James Crews’ latest collection, The Book of What Stays, is full of evocative landscapes and secret lives. There is the old woman in Chernobyl who refuses to leave her home and the bent, one-eyed swallows. There is ice fishing with Patsy Cline and a pack of Coors. There is “the purpling, churning CGI sky” over I-80 out West. There is both a farmer’s wife, and an arsonist’s wife. Crews’ poems have a silent power that sneaks up on you.
But it was his series of poems about the Cuban-born visual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres that left the deepest impression the first time I read The Book of What Stays.
In my experience, poetry about visual art rarely succeeds, perhaps because it is difficult for text to compete with the original work of art. (Poet and art critic John Yau is the rare exception—a writer who can use visual art as a jumping off point to make something original and brilliant).
Crews’ series on Gonzalez-Torres succeeds because it inhabits the life and work of the artist and his partner Ross, who died of AIDS in 1991. In other words, the poems are an exercise in both empathy and imagination.
The 20 poems that comprise One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes are a “speculative narrative.” “They have been imagined from the life and art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and are not meant to be strictly biographical,” James explained to me via email.
Crews’ poems actually add to our understanding of Gonzalez-Torres and his work. After all, biography, criticism, and the art itself are simply facets of a larger story. Crews’ poems flesh out sides of Gonzalez-Torres that might have remained hidden were it not for this imaginative narrative.
Reading Crews’ book reminded me of a conversation I had recently with an artist friend who lived in New York through the 80s, and is still there today. “You have no idea how horrific the AIDS epidemic was,” he told me. “There were funerals every week. I lost so many friends. New York became a city of ghosts, and it still is in many ways.”
One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes, which makes up the heart of The Book of What Stays, taps into this sense of grief and loss, much like the art of Gonzalez-Torres. But neither artist morbidly fixates on death. Instead, both Crews and Gonzalez-Torres focus on the temporal nature of life—it’s beauty and it’s brevity.
I saw Gonzalez-Torres’ piece Untitled (Placebo) at MoMA last year and immediately fell in love with the giant rectangular carpet of silver candy. Gonzalez-Torres made a number of these works comprised of 335 pounds of candy wrapped in silver paper. Many museum-goers are shocked to learn that the artist intended for them to remove a piece of candy from the installation.
Gonzalez-Torres also produced a series of works printed on giant stacks of paper. Again, viewers are meant to take a piece of the artwork with them. The artist’s instructions for both pieces refer to “an endless supply” of candy and paper. What makes these installations so poignant and powerful is that they are simultaneously finite and infinite. They are constantly morphing and changing as museum goers interact with them, but they can also be restored to an original state. It is a powerful metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. And it is this sense of impermanence that James Crews has captured so beautifully in his collection.
Here are six works from the One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes series, most in the imagined voice of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (note that “Letter to Felix” is in the voice of his partner Ross). As James explains in the notes section of his book, two monographs, one edited by William S. Bartman and the other by Julie Ault, were the primary inspiration for the series, as were certain pieces of visual art, mostly by Gonzalez-Torres himself.
The one exception is the first poem (Gold Field), which conjures the close friendship and artistic collaboration between Gonzalez-Torres and Roni Horn. John Curcio explains their connection further:
Gonzalez-Torres first became acquainted with Horn’s Forms from the Gold Field during her 1990 solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Gonzalez-Torres was thoroughly impressed by the simplicity and beauty of the work and shared the impact that the work made on him when the two artists met in 1993. As a gesture to their newfound friendship and shared sensibility, Horn sent him a square of gold foil just a few days after they first met. Being struck by the gesture, he created Untitled (Placebo – Landscape – for Roni) (1993), an endlessly replaceable candy spill of gold cellophane–wrapped sweets.
Whenever a poem was inspired by a specific piece of art by Gonzalez-Torres, a corresponding photograph is included below the poem. The poems are meant to stand on their own (and do), but the photos may help you flesh out your understanding.
It’s important to remember, however, that Crews is not attempting to reduce or translate Gonzalez-Torres’ art into language. Instead, he is illuminating it, like someone turning on a light in a dark room, Crews’ speculative narrative reveals things we might never have seen without this elucidation.
