The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

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DEC 11-JAN 12 Issue


Richard Shiff and Catherine Lampert
Peter Doig
(Rizzoli New York, 2011)

Uncanny describes the effect Peter Doig’s figures activate. They appear like reflections in a weathered mirror in which you recognize yourself with a slight start. This 400-page book is worthy of an artist who in 2007 set a record price at Sotheby’s for any living artist.

Dreamy and calm, his landscapes present ambiguous space. Trees, shorelines, and architectural structures are partially obstructed by glazes, sprays, and screens. Uniformly tasteful, they wander in style, refusing to submit to theory or school.

References include the emotional tautness and sparse detail of Edvard Munch. There is the refracted tinkle of Gustav Klimt. More recently, Doig echoes the flat planes of Neil Welliver’s forests and impenetrable creeks. And contemporarily, there is an affinity with Chris Ofili (who owns one of the pieces reproduced in the book), wherein drama and allegory are heightened by simplification of line and gradation.

Born in Scotland, Doig grew up in Canada and Trinidad before moving to England. Memory is a central conceit. But it is veiled and transformed into something new. Doig doesn’t paint snow—he paints the sense of snow. Masking views with clumps of white or with a scrim of twigs imparts motion and instance. The images melt and freeze simultaneously.

In deft hands, magic realism allows an artist to toggle between accurate portrayal and folk art clunkiness. Doig paints with a wand.

Alice Notley
Songs and Stories of the Ghouls
(Wesleyan University Press, 2011)

Alice Notley scribes a deep voice, her ear floating in space listens to flames talk. Wikipedia identifies her as “challenging… engaging” and “fiercely independent.” She stares down Death, transmitting lore in new and enduring ways.

Time wicks away as Notley guides us through a mythopoeic labyrinth. Motifs include being a woman, mother, widow, and goddess, as well as politics and linguistics. Her methods include “accretion, circularity, and chance,” noted a New York Times review.

An alter ego, Dido of Carthage, is resurrected and repurposed. The result is an epic, like Pound’s or Olson’s or Williams’s. Or H.D.’s Helen in Egypt. Maintaining a high-pitched, lilting interior dialogue, passages slip from verse to prose and back.

In “Everyday,” Notley gives “Consent to / be / a mythological figure.” Like Dido, who founded a city of people and consequent legend, Notley is founding a city made of words. She carves, chisels, cajoles, and conjures language into shuddering monuments of vulnerability and resolve. “Help me find my / voice (city, my voice is / your / city).”

Betrayal is met with magic. The “Dark Ray” is met with self-understanding and cultural knowledge. Dido, who “loved too hard,” becomes a witness (like Anna Akhmatova, who saw her peers perish under Soviet rule). Dido stands in the “maw of the stock exchange” where we are “devalued.”

Notley admits long poems aren’t easy, but in this masterpiece she’s “tricked you so far into a dream” that you’ll never come back all the way. Hear here.

Savitri D and Bill Talen
The Reverend Billy Project
(The University of Michigan Press, 2011)

Reverend Billy is right for our times. If you’ve never heard him preach with his Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, you’ve missed a moving performance, some savvy political theater, and a piece of dissident history.

Perhaps best known for his exorcisms of cash registers at Starbucks, Reverend Billy takes aim at corporate greed and society’s addiction to consumption. An international light of the left, he often appears at local rallies and was a courageous spokesperson in the community garden movement.

One of his campaigns brought attention to the environmental destruction of glossy catalogues. He led his band into Victoria’s Secret outlets and denounced them. The reported result: The chain now uses a third recycled paper in its print marketing.

The environment was also the focus of action against JPMorgan Chase for its role in mountaintop removal mining. Invading the banks, protesters left little mounds of dirt behind.

Keeping private restaurants out of Union Square was another worthy (but unsuccessful) cause. Defending the Pavilion with stirring rhetoric, Billy evoked the spirits of Paul Robeson, Dorothy Day, and “Emma Goldman shouting above a sea of fedoras.”

Co-written with his partner, Savitri D, the heroic saga is exciting and well-told. In addition to some of Billy’s electrifying sermons, the two take turns recounting their strategies and actions. The styles are distinct; Billy is fast and furious while Savitri D is smooth and subtle. Both can be sublime, ethical philosophers.

From the street to the jail to the stage, Reverend Billy is doing the good “work of the ages.”


The Brooklyn Rail

DEC 11-JAN 12

All Issues