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.