Forever in Unfinishing: On Adam Tavel’s “Rubble Square”

November 29, 2022   •   By Jane Zwart

Rubble Square

Adam Tavel

YOU WOULD THINK that writing about works of visual art — about portraits and museum relics, the salvage of other centuries — would spare a poet from self-consciousness. An ekphrastic poem, after all, with very few exceptions, centers on an object at least once removed from the writer: another artist stands between the canvas or sculpture or film and the writer who tries to wrap the art object in language. Simply put, the focus of an ekphrastic poem is not, first, the self. But, as Adam Tavel’s new collection Rubble Square makes clear, the most poignant ekphrastic poetry still buzzes with self-consciousness.

Which is not to deny that ekphrastic poetry affords the writer some distance. It does, and Tavel uses that distance for several purposes, one of which is to make the excruciating beautiful. Consider his description of a heap of pinecones in an Andrew Wyeth painting:

Sickly gray, the ridges of their scales
resemble tarnished dimes poured from
a pillow case, or beef that’s spoiled,
or brains blown from a president
that mist his wife who climbs to scoop
a country in her gloves.


The awful crescendo from tarnish through rot to slaughter, the merciless precision of the verb “mist,” the more-than-synecdochic leap from the president’s brains to “a country” that “his wife […] climbs to scoop […] in her gloves” — distance is the precondition for the whole feat. Tavel can write such gorgeous, grotesque lines because the image’s dead (Wyeth’s pinecones, Zapruder’s Kennedy) are not, primarily, his dead; because he stakes his claim on them by way of imagination rather than immediacy.

Likewise, if Rubble Square’s beauties stir Tavel — say, the figure in “her crimson dress, a bugled artery” — they do so outside the medium of flesh or breath. The distance ekphrasis lends the writer, then, is psychic and aesthetic, but it is also a function of time. Rubble Square’s command of history lets Tavel plot routes around himself, around his dear ones. He can skirt his own past by haunting archives. He can buffer himself from the present by keeping company with the ancients.

Notably, he has known how to purchase this kind of historical distance all along. His first book, Plash & Levitation (2015), is full of time-traveling ventriloquism — of persona poems whose speakers Tavel pulls from history’s cast of players and extras. One of the poems in this book puts words into the mouth of Joseph of Nazareth; another bellows a soliloquy, its voice a proxy for William Tecumseh Sherman’s. But unlike the work in Rubble Square, these persona poems leave no room for self-consciousness. On the contrary, the earlier verses grant Tavel distance from his own present — and even from his own words — on the condition that he disappear inside those words. Jesus’s father and the Civil War general — the writer gives them voice, invisibly, from within. The personas swallow the poet whole.

In an ekphrastic poem, the immersion is never so total. The other work of art — first on the scene, with its own enclosed world — doesn’t absorb the poet. Rather, an ekphrastic poem fixes its speaker (who might not be the poet’s self but is still the poet’s charge) near the work of art; it makes them, gawking at still lifes and old movies and older ruins, conspicuous. As a persona poet, then, Tavel is a cipher; as an ekphrastic poet, he is a hanger-on, the thrall of what he sees held at bay by a work of art that will neither invite him in nor let him go. Consequently, he loiters self-consciously in Rubble Square, uncomfortably able to see himself from the outside, hyperaware of his own edges and angles.

But it is this self-consciousness that — even as the poems hold at arm’s length the works of art they study — undoes the distance between writer and reader. This volume of ekphrastic poems (poems that Tavel cannot help but appear in, however much he leans away from their foci) make the poet and the reader a pair. Put otherwise: Because these poems’ speakers are craning to look at the same things we are, Rubble Square tasks both Tavel and us with the tentative work of trying to know, from its representation or remainder, a person or a place or a thin slice of time.

