Saturday, December 30, 2006

Musa McKim: painter and poet

The poem wants to tell you about Philip and Musa Guston in their bed
foreheads locked like magnets
how he's charging overnight
on her battery her poetry
warmly whirring.

--from "Erasures" a film-poem, which I promise to upload to my other film-poem site very soon


Many painters I know love Philip Guston's work, and if they don't all love his work, most love the story of his creative life. I won't go into the ins and outs (ups and downs, more to the point; Dore Ashton's book on him is comprehensive), but what endures in the larger contours of his story is how, in the end, he embraced contradictory creative impulses (in his case "pure" paintings and "thing" paintings), and the jet fuel that ignited when he fully embraced those opposing poles brought his late work into being. The painting here, Couple in Bed (1977, 206 x 240 cm oil on canvas in Chicago at the Art Institute) is from that late flowering.

Philip's wife was Musa McKim. She was a poet. A quiet poet. A reluctant poet. A woman of, perhaps, contradictory impulses herself: toward being the "artist's wife and muse" (Jesus, her name!), "mother" and "poet". She'd been a painter as well at the outset of her creative life. In an afterword to a book of McKim's writings, William Corbett writes about his attempts to get Musa to give him some work to publish in a magazine he edited called Fire Exit. He says he liked the McKim's writings for their "fresh unliterariness. They seemed to come direct from her imagination without having been mediated by art."

The book is called Alone With The Moon: selected writings of Musa McKim (The Figures: Boston 1994) I don't know if it's still in print. I bought it in the art gallery at Boston University (Guston taught there in the late seventies until his death.) The writing is uneven; some of it veers toward the overly whimsical. Other poems are perfectly pitched, showing us a writer of talent and singular taste, one who probably didn't spend enough time at the craft.

Some Music

Maybe this time you have gone so far
been away so long, that you take lacunae
for the mocassins
of your new princess.
Or maybe, by now, the princess is real.
Maybe what is real
is that you have a new princess.

I have looked for you everywhere.
In watering places, in dry places.

Where were you during the sirocco?
Should I have looked for you in the speedboat?
Did the flags get my message twisted?
Were you there, but was I asleep
and therefore invisible in the crowd?

I look for you in Woodstock,
East Hampton, the Cape and New York.
Should I have looked in Europe,
or the Orient?

I look for you in fancy restaurants.
And at Wah kee's--even at Sing Wu's.
And in the old stamping grounds.
There, all is quiet
as earth from the air.

I look for you in the air,
stopping and questioning every jet.
The air hostesses smile and say
"Thanks for stopping PAN AN," Or Eastern,
or American.

I look for you in sky-writing
thinking, sooner or later,
you will send a message that way.

When last we met you said,
"Should I ever want to be looked for
by anyone, it would be by you."

Soon the birds will be perching on my eyes.
Although it is not only with my eyes
that I look.

The neighbors, one of whom is a sculptor,
have built a fence around me
they are so disgusted.

I ease the pain by trying to evolve
into something else.
What could that be, though,
since I am fitted only
for looking for you?

Why instead of distress
signals, don't I broadcast
the news, the weather report,
some music?


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