The Davids Inside David
By Sarah Wetzel
Terrapin Books, 2019
104 Pages, $16.00
Review by Jane Medved
“Art breaks down the boundary between its object and life –”
From “Regarding the Beauty of Cockroaches” – Sarah Wetzel
To write a good ekphrastic poem, one must be able to pull aside the invisible curtain between art and the world it represents. The painting or sculpture serves as a doorway, a point through which to enter a larger world only hinted at by the artist. Great ekphrastic writing requires sensitivity to the unsaid, the backstory, the implications. Poems like Larry Levis’ “Edward Hopper, Hotel Room, 1931” take the reader out of a drab hotel room, into the wheat fields of Kansas and then back inside the sadness of a woman’s unlived life. In The Davids Inside David (Terrapin Books, 2019), Sarah Wetzel displays the same sleight of hand.
From the first poem of this collection – separated from the other sections almost as an epigraph –Wetzel establishes the co-mingling of the known and unknown, the established and the radical. The poem is titled “Reservoir Dogs” and opens with Michelangelo’s pure adolescent David. Wetzel’s eyes, however, quickly spy another David, off in a corner, this one painted by Volterra:
“…his hand raised not with a child’s toy,
but with an enormous steel sword, his face
full of what I can only call ecstasy, fervent
as any boy’s face, my nephew
watching for the tenth time his favorite
Tarantino film, anticipating the fists and knives, the ear
severed with a razor. Praise Michelangelo for not showing us
that boy, the one bent over his conquest
for a first kiss, tasting the flesh,
This is Sarah Wetzel’s third book of poems. Many of them were written in Rome, a city where she teaches. There, art is described through the eyes of an American transplanted in a foreign city, and infused with strangeness and familiarity.
Rome itself surrounds the speaker with a living, breathing backdrop of Cathedrals and Piazzas, ruins and open gates. It is not so much a city, as a presence, a series of sacred doors where “Everything pours forth. / The fountain its meaning. Paintings / their history. Books, their words and white / spaces.” It is a place where even the cemetery is worthy of homage – “They are here. All of them: Gramsci, / Isabella rosella, and John Keats.”
In this ancient city, artists and their subjects are portals onto other worlds – back to the destruction of earthquakes (“I want to be there / when the ground opens up / and Michelangelo’s masterpiece leans / more than the fifteen degrees / he’s allowed”) — from “The Next David” — to the glory days of History, the defeat of Goliath, and into the minds of the subjects themselves. Here David is “near death / or far from it, depending on how one feels about centuries.” — from “In David’s Image” — and “He knows / that even as he walks across fields / toward his Goliath, as he weeps / over what will surely be / many losses, we’re watching him” – from “The Male Gaze.”
To keep us firmly rooted in the present day, there is a constant supply of modern observers and commentators: Tourists who quip there’s not enough blood, women who boast of their travels in bars, couples who fight in elevators. There is a marble faun and a pregnant teenage student. And through it all – the keen and forgiving eye of the writer – who says of herself:
“The world keeps testing me.
The lemons falling one by one on the balcony,
the dead leaves from my neighbors’ trees gathering
in small piles in its corners.”
“Some of us see signs. Some of us
live in the past. My talent lies in painting
The poems in this collection take us on a tour of conquest, love, antiquities, failure, loneliness and, above all, family, as the narrator’s life and the life of the artists she describes collide, merge, separate, and console each other. Like a photograph rising from its chemical bath, we begin to see the invisible connections between poet, artist, and subject.
In “Daughter Like Father” Wetzel describes the tiny figure of her father standing alone in front of the ocean, then observes:
“My father could be the same monk
staring out into the German sea painted
by Caspar Friedrich two centuries ago.
The same wind reaches my window,
blows the curtain’s transparent fabric across
The speaker’s childhood, her parent’s courtship, her mother’s death, her failed marriages are all threads pulling us from poem to poem. In “My First Face” she tells us how:
“For fifty-five years, Borges slowly went blind,
losing first grey and green, the small fonts, the leaf’s
network of veins, then the difference between cerulean
and sapphire, between Chianti and claret.”
This reflection conjures up the end of her marriage:
“A man I married told me one morning,
I don’t think I love you. We’d been married twelve years
though it took him another two years
to walk out the door. To be honest, I never loved him
not even as I said yes. Yet I know, I’d still be with him
if he hadn’t left.”
The story of Borges losing his sight becomes the story of the narrator slowly losing her husband; a man whose love for her is withdrawn in the same incremental process. While the great artist loses colors and letters, the speaker loses pieces of her relationship.
Like the great artists she admires, Wetzel is continually painting and pretending, observing and imagining, traveling through time and space. In Rome and in the world at large, whether it is famous works or popular culture, she asks of the art she encounters: Are you a doorway or a mirror? With the poems in this collection, she shows us they can be both.