Sleeping With the Fishes

Paul Thek’s Diver: A Retrospective, which was on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from October 21 – January 9, was the exhibit on everyone’s lips this fall. The show was, at its core, an appropriate and admirable survey of this versatile painter, sculptor, and installation artist’s brief career; it was morbid, poignant, and fit to burst, a jolt of strangeness and reflective spirit. A convalescence. As a result, Thek, who died of AIDS in 1988 and has since virtually disappeared from the fickle memory of the contemporary art scene, is experiencing a profound rebirth. People can’t seem to get enough of him… and although I can’t say I’m as obsessed as some, I will say that Diver certainly had me intrigued. For one, death, ephemerality, and “thing-ness” were Thek’s bag. He liked to ask the big questions— about life, time, the individual, and the great beyond. For those of you who know me, I’m sure you understand the attraction.

So, to the point. I would like to share with you my review of Diver, perhaps my favorite (and, I think, most successful) piece I wrote this past semester. Of course, it’s less a standard review than it is a poem. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to, as James Schuyler once said, “go the next step and flatten my response into conventional prose.” Go figure. It’s troublesome, but not surprising. I’m still having trouble crossing over.

[PS- My actual format is much more playful and jagged, but wordpress does not seem to want to be my friend today, so I encourage you to use your imagination. Merci.]

Sleeping With the Fishes

The Abominable Fishman[1] is real and so close
to being alive it kills him— a slick and outstretched menace
who consumes by preserving and grips a slimy secret:
Time is River[2] we all must dive in.
(But not he,
he has always been in the water, caught
somewhere between the pink and the blue.)
Each year,
on the day that is not his birthday, he stares at his Cake[3]
an Aztec pyramid
of waxen flesh encased in glass,
its glistening cross-sections adorned with
wisps of hair and sweet pink candles, perpetually unlit—
sticks out his tongue, plunges below the surface,
and finds another friend to add to his suit.

He considers himself a (de)composer, forever listening
for the tune of the end, twanging a steady beat on his Wishbone,[4]
covetous
and clinging to that thing-ness
which summons (the creature) Death to the door.
It began by putting meat on display in boxes
sometimes painted, sometimes raw
bribing Death with the simulacra of bloody synecdoche
(but still, it would not come)
Wild, he removed the hunks from their cages
stringing them on cables, draping them over tables,
perching them on the seat of a Sedan Chair[5] like cheese in a mousetrap—
forcing those who dared look to bend low,
to become afflicted,[6] or aware
of their own weight                        but still—

Many of his lures were lost in the current
(mourned by the few who saw them cast)
He tried leaving a trail of regressive rubble:
spotted fungi, building blocks, bronze babies[7], soft idioms
but those, too, curdled and sank. When he thinks of this
the Fishman frowns and crawls
back under his altar, or paces the Whitney
with eyes closed.
While There’s Still Time Let’s Go Out and Feel Everything[8],
he coughs. There’s water in his mouth.
He turns over and floats, arms above his head in devotion, surrender
There is always time for him.
The Face of [his]God[9] is a clock.

Soon, soon again he will go under,
and next time we see him
he’ll be larger—
he will have been growing
during all the hours
since he has gone down.


[1] The Fishman (1970)

[2] Time is River (1988)

[3] Birthday Cake (1964)

[4] Wishbone (1974)

[5] Untitled (Sedan Chair) (1968)

[6] Afflict the Comfortable, Comfort the Afflicted (1985)

[7] Tar Baby (1975-1976)

[8] While There’s Still Time Let’s Go Out and Feel Everything (1987)

[9] The Face of God (1988)

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2 thoughts on “Sleeping With the Fishes

  1. This is a very interesting ekphrasis. It is very dense, so I had to read it a few times to catch the flow. The imagery is great and brings life to the story you constructed. I really get a feel for your reactions to each of the pieces as if I saw the exhibit myself. I really enjoy the words about meat hanging and draping…also, the part about him as always having been in the water as if a part of it himself. I might have to take time out of my busy work day to search for some more photos online.

    Also, I really like the stepping-out-of-the-poem I think you intended in the lines about lures lost and mourned, as if the pieces try to lure you to understand the artist’s meaning, and yet much is lost on the audience.

    With that being said, I think the story you constructed (which is also probably synonymous with what you have understood as the emerging themes of the exhibit, or even your reactions to said themes) needs to be fleshed out a bit. Just like an essay, I think your poetry needs to breathe your focus…of course, unlike an essay, your thesis can be lightly hinted within the imagery.

    I’m catching little themes, such as
    1) the exhibit’s popularity, or power is growing, (yet you mentioned his popularity is waning)
    2) the fishman is trying very hard to do his work
    3) it’s a shame only some people understand or appreciate this artists work
    4) these dealings in death are actually ruminations in our own mind

    That last one might have just been my addendum. These themes are can be very powerful if you find them in the lines. Please take the length of my response as my complete interest in this poem. Good job!

  2. I have reread this several times since you posted it, and each time I like it more. (Sorry that I have not commented before!) The language is beautiful, and the poem is full of yearning, longing. I particularly like the first few lines, “so close to being alive that it kills him” as well as the line about him being a (de)composer. My favorite stanza (or what appears to be stanzas in this format) is the second to last, beginning with the lures being lost in the current. I really like the sense of movement by both the subject and the water around him.

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