Book Review: Instructions for a Painting by Molly Brodak
I'm sure you're all aware that it's National Poetry Month, and we're celebrating at HFR, of course! We're starting off the month with a tribute to Molly Brodak's Instructions for a Painting, and following with a new book review every following Monday. Also featured on the blog will be weekly poetry prompts (with chances to win more free issues for you creative ones), and a little contributor-inspired game of Exquisite Corpse. It's gonna be a good month. We'll keep you updated via our Facebook and Twitter.
Review of Instructions for a Painting by Molly Brodak, Greentower Press, 2007. By Meghan Brinson.
On the back of Molly Brodak’s Instructions for a Painting, Reginald Shephard calls the book a “verbal painting.” While Brodak certainly focuses on creating images in her collection, the book is an exemplar and instruction manual for avoiding the static fallacy for which most mimetic art, especially poetry, draws criticism. Here you will not find neat landscapes, still lifes, or diorama vignettes. Brodak’s poems employ a variety of poetic acrobatics to create mutable, energetic poems. Here is a collection where imagism is closely scrutinized and reinvented in a truly exciting way—an instruction manual to be sure, not just for anyone who wants to read some lovely poetry, but also for those who are interested in the muscular reinvention of what is possible within language.
Instructions For a Painting employs several techniques to examine and create image, as well as complicate the idea of image and seeing itself. Here’s a partial catalogue of the inventiveness of this collection:
In “Before Memory,” precision similes such as “my tooth throbbed like a bell” create synesthesia to challenge the primacy of vision.
In “Vermeer Sounds,” Brodak doesn’t address the painting but the research that probes it—an alternative way of seeing that discovers the “Things not painted at all:/ The actual living blue figure./ Glittering whatsoever.”
Many of the poems, most notably “Lake-like,” couple abstractions with natural details to create a surreal dreamscape, one part luscious visual and one part mental jamble. You might be reminded of Dali by the “flabby tree,” from “Going Back to Sleep,” or intrigued by what the taste of “malty flesh” in “Cabaret Voltaire” would be.
“Roman Girls” utilizes spliced grammar to create wild leaps of prose-poemy logic. From one enjambed line to the next stanza, the world of the poem shifts gears, moving from neon to shadow.
“Joseph Conrad’s Last Novel,” looks at literary ways of seeing, cataloguing the various ways that Conrad “sees” and makes race visible in his novels.
“St. Matthews With a Camcorder” is a series of vignettes morphing into each other like an etch-a-sketch—in each stanza a different collection of pieces coalesces or scatters, giving a final impression more of profound movement rather than the particular importance of any one image.
And finally, most directly, “Ramp of the Chinese Dog” at once notes the fine difference between seeing and the object being seen, while honoring the soulfulness, the pilgrimage that seeing can be:
“And the their tired hearts knock
against the long-limbed bronzes
in the fountain like new moths.
The water reaches after them
in weird sprays, endlessly.”
While the formal variety and boldness of Instructions For a Painting are impressive, lovers of language don’t have to worry that they will be left out because of the critical engagement of this collection with its tradition. Be prepared throughout for images simultaneously tender and unsentimental, both powerfully present and fully rooted in the lyric connection between the speaker and the world at large which infuses the book, like in the spring scene of “The Dollar Queen”:
“…Outside the Dollar
Ocean the crabapple trees shed petals
from their ridiculous clouds of magenta
for us only, into our hair.
Molly Brodak’s Instructions For a Painting delivers so much of what contemporary poetry longs for: uncompromising dedication to language, a sincere and unsyrupy gesture toward meaningful connection between people and their world, poems vibrating off the page with movement and color, all contained in a serious conversation about how humans see the world around them, how they fool themselves into thinking snapshots of vision contain the whole picture, and why it is important to look in the first place.
Molly Brodak is from Michigan and currently teaches at Augusta State University in Georgia. Her poems have appeared recently in Field, Colorado Review, Ninth Letter, Kenyon Review Online, Bateau, and her first full-length collection A Little Middle of the Night won the 2009 Iowa Poetry Prize.