What’s Ekphrasis Good For?: On Camille Guthrie’s “Diamonds”

July 26, 2022   •   By S. Brook Corfman


Camille Guthrie

LIKE THE NARRATOR of Dante’s Inferno, the speaker of Camille Guthrie’s latest book, Diamonds: Poems (Boa Editions, 2021), appears midway through life: “Ah me! I find myself middle-aged divorced lost / In the forest dark of my failures mortgage & slack breasts.” Unlike that famous journey, however, the narrator of Diamonds is alone: “It’s hard to admit nobody wants to do me anymore / Not even Virgil will lead me down to his basement rental.” The joke of this opening buries the Janus phrase at its center, where “I find myself” suggests both bewilderment and self-discovery. When the speaker calls out, “Virgil, hey!” no one responds — but in calling for Virgil at all, she recognizes that others have preceded her.

This epic narrative strand — accompanied by a drier wit — dates back to Guthrie’s earliest collections, The Master Thief: A Poem in Twelve Parts (2000) and In Captivity (2006). But in her third book, Articulated Lair: Poems for Louise Bourgeois (2013), Guthrie eschews that more filmic, wandering eye in favor of stillness and structure. Like Bourgeois’s sculptures, Articulated Lair achieves softness from stone — B. K. Fischer described the poems as having “valences both ominous and celebratory.” Despite this pivot, these three books (all published by Subpress Collective alongside early books by Hoa Nguyen, Prageeta Sharma, and kari edwards) share certain obsessions: a vision of torqued language as a tool for sensemaking, visual art as a method to focus our attention, and a careful attunement to youth and maturation.

Diamonds combines the narrative style of Guthrie’s first two books with the sterling ekphrastic impulse of her third. However, rather than focus only on art objects, Diamonds engages other historical artifacts (like women’s fashion, including Sylvia Plath’s prom dress and a dusty rose Winter 2006 Valentino getup) as it considers major life events, like raising children or divorce. Articulated Lair is an under-sung masterpiece of a certain kind of ekphrasis, but Diamonds is Guthrie’s best book yet, and her most complicated, masquerading as her chattiest. Plus, it is very funny.

This change is clearest in a poem at the end of the first section, “Family Collection,” which is resolutely narrative: a woman, her two children, and her friend visit an art museum (the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts). The poem tracks their distinctly different experiences, including the friend’s affection for the Van Goghs and the speaker’s intrusive thoughts about the politics of arts funding as well as her children’s future, while the children themselves are somewhat benignly bored, amusing themselves with rocks and squirrels outside. Amid the varying bad or banal feelings on display, there is an investment in the power of art, even if only intermittently in this art.

The poem’s long stanzas have a time-keeping quality, and this, combined with a reliance on the line break for rhythm more often than punctuation, generates a sense across the book of time elapsing. (Conversely, when Guthrie turns to prose, the driving force is deferred by the stasis of lush, descriptive imagery.) The ongoing temporal quality also means the poems are difficult to excerpt efficiently — they work by accumulation and juxtaposition rather than through the integrity of an individual image or line. Here is the second half of one of those longer stanzas in “Family Collection,” which begins with Rembrandt’s painting Man Reading (c. 1648):

Rembrandt van Rijn’s tender disgruntledness
Makes me feel wildly pleased I feel
Delighted to have been in its proximity
A few minutes to stare at a man reading
While my children get antsy and move on
Bored by the dull browns that say nothing to them
To me he says that life is utterly disappointing
Even if you are fucking Rembrandt
So you may as well read a good book
And for crying out loud
Be precise about whatever you do
I find it powerfully comforting
Since I’m middle-aged, crying, utterly disappointed
Divorced with a part-time job no savings
My future family collection made up of
My Little Ponies Warhammer guys Legos
And a Hilma af Klint poster I ordered from the internet
I love its humming blue pinwheel infinitude

Part of the joy here is that the speaker has found a painting she loves that her children do not; it is comforting not because it mirrors the details of her life but because it departs from them. The other paintings which strike her do so because of their harmful politics (Orientalist works by Jean-Léon Gérôme and John Singer Sargent), and the poem is intercut with the speaker’s worries about her kids (she wonders if she is “the worst one in their lives”). The result, then, is a kind of bravura performance that dwells in the overwhelming mediocrity of art, and of life, while cherishing those moments which exceed it: the painting, and the poster, but also the “lovely outing” which holds the entirety of the visit to the museum, including its anxieties. Yet the rarity of such moments does not mean we should give up, or assign a kind of moral failure to the ordinary. Instead, the collection indexes the importance, and the joy, of striving toward the betterness of art, and the betterness of the self.

Diamonds itself was preceded by the kind of non-event event the book is interested in, in the form of a “viral” poem. An early version of “Diamonds” (the poem) was published in Boston Review on April 8, 2018 (a few months before its poetry editors resigned in protest of the magazine’s continued employment of Junot Díaz), and on June 15, the Boston Review tweeted that the poem was “the most popular piece of poetry we have ever published.” In the weird way of the internet, the primary evidence of Facebook shares and retweets has vanished, but Boston Review’s tweet, a Literary Bennington article about the poem’s popularity, and my memory remain as evidence of the phenomenon. (According to Literary Bennington, the students referenced in the poem seem to have been mostly unfazed by it.)