But perhaps the best insight about poetry, life, and art comes from Crews himself in his poem “An Unexpected Warm Day in Wisconsin”: “Choose your views,” Crews insightfully observes, “or they will choose you.”
A special thanks to artist Corwin Levi for introducing me to the work of James Crews. It’s been a pleasure.
(The Gold Field)
Wandering through the museum today, Ross and I came upon a piece called The Gold Field, a slice of a slice of sunlight installed in its own white room. We memorized it, this blanket made of real gold foil, still creased as if from its last body. It was the rectangle of yellow when Ross pulled up the shade this morning. Was each small plot of scorched grass at the cemetery in San Juan where my mother brought me each month. Never step there, she said once, pointing at my foot that had come to rest on a pile of fresh dirt.
The sculpture didn’t need words. It lifted us above the jobs, the small rented rooms, the small minds. I leaned in, as close as I could get without touching it just to be near its heat. I put my hand on his shoulder, wanted to curl up with him right there on the floor and rest. Every sunrise and sunset from now on, I thought, will spread this field of golden light across the bed as we wake up together.
(Letter to Felix: Ross)
For Keats too, it started with sore throats,
fevers. What appeared to be mere cold
wound tighter in his chest. That night
at Brown’s, after only the slightest
cough, he saw it: a single drop
of red on the bedsheets. Bring me
the candle, he said. Let me see this.
His eyes were glass in the dim light
but clear: I know the color
of that blood, he said, then fell
into the dream of writing a letter
to Fanny Brawne, the paper slipping
into the ground instead of her hands—
everything he’d ever meant to say
but had saved and saved for later.
Our bodies moved like two ticking clocks:
not sick, not sick, not sick—
This morning, in a blur of orange
and gray, a robin landed
in our blackberry bush.
He pecked and pushed
what was left until he freed
a fat berry we’d forgotten to pick.
He took it gingerly in his beak
and spread his wings.
I half-expected it—overripe—
to burst before he lifted off,
but it didn’t. He knew
something about gentle, about relish.
He drifted up into piled clouds,
a further blur except for
the tuft of orange on his chest.
He was a speck against the gray
of hidden sun. He was gone.
I went to your exhibit last night,
saw the installation where you’d taken
your own weight and your lover’s
before he’d died of AIDS and made
the pile of silver licorice snaps
that matched the 355 pounds exactly.
I loved the way the candy
spilled from the corner of two white walls
and I was about to walk away
when the guard explained that the artist
asked that everyone take a piece with him.
I thanked her but said I couldn’t,
didn’t want to ruin all your hard work.
Later on, after I’d left the gallery,
I stood outside to get one last look
when I saw a man bent over your sculpture
popping piece after piece in his mouth
chewing and sobbing.
I want to tell you that
if I could go back now, I’d take
as much of the licorice with me as I could.
I’d do exactly what you wanted.
(One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes)
Tonight was your last wish.
I used a teaspoon to scoop you
into each of the yellow envelopes
you chose and addressed to our friends.
I worked all night, watched what everyone
insists on calling your cremains
fall into the mouths of the envelopes,
some of the ash as fine as sugar,
other bits as coarse as salt.
I don’t know what to do
with the one marked, Felix.
I want to rip it open
like a packet of instant drink mix:
Pour into your favorite cup
your lover’s ashes. Add hot water,
stir until the cup is as warm
as his skin once was against yours.
Sip slowly, this simple solution.
About James Crews:
James Crews was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, and attended Webster University where he studied with the recent Poet Laureate of Missouri, David Clewell. He has an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is at work on a PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is the author of three chapbooks, What Has Not Yet Left (Copperdome Prize) Bending the Knot (Gertrude Press Chapbook Prize) and One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes: A Poem After the Life and Work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres (Parallel Press). His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2006 and 2009, Ploughshares, New Repbulic, Columbia, and other journals. His first collection, The Book of What Stays, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize for Poetry and was chosen as a Foreword Magazine Book of the Year. Crews has been writer-in-residence at Kimmel Harding Nelson Center and Caldera and is the recent recipient of a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize. He lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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