Thursday, April 19, 2012

Celebrate National Poetry Month with 30 Days of the 5-2: Crime Poetry

Gerald So has an excellent weekly crime poetry blog called The 5-2: Crime Poetry Weekly -and this April, to help celebrate National Poetry Month, he's coordinating a blog tour and has invited me to participate. Basically, each day of the month a different blogger will write about his/her favorite poem that has appeared at the 5-2. The complete list of participants can be found here -it gives fans of noir, whether prose or poetry, a great chance to encounter not only some new poetry but some new blogsites to follow. Several of these folks are friends of mine, and are darn good mystery writers and/or poets.

The piece I have chosen is by Pushcart Prize-winning poet Paul Hostovsky -check out his website here. The poem is called "My Visit to the Gardner Museum"; before I wax on about why I like it so much, I will let you read it...


by Paul Hostovsky

Isabella Stewart Gardner had a lot of shit,
a lot of very old and beautiful shit
from all over the world, going all the way back to
the Egyptian sarcophagi, which look a lot like bathtubs
though really they’re coffins. A whole lot of dead
shit in this museum, is what I’m thinking
to myself, not sharing that thought with the lovely
young woman who brought me here on our second date.
To share the world with the world, Isabella Gardner
built her eponymous museum in the Boston Fenway
in 1898. Now, a hundred and ten years later,
me and Celia are walking through its galleries, not touching
because it’s only our second date. And I think it’s obscene
the way she accumulated all this shit and shipped it
back to Boston. And I think it’s exactly what’s wrong
with America, the way we keep appropriating
shit that doesn’t belong to us, buying it up and
calling it ours. But I don’t tell Celia that because I want
to hold her hand now, which is presently pointing up
at an enormous gilt frame with no painting in it,
her sweet inquiring voice asking the well-ironed
museum guard standing next to it at attention: What
is this?
And he tells us this is the Rembrandt
that was stolen a few years back, along with the Vermeers
and other masterpieces cut right out
of their frames, the way poachers cut the valuable
part of the animal right out of the animal,
leaving the bloody carcass behind for the world
to stare at aghast and brokenhearted. And I think
this is by far the most interesting thing in the museum,
though I don’t tell Celia that, her hand in mine now
as we listen together to the museum guard’s harrowing tale
of the enemies of art breaking into Isabella’s
rooms, and ripping the Dutch masters right out. Like a
rape, she gasps, squeezing my hand tighter. That’s when I
reach for her other hand, which she gives to me now,
so now we’re standing face to face, just inches
away from each other’s flesh-colored
flesh, which is making the museum guard very
uncomfortable. And he looks away. And I steal a kiss
from Celia. And then I cop a feel of Rubens.

Now that's good stuff. On one level it is about crime in the classic sense, the sense we would expect -art thieves having stolen paintings from a museum. But on a deeper level it's about a whole different kind of stealing, a kind most of us never think about -cultural appropriation (although as an American Indian Studies scholar I think about it quite a bit.) That is, the nasty habit we as Americans have of just taking stuff that doesn't belong to us and not giving it back, literally and figuratively, because we consider ourselves the guardians and arbiters of "civilization." It is an expression of privilege that most Americans, Europeans, Aussies, Canadians, et al take for granted- the "white man's burden," as Kipling put it. Cultural noblesse oblige. The narrator and his girlfriend have "flesh-colored flesh," and we as readers understand that flesh-colored means white. Yet when they are confronted with evidence of more mundane thieves stealing canvas from a frame they are aghast, comparing it with poaching and even rape... Celia seems ignorant, if her boyfriend is not, of the irony. The thieves had stolen from thieves.

All of which is very fascinating, as Celia's boyfriend muses to himself. But in the final two lines we are taken to an even deeper, more primordial level. He steals a kiss, a sensual touch, from both the woman and the artwork -or was he conflating the two, touching something more Rubenesque than a canvas, and was there really any difference? Regardless, he can not -or chooses not to -resist engaging in the primal urge to take, if even for a moment... poaching, stealing, taking physical and sensory pleasure, the most basic of drives. He is the thief incarnate, and his theft is both powerful and disturbing in how timelessly natural it is -leaving the authoritarian figure, the guard, so uncomfortable he must look away.

As must we. But the thief is there.

Like I said, powerful stuff.

I plan to be a regular visitor at the the ol' 5-2, and I recommend you do as well. For my part, I am sometimes a crime writer and sometimes a poet, but I have never before considered combining the two -I'll be thinking about it now. In the meanwhile, you can check out my poetry and crime fiction if you are so inclined:

Cross Road Blues

Idylls in Darkness

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