For Diamonds, the opening line of “Diamonds” was changed from “Judith Butler, I am calling you” to “Judith Butler, I am calling you out.” While the wryness does seem a perfect match to the tone of, say, Twitter, the poem is not quite the callout it now suggests. About teaching Butler to her students, Guthrie continues:

I’m lucky, I get to teach you, Judith
to students who eat up your words like candy hearts
who return to the arms of their friends
to dye their hair blue & fuck everyone & not shave
and make manifestos & tweet witty protests
who do drugs & sleep late & dance naked
They seem so unafraid ahistorical dreamfull
They stand outside the library smoking cigarettes
as if we’re not going to die!
As if there aren’t books to read!
I have the greatest job in the world
Could be a lot worse

But then the poem pivots across a stanza break:

But I’m lonely in debt there’s no one to love me
I’m feeling sorry for myself & guilty for all my luck
Mutually contradictory states of mind
that’s what Shakespeare invented, supposedly
Gender, you say, is a performance

There’s something wonderful about the poem’s juxtaposition of the freedom of youth (presented with admiration but not quite with jealousy) against the depressingly sobering quality of knowledge, of nuance. Also wonderful are the line breaks, which often slow down the momentum accelerated by the ampersands. Out of this play with speed, with time, Guthrie generates the complexity of feeling, the “[m]utually contradictory states of mind.” In Guthrie’s hands, what could have been self-indulgent or gratuitous is profound. She describes self-pity without soliciting or coercing it from the reader.

While the first of the book’s three sections — including “Virgil, Hey,” “Diamonds,” and “Family Collection” — illustrates a kind of stuckness or bad feeling, the middle section reclaims what might be called adolescent love, or lust, or infatuation, for middle age. It is this reclamation that allows the third section to move forward with a renewed sense of possibility. The tone is not quite optimism, as the seemingly “bigger” issues remain, like climate change or the failure of government — “The sea level rises idealism falls / And ruthless ideologies abound / Put your head down / We have serious work to do” — but rather one tempered by an individual’s potential.

The crossing of love-sex-politics-possibility sparks my favorite poem in the book, a sonnet titled “I Am Giving Up Poetry,” which arrives in the middle section, just shy of the collection’s halfway point. The poem has an epigraph from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 84, and then begins with these stanzas:

I am giving up poetry for kissing you, I mean it
When your body nears mine, metaphors are tedious nitpickers
Similes as useless to me as an IUD from the seventies
I don’t want representation I want to make out in parking lots

When you touch my breasts, sonnets are painfully brief
Epics dull and long, too many battles, I long to be alone with you
For just an hour, no allusions to Yeats, just your weight on mine
There’s no subtlety to my intentions, no puns, no ambiguity

There’s a lot to love in this poem about big love, in particular its unabashed commitment to sensuality. But I especially admire its delusion (or pretense) that it does not need poetry for those commitments that it marshals poetry to make: “[M]etaphors are tedious nitpickers” is a metaphor; “Similes as useless to me as an IUD” is a simile. Whatever it thinks about sonnets, the poem is a sonnet, and one with its own ambiguity. The poem can’t help but offer this form as an imperfect, but pleasurable, substitute for the thing it most wants to be doing. (Or so it says.) And, as all good sonnets do, it ends with a volta, a turn which here is used to give up the poem’s prevaricating attempt to really, truly give up poetry, and instead reconcile poetry with sensual desire: “I have critical work to do like licking your sweet face.”

The three explicitly formal poems that appear in the collection function as a vital meeting ground for Guthrie’s questions around individual and collective fulfillment. “Serious Moonlight,” another sonnet, is part elegy for David Bowie and part list poem about kinds of moonlight, which stand in for a breakup’s peculiar deprivation of one’s support system at exactly the moment one might need it: “Modern moonlight fell roughly scattering my thoughts / Bowie died last night his exquisite alien soul has taken off / You are with another and I’m falling repeatedly / Shattered by this silently falling terrible moonlight.”

“Beautiful Poetry,” a sneaky sestina whose end words are the unassuming “beautiful,” “you,” “life,” “color,” “thanks,” and “mind,” highlights the importance of form and pattern as generators for the poem, rather than as its end goal. The form makes certain conclusions possible, after which it can recede. (This is true whether the form is built out of lines and stanzas or out of prose, as in the dating profile or the to-do list.) Susan Stewart writes that forms are “a legacy from the dead and to the future”; they tie us to history, and to others, who take and change them. In poetic forms, the importance of the self’s boundary, or permeability, reaches its productive peak.

In a brief reading and discussion of her poem “Be More Like Björk” for PoetryNow, Camille Guthrie reports that to be more like Björk means “to be utterly fearless and open; to make innovative art; to transform yourself; and to wear whatever you want.” Diamonds beautifully demonstrates how this reach for individuality, or innovation, is not divorced from collective experience, or sociality. Our feelings, after all, are inspired by others, by art, and by our children; we do not exist alone. And if a piece of art or a relationship is not always perfect, or even “good,” then we should say so, and not let mediocrity or halfway feeling come to stand in for skill, or achievement, or fulfilling relationships. But we should not take this as a fatal criticism. We should take it as a buoying, as a mark of what might be possible with our next effort.


S. Brook Corfman is the author of My Daily Actions, or The Meteorites (Fordham University Press, 2020), Luxury, Blue Lace (Autumn House Press, 2019), as well as several chapbooks, including Frames (Belladonna* Chaplets, 2020).