after Agnes Martin
Of revery rungs
Laddered for zero
The inverse of music
Minus the background
Noise of content
The aftereffect of citrus
Scent and the curious
On your hands
When you pare
The fruit opens
© by Jennifer Atkinson. Printed by permission of the author.
Jennifer Atkinson is the author of three books of poems, The Dogwood Tree, The Drowned City, and most recently, Drift Ice. Her fourth collection, Canticle of the Night Path, is due out in Fall 2012 from Free Verse Editions. She teaches creative writing at George Mason University in Virginia.
The Chronicle’s poetry blogger, Lisa Russ Spaar, notes: The eidetic lyricism of Jennifer Atkinson’s poetry owes in no small part to her limned verbal restraint and passionate sparseness. An almost sacred silence blooms among the lenten boughs of her elegant phrases, allowing the perfumed mystery of what can never be fully known to palpably ghost the natural world that is often the occasion for her spiritual, political, aesthetic, and erotic meditations.
Wonderful, then, and not surprising to find that Atkinson’s poem “Lemon Tree,” the epigraph tells us, is in part modeled upon and inspired by the work of painter Agnes Martin, and perhaps specifically by Martin’s painting also entitled “Lemon Tree.” Martin (1912 – 2004) is best known for the austere, exquisite text/ile-haunted screens of her six-foot-square canvases, described by art historian Anna C. Chave as covered with hand-rendered, “thinly lined grids (composed purposely, unlike graph paper, of rectangles and not squares). . . . As high-minded but less dark than or eschatological than those of her male peers, the themes that Martin claimed for her work include innocence, happiness, beauty, and exaltation. Those states she saw as inextricably linked with experiences of nature, and her titles often feature natural images, such as in The Islands, or Night Sea, Leaves, and Lemon Tree. As to how Martin found her ‘vision,’ she explained: ‘When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence, and I still do.’” Martin’s moving canvases are so faintly etched and opaquely luminous that Nicolas Calas referred to her project as an “art of invisibility.”
Floating over and into Atkinson’s hibernal pagescape of “tilled snow” and “rungs / laddered for zero / The inverse of music,” the “lemon tree” of the title insinuates its attar, its inkling of warmer climes, of hope itself. In a poetic essay on Jean Valentine (“writing a word / changing it,” published by Albion Books, 2011), Valentine being another deft poet of “strange and irreducible lines like an antenna broken off of a radio, like a caduceus,” the poet C.D. Wright says that Agnes Martin (like Atkinson, I would add) was interested not so much in painting gray geese descending as “the emotions we feel when we see grey geese descending.” The sensibility here is of
Minus the background
Noise of content
This poem offers not, then, an aesthetic of tropical, lavish embellishment or of Keatsian fine excess (or of Correggio’s lavish, fully fleshed opulence, for instance), but rather a pure, spare lyric, with its “story” conveyed not by the dramatic static of content but by the suggestion of emotional movement, an implication of a whole life sketched in the residue of its “afteraffect . . . / Scent and the curious / Dryness left / On your hands.”
The closing lines give us the heart of Atkinson’s ekphrasis and express the formal poetics Atkinson shares with Martin: “When you pare,” she writes, “The fruit opens.” Mallarmé, Char, Cage, Celan—joining these and other poets with voices at once urgent and reticent, Atkinson, in “Lemon Tree,” makes the reader feel what Celan called “the word won by silence.” The poem offers its message like the charged eidolon an opened orange makes, pared by hands somewhere in a dimmed, dusty train car at night, perhaps, triggering a score of memories and associations, transforming every destination, altering everything.