Ekphrasis in Preparation for the Communal Swim: A Review of Tom Savage’s “Brainlifts”

Ekphrasis in Preparation for the Communal Swim: A Review of Tom Savage's "Brainlifts"One could call Tom Savage’s poetry a procession of ideas. In the face of their often kooky, evocative imagery, there is a didactic, conceptual flare that subverts their ostensive subject-matter, critiquing the conditions of aesthetic experience in the contemporary age. Brainlifts, Tom’s most recent book, utilizes ekphrasis as a platform from which both self and world are surveyed at a disinterested vantage point. The poems in Brainlifts are remarkable for their honesty—for (among other things) their total refusal to mimetically coincide with their themes. Instead of passively dramatizing superimposed experiences, Brainlilfts offers readers the greater possibility of deviating from the givens of circumstance, while remaining mindful of the personal and collective histories that shape our experience of culture.

Writers like Olson and Ginsberg are so difficult to accept due to their moralizing insistence that an everyday experience of the world has to be recreated in poetry. Thus, the rhetoric of advertising is echoed in Olson through words like “polis” and “pejorocracy”; and an authoritarian sacrificium intellectus is apparent in Ginsberg even at his most politically fervent. By contrast, the poetry of Tom Savage avoids all appeals to pseudo-entertainment and immediate enticement. His poetry is non-Whitmanic:

You were only a statue, after all.
When your plywood pedestal collapsed
You fell apart. The Metropolitan Museum
Now apologizes to Tulio Lombardo,
The sculpture who is, of course,
Conveniently dead. When I, a mere
Volunteer there, walked through
The sculpture court,
I enjoyed your naked, perfect body,
An unattainable ideal,
Even your perfectly formed cock and balls.
Are these latter why you fell off your pedestal
Or, more correctly, it failed you?

(from “Ode to a Once-Beautiful Adam”)

The lines here brim with a decided confidence in the intellect’s power to distance subjectivity from the objects it encounters in the world. Sensual immediacy translates into the reflective cognition of beauty, and humor wins out over morbidity and nostalgia. Conceived in this way, the lines here quoted find their poetic antipode in the final lines of T.S. Eliot’s “La Figlia che Piange.”

The ekphrastic character of Brainlifts is not motivated by any naive desire to reenact in language the conventions specific to another media. Tom Savage utilizes ekphrasis as a tool towards reflection, thinking into a notebook while watching an opera, a little-known film, or an off-Broadway performance. These “source-materials” (to call them that) are indicated at the end of each poem; but the poems nonetheless stand by themselves, as indirect communications of the poet’s consent or rejection of the spectacles absorbing him. Take, for example, the marvelous opening lines of “Dreams”:

The computer is sleeping.
Foxes get married when the sun
Shines through rain on a
Too hot day in the fall.
A stationary raindrop falls
On a tree trunk but refuses to dissolve.
Fox delivers cutlery for self-immolation.
Foxes shelter under rainbow rooves.
Seeing something you shouldn’t
Means sharpening the rainbow.
The ghost princess gives a split-second audience.
Where can you buy an orchard in bloom
Of weeping trees?

I’ve never seen Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, but I’m sure that the sense of these lines cannot be established more clearly by watching the film and looking for correspondences. And yet the lines were “written while watching Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.” Such an acknowledgement of source apart from the poem itself indicates that the poem relates to its source without being overdetermined by it. If every aesthetic implies an ethics, then the poetry of Tom Savage is radical in the very process which gives it life; it works against any notion of freedom that would conflate autonomy with decision among several superimposed alternatives. The fact that Tom is explicit about his atheism and his preference for reality over illusion is only a further adaptation of content with process:

From now on I’ll look at
Sculptures of real men and women,
Like Rodin’s fat, naked, middle-aged Balzac.
I hope real people can be satisfied
With real, imperfect lovers
And not be permanently deceived
By Gods, angels, or ideals
In stone like you.

(from “Ode to a Once-Beautiful Adam”)

Having discussed the aesthetic origination of the poems in Brainlifts, and also commented on the social importance of ekphrasis as Tom uses it, we should make mention of the fact that Brainlifts is firmly entrenched in what some might call the “NY School.” Despite the lack of hypotactic constructions, the poems collected in Brainlifts will probably remind the reader of John Ashbery more than any other poet—mainly because they’re so fun. “My Life in Pink” was written “while watching Ma Vie en Rose by Alain Berliner,” and is short enough to quote in full:

My Life in Pink

Don’t scratch your balls if you want to be a girl.
All you care about is sexual confusion soccer.
When I’m no longer a boy, will you be my wife?
Mother goddess turns the sky into a fish tank.
Reality has to face us in my world.
Pick up the vicar who marries boys to each other.
She didn’t kill the pope, yet.
Don’t go to hell in some psychologist’s handbasket.
Don’t expect miracles; you may be both a boy and a girl.
Jesus, the wise guy, stood my chromosomes on their heads.
Every girl’s sentence has a period.
When formulas become flesh, they sometimes hit a brick wall.
Emptiness is scary but it’s all we’ve got.

This poem can be pictured as microcosmic of the kind of universe Brainlifts will introduce to the reader—a universe not lacking in a certain stylized inelegance, but which is as playful and enchanting as it is profound.

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Brainlifts was published by Straw Gate Books in 2008. More of Tom Savage’s poetry can be found at October Babies (http://octoberbabies.wordpress.com), where Tom is a weekly contributor.

Jeffrey Grunthaner is an MFA candidate at Brooklyn College, where he’s studying the translation of life into art (& vice versa). He has poetry forthcoming in Esque, & art criticism forth ...read more

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