin hand. Her art inverts the anxious economics of suffering and offers another way: pick up the pieces you need from the flea market and accept all hand-me-downs, because we’ll never recoup this investment anyway. Art not as investment but as divestment — pulling off the vestments, stripping down. No hieratic garb, no fungible currency: we get to make what we make because we cut it out of the clothes we were wearing when we wept.
Pain is the ransom of formalism. Bourgeois’s enigmatic declaration begins a spare and slender recent volume of poems, Camille Guthrie’s third book, Articulated Lair (Subpress Collective, 2013). As epigraph and quiet manifesto, Bourgeois’s statement informs a practice that is, to my mind, one of the best things going on in contemporary poetry right now: an aggregative mode of feminist ekphrasis grounded in both corporeal experience and a strenuous ethic of invention.
Guthrie explores Bourgeois’s premise as it is made manifest in her sculptures and installations, which Guthrie studies attentively. She also considers its poetic corollary as a foundational principle — “the ransom is ambiguity.” This is not William Empson’s proto–New Critical ambiguity, the ambiguity of rhetoric and conceit. It is the ambiguity of embodied utterance, of the body and mind in pain and the impossible, ongoing effort to represent it. When Guthrie makes her own verbal art out of the scraps of Bourgeois’s images she is tapping a resource that revitalizes a lyric form of witness and intimacy. Ekphrasis, as one mode available to poets, offers the option of a formalism that is anti-confessional and yet grounded in tactility and sensory immediacy. An ekphrastic poem may speak of selfhood and identity and embodiment, but not with a lyric subjectivity that presumes a stable interiority, because it is, by definition, a projection. Ekphrasis offers an alternative to the claustrophobic lyric “I” at a time when confessional modes are threadbare.
The potentials and pleasures of ekphrasis as a feminist poetic practice are explored fruitfully by more poets than I could name here, but the list includes Mary Jo Bang, Anne Carson, Cole Swensen, Lisa Russ Spaar, Ann Lauterbach, Jorie Graham, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Lucie Brock-Broido, Susan Wheeler, Brenda Shaughnessy, and Mary Szybist. Ekphrasis enables a feminist poetics attentive to the blind spots of self-perception and bodily perception, attentive to the elisions that both obscure and render readable the objects of our gazes. It is, in its limitations, a mode all the more valuable for exercising and exorcising our griefs.
Ekphrasis is ubiquitous — the past century saw the publication of countless poems that reference the visual arts, poems that fall everywhere along avant-garde-to-traditional and conceptual-to-lyric spectrums, and the boom continues today. Avant-gardists of various stripes might eschew the term “ekphrasis,” considering it shorthand for a subgenre of the lyric, but they still do it.
Once a broader rhetorical term for detailed description, “ekphrasis” — from the Greek ekphrazein, to speak forth, hence telling in full — has narrowed to a generic term for poems about an extant work of visual art, with “about” standing in for a range of relationships between the visual work and its verbal counterpart. The ekphrastic poem may be “about” an artwork because it takes it as a thematic focus, or as an imagistic analogue, or as a springboard for improvisation. The appeal for poets is multiple and complex: the visual arts offer a bottomless source of detail and imagery, and the ekphrastic process exposes energizing rifts in figuration and representation at every turn.
“Feminist Ekphrasis” as a critical term is 20 years old (it has been going on for longer than that, of course). W. J. T. Mitchell’s seminal essay “Ekphrasis and the Other” (1994) theorizes an image-text nexus that unfolds along a paradigm of male gaze and feminized object, a power dynamic that moves from ekphrastic indifference to ekphrastic hope to ekphrastic fear. Mitchell’s essay includes this sentence, which became a kind of throwdown: “All this would look quite different, of course, if my emphasis had been on ekphrastic poetry by women.” Oh, really? How so? Feminist critics, myself included, have jumped at the chance to address that difference.
Feminist critiques of ekphrasis have since taken three main forms — each corresponds roughly to a temporal wave. The first, let’s call it ekphrastic umbrage, offered a corrective to the omission of women writers from theoretical discussion and challenged “the treatment of the ekphrastic image as a female other.” These arguments maintained that the overdetermined trope of ekphrasis as a form of violent ravishment and possession could be laid bare by women poets who used ekphrasis to expose that very objectification. This train of thought, though it has some essentialist pitfalls, led toward several important feminist critical positions: the emphasis on the body in ekphrasis as the site of passional, creative, and political agency (as opposed to objecthood); the reclamation of hitherto silenced viewpoints as represented in artworks and literary works alike; and innovations aimed at rewiring the “circuitry of ekphrastic desire.” Rather than uphold an oppositional structure of dominance, of masculine speech voicing a mute and feminized other, many writers employ ekphrasis otherwise, in dynamic figurative, metonymic, and discursive forms.
