Creeley and Clemente’s Anamorphosis: Death and the Stuff of Dreams

Francesco Clemente, from <em>Anamorphosis</em>

Francesco Clemente, from Anamorphosis

Robert Creeley’s companion poem to Clemente’s painting:

Inside my head a common room,
a common place, a common tune,
a common wealth, a common doom

inside my head. I close my eyes.
The horses run. Vast are the skies,
and blue my passing thoughts’ surprise

inside my head. What is this space
here found to be, what is this place
if only me? Inside my head, whose face?

The remainder of poems and paintings in Anamorphosis can be found at 2River View.

This week I’m revisiting some collaborative pairings between poets and artists in other disciplines, in preparation for a collaborative performance series, Figure of Speech, that I’ve been asked to participate in. I’ll be working with a singer (who also plays the guitar), a guitarist who specializes in Baroque music, and a dancer. I want to address the things that can make an effective collaboration.

The 1997 collaboration between Robert Creeley and Francesco Clemente, Anamorphosis, strikes me as one of the most evocative and beautiful collaborations between a poet and a visual artist. I’m all for exquisite corpses and other processes incorporating chance, but there is something to be said for the way that Creeley and Clemente seem perfectly attuned to one another’s work. I don’t know whether Clemente made his paintings based on Creeley’s poems or vice versa, but they expand the meaning of one another through their sustained and rich dialogue. A good example is the first pair in the series, “Inside My Head.”

Clemente’s painting depicts a single image from Creeley’s poem: imagining horses. He gives a part for the whole, a relationship of synecdoche. Although the painting is a somewhat literal interpretation of Creeley’s imaginary horses, it doesn’t belabour that correspondence. Instead, the image is executed in such a way as to evoke other themes in the poem, such as mortality, identity, and imagination.

For example, in a painting whose colours are primarily pastel, the bold black lines depicting the closed eyes stand out, emphasizing the visionary quality of the man, which is also reflected in the poem. Clemente’s images of head and horses are elongated, further emphasizing painting and poem’s dreamlike quality. And the head of Clemente’s imagining man reclines with eyes closed, which could signify the shutting out of the world and the opening up of the world inside the head. It could also signify death or “death’s second self.” In all of these possible interpretations, the images sound sympathetic vibrations with the poem: death and the stuff of dreams.

As well, the simplicity of Creeley’s almost nursery rhyme-like poem with its repetitions and formal balance is well suited to Clemente’s simple but evocative image.

In depicting thoughts of running horses, perhaps these two had in mind Saussure’s use of the horse to describe the relationship between the referent (the external object, the actual horse), the signifier (the word “H-O-R-S-E”) and the signified (the concept of “horse”). Turning Saussure’s ideas on their head, Clemente and Creeley suggest that the signifier invokes the actual referent: Creeley doesn’t talk about thinking of horses, but instead there seem to be real horses running in the head. Similarly, Clemente’s painting depicts real horses galloping behind the speaker’s head.

Creeley also seems to be alluding to Andrew Marvell’s celebration of the world inside the head in “The Garden”:

Meanwhile the Mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness:
The Mind, that Ocean where each kind
Does streight its own resemblance find;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other Worlds, and other Seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green Thought in a green Shade.

Green thoughts are echoed in Creeley’s poem in the speaker’s surprised blue thoughts.

In this dialogue with Saussure and Marvell, Creeley and Clemente assert the reality of the world of the imagination: that world possesses its own reality, and that reality is powerful, capable of extinguishing the exterior world through its concentrated focus on its thoughts and images. But it also spawns a meditation on the nature of personhood, cognition, and mortality.

The poem and painting of “Inside My Head” are both intensely interior and introspective, relieved only by Creeley’s paradoxical assertion of the commonality of the mystery at the heart of the human experience of subjectivity. Even inside the head, there is a “commons,” a place that is at once enclosed, private, subjective, as well as open, public, shared.

Creeley and Clemente’s collaboration is successful because the two works are in close dialogue with one another, which cannot happen if one simply holds up a mirror to the other.

Camille Martin

3 responses to “Creeley and Clemente’s Anamorphosis: Death and the Stuff of Dreams

  1. Anyone thinking about Creeley’s poem ‘Inside My Head’ in connection with music really needs to listen to Steve Lacy’s trio album “The Holy La”, which has a vocal setting of it to a delectably nursery-rhyme-like tune. NB even to a British ear like mine it’s clear that the rhyme ‘room’/ ‘tune’/’doom’ isn’t really Skeltonic if spoken by an American larynx – the common ‘oo’ long vowel rather overpowers the weak n/m variation in terminal consonant.


  2. Point about Skeltonic verse well taken. I removed the reference to it.


  3. Pingback: Roundup: Poetry Close Readings and Appreciations « Rogue Embryo

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