Catching the Crosslight

Edward Hopper, Ernest Farres, translated by Lawrence Venuti
(136pp, 12.95, Carcanet)

The shortcomings of any verbal representation attempting to faithfully reproduce a work of visual art are inevitable. In contrast to this ambition however, an ambitious ekphrastic poem can expose a speculative gap that exists between the verbal and the visual: a place where the poet might transgress from being merely descriptive to aim at something brazenly transformative. This is not just an act of homage but more akin to what is already familiar to us in the contemporary gallery or public art space, where works are commonly accepted as acts of appropriation.

In his introduction to the new dual language poetry edition of Ernest Farres's Edward Hopper
, the translator Lawrence Venuti states that ekphrasis is concerned with 'saying what cannot be seen, a saying that prompts a different kind of seeing ... [it] engages in an emulative rivalry that borders on critique and sometimes plunges into it, possibly without the writer's awareness'.

Venuti has translated this collection by Farres from the original Catalan, which was first published in 2006. Based upon the work of the celebrated American realist painter Edward Hopper and grouped almost according to theme, each of the fifty-one poems takes its title from one of his paintings. According to Venuti, who has also compiled an informative section of endnotes about the lives of the painter and the poet as well as their work, these poems 'freely speculate, using Hopper's paintings as springboards for reflection and invention'. With these poems Farres is clearly attempting to make subtle verbal evocations which depend upon the visual richness of the imagination, while in Venuti's case, it is perhaps a search for verbal expression that encompasses an equivalence between translator, poet and painter. However, certain questions must be asked of the finished collection. Can these poems in their striving for meaning avoid not only a literal description of what already exists on Hopper's canvas, but also bypass any form of narrative suggested by the human presence (or absence) in these figurative images? In other words, do these poems transcend commentary and go beyond both received opinion on the reclusive Hopper and the constraining art historical interpretation that surrounds his iconic images of post first and post second world war America?

In the opening poem 'Self Portrait, 1925-1930' Farres states that the painting is

                    a mirror that reproduces not so much
                    the painter's face as the static reflection
                    of my image. Make no bones about it:
             Hopper and I form one single person.

The painter is already defined as the poet's alter ego as if the poem might become the site of a ventriloquist act. As the poem continues Farres seems engaged more in impersonation by suggesting the artistic context that he occupies with Hopper:

                     You're off the track to see representations
                     of North America where what really stirs
                     is the agitation of human solitude

For both painter and poet the mirror's reflection offers only distortion and despondency 'where we intuit the fears, obsessions, anxieties, / dilemmas or states of mind of the artist'. Farres discovers the same inwardness inherent in Hopper's own creative speculation despite the apparent outwardness of the painter's realist depiction of existence. As with Hopper's painting, so Farres's poetry moves into the hinterland of identity.

If this poem marks the journey of a writer setting off in a search for his mimesis, many of the poems that follow also contain a strong sense that isolation and displacement are an inevitable outcome of the human condition. In 'House at Dusk, 1935', the speaker finds himself in an apartment where he is barely known, surveying the adjacent buildings 'as they catch the crosslight / against a sunset of sulphur and mud'. Despite the strong colour as 'night gradually settles' the sky becomes a sombre motif of the bridgeless gulf between someone 'used to being the passive observer' and all those other people living in close proximity:

                    The darkening sky envelops my room
                     in an air of secrecy
                     and permits me to see inside
                     other windows illuminated
                     from within by nag neighbors,
                     owl neighbors, hedge neighbors,
                     neighbors in dark pigment,
                     neighbors with olive branches in their lips
                     and shouting neighbors
                     who appear to me in interlacing haloes
                     like veritable strangers.

A major theme of the collection is the impact of the city both on the individual and on personal relationships. Farres repeatedly shares the painter's misgivings about how desire for what the city promises serves only to disguise the emptiness that will prevail. For the couple seated at the bar in 'Nighthawks, 1942' there is a grim certainty about the realization of human redundancy:

                    Man:       Your problem is you've realized
                        no one at work is irreplaceable,
                        everything is relative, everything is temporary.
                    Woman:  How can you be so sure that's the problem?
                    Man:       Or maybe your problem is you've realized
                        nothing in life is irreplaceable?

This condition of alienation identified in Hopper would be theme enough for a collection in itself but Farres's scope for what he discovers in the painter is wide.  As well as the ceaseless thrum of the metropolis which pulses through many of the poems, Farres brings together images of urban architecture with not only changing qualities of light but also the smell and grime of the deserted streets.  In 'August in the City, 1945' such a collision is brought about with careful deliberation as the speaker advises 'You've got to stay put in spots where the sun blazes / and expose yourself to a blast of hot air and a heavy, / unbreathable stench of asphalt, sticky pollution / and grease.'

Though Farres's poems are informed by close observation and analysis of the original paintings, there is not any sense he is writing art history. Even what seem to be straightforwardly descriptive passages are never content with mere illustration.  'Gas, 1940', for example, where 'Dust rises as the car pulls to a stop / at the filling station and the attendant / who works the pumps doesn't even turn / his eyes', where 'The crickets' cadenced grating echoes / in the luminescent evening air', compresses the loneliness of this forgotten spot on the empty highway into a single existential moment of longing, 'that costs dearly / to reach', redolent of so many American road movies of the late twentieth century:

                    ..., the solitude of wilderness
                    and the kind experienced only
                    by those who grip the steering wheel
                    to escape from urban loneliness

There is a constant interplay between this aloneness and dreaming and the imperative urge for self-determination. 'New York Movie, 1939' has the speaker turning his attention away from the film on the screen to the usherette who 'is lost in thought' waiting only to 'fly into the arms of the shining city', and he imagines that

                   Like her, we do the same,
                   impenetrable and contradictory:
                   linking reason to unreason,
                   dividing ourselves like paths or rivers
                   and, split between self and other
                   or real and fictive, in transit

Farres wants to evoke the cinematic sensibility that underpins so many of Hopper's compositions and most effectively the luminous presence of the sea forms a backdrop to several of the poems inspired by the Cape Cod paintings which close the collection. In these Farres perhaps gets closest to an ekphrastic process that insightfully transforms the visual image it represents into something that is more interrogative and decisively his own. 'Room by the Sea, 1951' is situated so that 'From inside the house you can see the ocean / delimited by doors and windows', as this is a time and place for philosophical clarity:

                   and the sky is clear, like no other.  At times
                    like these, the rooms look great,
                    so unbuttoned. People already
                    know they're everything and nothing.

Combining interior and exterior speculation, Farres revels here in both the bleakness and luminosity of one of Hopper's strongest works, which is the product of an older, wiser, more minimal painter whose increasing awareness of mortality is reflected in a particular coastal light.  In this poem especially Farres's lines are as carefully placed and weighted as Hopper's pastel tones, achieving an equivalent unsparing vision in his own clarity of thought:  a poignant moment where 'A shard of luminosity / assails us'.    

        Peter Gillies 2010