A second wave, ekphrastic sociability, usefully expanded the critical conversation by locating ekphrasis in social discourse, communication, and coterie. This approach culminates in Elizabeth Loizeaux’s Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts (2008), which argues that “Ekphrasis is more dynamic, polyvocal and multiply responsive than the poet–work-of-art–audience triangle might suggest.” Literary historical approaches cross paths with textual studies and museum studies to contextualize the ekphrastic exchange as one of friendship and collaboration as well as institutional and political participation or resistance. Branches of this conversation consider ekphrasis as a form of cultural capital.
A third wave of feminist criticism of ekphrasis suggests a resurgence of ekphrastic optimism — not utopian speculation, but revaluation of ludic impulses and pleasure as key terms in understanding ekphrastic exchanges that bridge divides and break down binaries. Ekphrasis becomes a way of having it all. Monique Tschofen claims that “[Anne] Carson’s poem [about Betty Goodwin’s art] draws on and draws out interrelationships that heal the subject-object split.” Anne Keefe strives to move “ekphrastic criticism away from a logic of ‘either/or’ and toward an embrace of ‘both/and.’” She values ekphrasis for its capacity to generate “ecstatic lyric energy”: “both daunting and exhilarating, [this] embrace provides a model for ekphrasis that moves beyond confrontation and highlights the desire inherent in the ekphrastic exchange […].”
Mitchell anticipated his opposition. His challenge — his invitation of gendered critique — is followed by an important qualification that is often conveniently ignored:
The difference, I would want to insist, would not be simply readable as a function of the author’s gender. The voice and “gaze” of the male […] is riddled with its own counter-voices and resistances […].
The more important point is to see that gender is not the unique key to the workings of ekphrasis, but only one among many figures of difference that energize the dialectic of the image text.
Gender difference is one of many hinges, one of several sliding doors, in ekphrastic architecture. Ekphrasis is a literary city built on a fault line: inhabiting it exposes the vibration, threat, and instability of any figure.
Feminist critical responses to ekphrasis since the publication of Mitchell’s essay have explored how women poets have measured and calibrated that vibration. Less oppositional than aggregative, feminist ekphrasis comprises acts of description and interrogation, improvisation and analysis, homage and backtalk. It frequently draws on all three critical motives I’ve mentioned: it destabilizes gendered hierarchies of value, engages in collaboration and aesthetic exchange, and adumbrates rich alternatives to conventional binaries.
Bourgeois’s work epitomizes an aggregative art. It derives its potency from its diversity, its layered approaches to female experience (as daughter, sister, lover, mother, wife) and female sexuality (tactile, semiotic, spatial, proprioceptive, synesthetic, textural, as well as visual). Few artists have worked so deliberately to collapse the distinction between interior and exterior, subjectivity and substance, injury and eroticism, pathos and humor. Her Cells traffic in this collapse. For Bourgeois, the space of art is both the fundamental unit of biologic life and the confines of incarceration or isolation. Mary Jo Bang looks at Cell (Three Marble Spheres) in lines that almost anthologize the House that Louise Built:
Here it is, the box
We live in. The circular mirror
We look in. The crazy face
Of the day looking back with its blank
Brazen sky-high stare. The closed eye
Of the night looking in
On a dream where a storm is battering the blinds.
A boy of four comes and crawls into bed. This is an example
Of where the door of life is left open for a moment.
Time tumbles in
Its cylinder thimble,
Hour after innocent hour
And then it’s morning again.
Some glass is for looking through,
Some is for seeing
Back. Every outline is a cage
One way or another. We stood here once so
We are what was
Contained in it.
Bang swiftly catalogs the entirety of what we see in and through Bourgeois’s work: dream, memory, caregiving, time, ardor, confinement, the perils of the pathetic fallacy, the hazards of representation, the refractions of identity. Bang sees Bourgeois and sees the world. Carmen Giménez Smith sees the world and sees Bourgeois:
An agitator holds her sign up asking do you feel equal,
so you and your sisters deride her
because she’s so public about injustice, so
second-wave. Your sisters gather around
her with scorn and sully her earnest nature It’s
thanks but no thanks. I can vote,
walk into the pharmacy for my Plan B, and wear
a chain wallet. One sister throws an apple
into the melee and the unfazed agitator bites it.
