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Elizabeth Reninger


By December 28, 2012

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What follows is the second half of Jorie Graham's poem "At Luca Signorelli's Resurrection Of The Body." It's from a collection titled Erosion, whose guiding theme is an exploration of the meeting-place of matter and spirit, the visible and the invisible. The language is rich with extended metaphors, woven through with philosophical and historical allusions of all sorts. Not an easy read, but -- in my opinion -- well worth the engagement.

Among my two-hundred or so poetry collections, this is one of the most well-worn:  Along with Rumi's Birdsong, Tagore's The Lover Of God, Neruda's 100 Love Sonnets, and several other favorites, Erosion has been a collection which, over the years, I've returned to, again and again.

Though it was published in 1983, it wasn't until around 1990 that I first discovered it.  I was still in graduate school, but beginning to question, seriously, the extent to which conceptual mind could satisfy my deepest longings.  And had begun to read and write poetry, on a regular basis, as a kind of refuge.

As I heard them, the poems in Erosion expressed a very similar dilemma to the one I was facing. My feeling was that Jorie Graham, using poetry as a vehicle, had pushed intellect to its very limits -- again and again questioning the capacity of mind, and of language, and of conditioned perception, to do what it purports to be able to do.

After dozens of readings of the collection, what arose within me was an intense curiosity, around the question: what will Jorie Graham's next poetry collection be like?  Because as I saw it, she had taken herself right to the edge of a cliff -- beyond which lay only the open sky of some kind of deep surrender into not-knowing.  So: what would she do? Remain there, tottering at the boundary between the known and the unknown?  Or would she take the leap, into ..... ?  (emerging, perhaps, as a modern-day Rumi; or wandering off like Laozi into the mountains, never to be heard from again?)

As it turned out, Ms. Graham opted neither for a full surrender of conceptual-mind, nor for remaining at cliff's-edge -- but rather for a retreat back into a more densely intellectual approach, that marked her next poetry collection. I remember my feelings of disappointment.  I had wanted her to answer some still-unformulated question, churning deep in my belly -- about how best to proceed, when faced with such a cliff-edge. About how actually to take the leap .... but alas -- for whatever reasons -- she had chosen instead (at least in the context of her published work) to do an about-face, back into (seemingly) safer territory.

Anyway, back to the poem: "At Luca Signorelli's Resurrection Of The Body." By way of historical context, Luca Signorelli was an Italian Renaissance painter, best known for his nudes: his virtuosic renderings of the human body. His training included time spent in burial grounds, almost certainly conducting dissections, from which he gleaned detailed information about human anatomy, which then greatly enhanced his artistic renderings.

At one point, he was commissioned by some Catholic monks to paint a series of frescoes, in the Orvieto Cathedral, depicting "The Last Judgment." One of the paintings -- "Deposition From The Cross" (from which the detail reproduced above is drawn) -- portrays the recently-crucified Jesus, in the embrace of those mourning his death. As legend has it, the dead body of Christ, in this painting, was modeled on the body of his own son, Antonio, who had just recently succumbed to the plague. Upon hearing of his son's passing, Signorelli had the body placed, naked, in his studio, and created from it a drawing -- as a final act of love and remembrance -- which he subsequently referred to, in rendering the body of Christ.

Ms. Graham's poem recounts this story, with simultaneous reference to (and intentional ambiguity between) Signorelli's practice of dissection, his profound skills as a painter, and his grief which somehow finds resolution within the seeing born of the deep practice of his art-form: facilitating, perhaps, a kind of resurrection (into its true nature as openness/emptiness and, ultimately, the Unborn) -- or at least a tender consecration -- of what had seemed to be irretrievably lost.

... In his studio
Luca Signorelli
in the name of God
and Science
and the believable
broke into the body

studying arrival.
But the wall
of the flesh
opens endlessly,
its vanishing point so deep
and receding

we have yet to find it,
to have it
stop us. So he cut
graduating slowly
from the symbolic

to the beautiful. How far
is true?
When one son
died violently,
he had the body brought to him
and laid it

on the drawing-table,
and stood
at a certain distance
awaiting the best
possible light, the best depth
of day,

then with beauty and care
and technique
and judgment, cut into
shadow, cut
into bone and sinew and every

in which the cold light
It took him days,
that deep
caress, cutting,

until his mind
could climb into
the open flesh and
mend itself.


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