Probably the careful reading of careful poems always forges such partnerships: the cocreation of meaning by writer and reader. Still, most of the time, the poet might just as easily be mistaken for someone withholding the key to a locked door behind which the poem’s “real meaning” resides. We cannot make that mistake, though, in reading “Child in Memphis,” for example, since its speaker takes up a post right next to the spot it reserves for the reader:

            The girl
[…] squints into
the whitened glare
behind the white
photographer […]
 
She’s nine or ten.
Her limbs too lean
from overwork,
her knotted hands
rest on her smock.
Or so I guess.
I cannot know


A reader might, admittedly, feel barred from the “real meaning” of this poem. Certainly, as we take in “Child in Memphis,” we know that we stand at a distance from its subject and the secrets on the other side of the bean vines that “trellis on the air” of her “shack porch.” Factor in the dimension of time, and we also know that we stand farther from this girl than “the white / photographer,” Dorothea Lange. Both readers and the writer, however, are equidistant from the photograph’s subject, doing the same guesswork. The poem’s self-consciousness gives us an unmistakable ally in what we “cannot know” — and an exemplar for lavishing our attention on this squinting child. Thus, Tavel, unable to crop himself out of the poem’s frames, becomes our partner in seeing how far toward understanding a shared attentiveness will take us.

He becomes our partner in longing for impossible interventions, too. With him, we regard “An Engraving of a Woman Entering an Abortion Clinic” and see at once that “the theme is shame.” With him, we resolve to “lift / [the woman’s] chin” and muster to join the “us” when Tavel proposes “let’s call her dear Marie.” With him, in imagination, we “stuff her purse / with francs.” And farther into Rubble Square’s pages, we with him examine a “Somerset County Cold Case Photo, 1980,” taken in a garden shed where “yellow packets / of seeds like solitaire across / its workbench” sit next to “new gloves still tagged.” We stare at an old woman’s “shipwrecked body” that is “caked with potting soil […] / the killer poured to compensate // for strangling’s lack of gore, perhaps.” Leaning toward this image, Tavel’s voice in our ear, we make fruitless wishes almost in unison with the poet: to carry out, in the widow’s place, her lonely rite of spring; to smooth her dignity; to exorcize the strangler’s “rash dismay.”

So, Rubble Square’s self-consciousness is an engine that binds us to Tavel — to his way of looking at and feeling for the subjects other artists have rendered. Of course, there is also the human knack for unfeeling to confront, but these verses do not allow their readers to distance themselves from the poet when he looks on cruelty any more than they give him space when he looks on suffering or beauty. For instance, when Tavel sizes up “The Sutton Hoo Helmet,” once worn by an “opulent barbarian who cleaved / through tribes of men as savage as his own,” and the speaker concludes that it would fit him just as well, we have no choice but to nod. It would fit us, too.

Wonderfully, then, Rubble Square plants its author and its audience before the same images and objects, the same recorded phenomena — pressing them to reckon together with engraved caskets and seething colors. More wonderfully, though, it presses the poet and the reader, together, to reckon with what it means that we stand before these objects and images, toes at the threshold between the poem and whatever its words recount or describe. What does it mean? In “Figures on a Beach,” Tavel writes about a landscape by J. M. W. Turner:

their bodies blown parentheses
wind-whipped atop the whitened dunes
in snow or heat it’s hard to tell
the season of their suffering
but wind: it makes small sails of rags
these six with billowed sleeves all wear
forever in unfinishing


To read Rubble Square is, in part, to visit an improvised space, a space that is “forever in unfinishing.” In such a landscape, such a room, such a collection, a poet and a reader are no heftier than a pair of parentheses. Looking at the painting across the lines of the poem, they cannot even “tell / the season.” But the not-knowing that they inhabit together has something in common with immortality. Thus, poetry is not “a joke each poet plays upon themselves,” as one of Tavel’s lines suggests — nor is poetry a joke played on the reader. No, poetry is a structure built around an uncertainty that also bewilders time. As for Rubble Square’s ekphrastic verses, the writer shares the shelter he’s made of them with his readers — an act of faith in a season of wind.

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Jane Zwart teaches at Calvin University, where she also codirects the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, Threepenny Review, TriQuarterly, and Ploughshares, as well as other journals and magazines.