Her straight block-teeth break
the fruit apart which shocks your
sisters, but when they’ve abandoned their mockery
for the lure of a choice bazaar — earrings, Ugg boots,
removable tramp stamps,
a Sex and the City marathon — you’re hot for
the agitator. The crowd clears and you kiss
her sweaty neck and use her agitating sign as a bed.
You scrawl her agitating words
onto your belly and stand naked against
her muscle memory. Not just the cause,
the impulse, the result, but the buzz
of lack. You’d like to consume it right
out of her, that humming electric
dissatisfaction. Then you’d like to put it
out of your body in the form
of a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, milky,
blobbing, love the star-fuckery
of doing it with her and to her, then
the sticky pulling apart,
the eternal production
of polyurethane eggs
wrapped in yarn.
Desire — desire inflamed by conflict and solidarity and ire — is externalized as a Bourgeois sculpture, her sensual “Seven in Bed.” Desire and its aftermath become a viscous creative and procreative force, literally synthetic — text and textile, incident and egg. The quatrains are no accident. Bang saw it: “Every outline is a cage.” Giménez Smith recognizes it in the demonstrator’s aggressive, self-actualizing hunger for an alternative tree of knowledge. The poem is called “Radicalization.” Cells. Poets’ cells for prison cells.
Approaching Bourgeois’s work, Camille Guthrie exploits both obscurity and observation — what we find hidden in “The gloam / of formalism.” The poems in Articulated Lair take the form of collages, cryptic but evocative arrays of fragments: “clenched elixir,” “Lunar scission,” “brutal sieve,” “azure circumference.” She writes of Bourgeois’s Le Défi and the brittle vulnerability it implies: “Je t’aime spilled lists, / breakable voids.” Guthrie borrows Bourgeois’s titles, then accumulates partial descriptions, as in this chain of nouns and modifiers: “Pendular oscillator pocketed idea thought feather / Steel housecoat Shalimar cannibal threaded limb.” Here, the flipside of collage is erasure, a procedure Guthrie borrows from the visual arts to evoke the emotional voltage and lacunae of perception that arise in Bourgeois’s work — whiting out detail, leaping from one image to the next, blotting out connections and discursive logics. Collage, erasure, polysemy, swerve — these are the methods Guthrie uses to create poetic renderings of Bourgeois’s “feminael fortress[es].”
Articulated Lair is concerned, as is most of Bourgeois’s work, with the body in its gendered particularity and ambiguity. Guthrie writes from the uneasy vantage of “Descartes’ daughter,” carrying the baggage of a mind/body inheritance but upending it with brio. Like Bourgeois, “she casts Intimates / in abandon.” She casts them aside, throws them out, or forges them in iron, fiberglass, or rubber, in shapes from “Mamelles” to “Fillette”:
Reality I want
not rigid like a grid
and not limp, but
accurate as the entrails of a rabbit
mischievous as a monkey coat […]
To stroke Fillette
To assemble skeins
Rhyming “ingress” and “forgiveness” rounds out a pornographic joke about tumescence, and Guthrie introduces “penetralia” alongside “juvenilia” and “memorabilia” as defining terms of an oeuvre. “Fillette” signifies “little girl” as well as French slang for a cowardly man, and the image prompts a graphic re-gendering of the ekphrastic gaze. It evokes a phallus on a meat hook, for sure, but also an image that is glossed as a small female torso. Guthrie’s imagery captures the grim cheerfulness of the object as a figure the MoMA catalog describes as one of both “erect potency and fragile vulnerability.”
Guthrie repeats Bourgeois’s experiments with gendered binaries, but she does so in her own medium, as in this remapping of “Janus Fleuri”:
A solid geometry of opposites
Form & Formlessness
to the death
In a theater of gestures
the menace of the father
the refuge of the mother
in abundant variation
or carry it around
like a ravaged book
or a strange baby
Or stretch it out in portions of
the drama of the self
You choose enactment
& its difficulties
& delight in it
The shape of “Janus Fleuri” suggests multiple anatomical referents — labia, heads of penises, clitorises, all of the above. Bourgeois’s hermaphroditic flowering of the two-faced god is an organic form in which gender becomes, as so often in ekphrasis, dialectical. Guthrie traces this dialectical movement — “halves the homunculus” — by unfolding the compulsion to choose (form or formlessness, mother or father, danger or safety, baby or book). By way of alternative, she invites the gazer to “stretch” “the self” through its “difficulties” and its pain, “enactments” that turn out to be sources not of division but delight.
“Topiary” stretches the self another way, this time through a feminist revision of a canonical masterwork. Reading the sculpture of this name, Guthrie offers a line-by-line rewrite of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” She introduces this odd Daphne not with the authority of the first-person plural but with a singular “I” who speaks to Bourgeois’s sister Henriette. Carried through this personal conversation, the poem reclaims ekphrastic power for mixed-media whimsy — this is not a classical bust of sublime proportions, but a small, playful, tree-sprouting girl, a female figure escaping a rapacious Apollo by flowering buoyantly with balloons or alveoli. First, Guthrie matches Rilke’s account of the sculpture’s power: “His gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power” becomes “steel Dryad, / […] her gaze effaced / Shines with distended power.” Then, whereas Rilke is drawn to “that dark center where procreation flared,” Guthrie reanimates cognition: “As limbs proliferate through her pulped brain / From dendrites where creation [my emphasis] flared.”
Rilke’s famous injunction “You must change your life” becomes a confident wish for generative potential: “You shake forth a nest.” The poem is as tricky and composite as the sculpture: its valences both ominous and celebratory.
As she riffs off of and ransacks Bourgeois’s material, Guthrie grounds her ekphrastic forms in the sonic specificity of her own medium. The musicality of her language — we savor “gloam” and “formalism” as much for their rich “m” sounds and low vowels as we do for their semantics — becomes her analogue for Bourgeois’s objects and gestures. When Guthrie describes “a beheaded cre- / puscular scream / coming up / for air beside / a rusted tablesaw,” we do hunt for objects, but relish the density of the compound syllables: the echoing “p-l” and “b-l” of “crepuscular” and “tablesaw,” the brisk but syncopated anapestic tempo. Guthrie sometimes pushes the limits of meaning to assay a paradoxical verbality — “a deafening name,” an “unpronounceable word” — but more often she taps Bourgeois’s playful energy for its disruptive, uncanny verve. Here is “Cell IV”:
Pressed at the door of isolate rituals
an Ear imagines
the tenor of the unsaid
the spoken sits
at the periphery of a body
and hollows, hollers
What is heard
found a girl
The passage describes Bourgeois’s Cells and self-describes Guthrie’s poetics — the “Ear” gathers “severed emphatic cadences,” overhearing speech that accrues significance at the “periphery” of embodiment. What the ear discovers (and recovers and uncovers) could “dumbfound a girl,” leave her mute, confuse her, or even silence her.
Guthrie’s ekphrastic poems delve into this dangerous potency, this vibration and eruption, along the semantic, corporeal, and formal fault lines that Bourgeois’s art exposes. Articulated Lair concludes with a poem titled “Portrait”: “Bold / / she arose / / arranging.” The announcement pays homage to Bourgeois’s achievement and also lays self-conscious claim to Guthrie’s own act of poetic remaking. Articulated Lair participates in all three of the feminist ekphrastic motives I have sketched in this essay. It challenges the paradigm of male gaze and mute feminized object as it inquires into the representational rifts in bodily forms and formalisms. It documents a deep engagement with another artist’s work in a field of creative recognition and kinship. It evokes sensory rooms that are transfixing and transformative in their capacity to enclose both pleasure and pain. Following Bourgeois, Guthrie’s work is both performative and analytical: she pays close attention to Bourgeois’s efforts to exact form’s ransom by “Cracking // the skull of // the world’s own code.” Guthrie wrenches the idiom from “cracking the code” to “cracking the skull” — the pain seems to assail the forehead, the jaw. It is a painstaking process, reading and remaking uncertain redemption, prying into the rifts of the globe to reveal its coded workings, but it is difficult to look away.
Bang, Mary Jo. “Cell (Three Marble Spheres).” Prairie Schooner 2005.
Giménez Smith, Carmen. Milk & Filth. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 2013.
Guthrie, Camille. Articulated Lair. Subpress Collective, 2013.
Keefe, Anne. “The ecstatic embrace of verbal and visual: Twenty-first century lyric beyond the ekphrastic paragone.” Word & Image 27.2 (2011): 135-147.
Loizeaux, Elizabeth B. Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts. Cambridge UP, 2008
Mitchell, W. J. T. “Ekphrasis and the Other.” Picture Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.
Museum of Modern Art, "Exquisite Corpses: Drawing and Disfiguration." March 14-July 9, 2012. Gallery label text.
Tschofen, Monique. “Drawing out a new image of thought: Anne Carson’s radical ekphrasis.” Word & Image 29.2 (2013): 233-43.
LARB Staff Recommendations
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Writer Alexandra Socarides teaches us how to play Mad-Libs with Emily Dickinson poems....
Lisa Russ Spaar explores the second books of two well-loved but often misunderstood poets....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.