Review of Susanna Lang’s Self-Portraits

Susanna Lang’s chapbook Self-Portraits, which appears as the first of three chapbooks in Blue Lyra Press’s Delphi Series Vol. IX, is a grouping of twenty-five short poems, all inspired by the artwork and lives of women artists. Specifically, each poem is based on either a specific work of art by a woman, or by visits to the art studios of women. Lang labels each poem with the name of the artist whose work inspired it.

Lang’s goal, according to her own notes at the end of the chapbook, was “to explore the ways in which our art, even when it is not literally a portrait of our bodies or a retelling of our lives, becomes the way in which we recreate ourselves” (36). Indeed, the very title of Lang’s work, Self-Portraits, betrays this goal beautifully. It is a meta-statement about not just what the women artists Lang writes about have done, but what she has done in writing the poems and what the reader does in reading them. The artworks themselves are the artists recreating themselves (making their own self-portraits, even if only figuratively); Lang’s poetry is Lang recreating her own self-portrait in response to the recreative act of those artists; and readers of Lang’s poems will find their own self-portrait being changed as they view and internalize the recreative dance taking place between Lang and the artwork that inspires her.

It should be noted that Lang intended for her readers to have access to the artworks that she writes about. Personally, I could only find fourteen of the works, meaning I was missing context for several of the poems. Rather than despairing, however, I viewed this as an exciting challenge; there’s something especially human about needing to rely on the subjective experience of others rather than finding myself in immediate contact with everything. This state of affairs amplified the role Lang’s recreative act played in my own comprehension of her art. As for those pieces I did find, I have provided links at the end of the review.

What was implied in the first poem – Terra Incognita – and made explicit in the third – Self-Portrait at 80 – however, was that this poetry collection was not a simple celebration of humanity’s ability to recreate the self through artistic expression. Consider this excerpt from Terra Incognita:

 

            we make things, as if we’d suddenly remembered

            their flickering images projected on the walls of a cave.

            (But we never entered the cave.)

 

            Some of these things we make

            inhabit our bodies,

            then learn how to breath on their own

 

            Some glow in the dark, poisoning our blood;

 

We learn that human creativity is mysterious; its something we have far less control of than we might think (“as if we’d suddenly remembered”); we learn that those things which we create sometimes get out of our control (they “learn how to breathe on their own”); and we learn that some of what we create culminates in our doom (“Some glow in the dark, poisoning our blood”).

The third poem, Self-Portrait at 80, brings an additional dimension to human creativity: the inevitability of anti-creation. An 80-year-old woman, aged yet still at her creative work, Lang asserts, will one day face the limits of her own creativity:

 

            The work heals and heals

            until it can’t.

 

These dynamics of human creativity – its proclivity to make beautiful things, things out of our control, and even evil things – and the existential threat of anti-creation – the ways in which humanity’s creative prowess is limited and ultimately cannot create a way out of death – dance around one another throughout the chapbook.

Even as the poem “More Desire” documents the relentless creative energies of a colorful artist who savors every drop of life and will “never grow old, never grow tired of…this power to make new things,” “Lost” reminds us that there are some things the human creative spirit can never make anew: “Our lost do not come back like the cats / that walk into the next room in order to cry out.”

Even as “Woman with a Double Bass” celebrates not only the creativity of the artist, but also the creativity of that which was created (“They [the woman and her double bass] are waiting / for the painter to finish. In a moment, they will begin to sing, / their deep voices / so closely harmonized, it will seem / they sing with one voice.”), “Topography of War” and “Icarus” send the reader crashing down to earth as they ponder the horrors of the human creative spirit gone terribly wrong.

This dialectic of creation and anti-creation, however, coalesces throughout the chapbook into a paradoxical synthesis that is best represented by three of the poems: “Unnamed Road,” “Physalis, or Winter Cherry,” and “On Rereading Helen” (fittingly the final poem in the book).

In “Unnamed Road,” Lang recalls a dilapidated road, inhabited by the occasional resident and abandoned truck. Most of the road is empty and harsh:

 

            But for most of its length, the road has been stripped

            of everything but its own surface, shining a little

 

            in the black-and-white light of what has happened and happened again,

            in these unresolved angers and inexcusable lapses.

 

The fury of humanity’s own creative acts has been unleashed on this road; our blood has been poisoned.

 

            The light is constant and unforgiving.

            Unwilling to turn away.

 

But the light – it is both “unforgiving” yet “unwilling to turn away.” Light can be seen as ruthless and harsh, burning and overheating – yet light is also the universal symbol of hope, a signal that the dark night of the soul is coming to a close. The light: symbol of anti-creation, of looming death, or a persistent message of hope, unwilling to turn away even when faced with the full horror of human creativity gone wrong?

In “Physalis, or Winter Cherry,” Lang documents a work of art done by an old woman; it is an allegorical cherry plant, documenting the progression of life through cherry pods at various points of maturity. This is, on the surface, a simple celebration of human creativity, yet the poem ends as such: “she would not build walls to keep death out.” Paradoxically, the artist’s creative spirit, instead of standing against the existential threat of death, uses creativity to welcome it with open arms.

The final poem, “On Rereading Helen,” is about Lang remembering dear friend and artist Helen Degen Cohen who passed away in 2015. The context of this poem is thus one of anti-creation – death has enveloped the artist; death has shut the door of creativity forever. And yet, as Lang walks through the market, she comments, speaking directly to Helen: “in this market where I go alone, are colors you could have lived on.” After describing a marketplace bursting with endless colorful foods and bustling people, the poem (and book) end as such: “Everything alive.” Perhaps, just maybe, in spite of what our fears whisper into our ears while we try to drift off to sleep, death isn’t the end of human creativity after all.

 

Links to artworks:

Self-Portrait at 80 (Alice Neel): https://arthur.io/art/alice-neel/self-portrait?crtr=1

Spectres (Eva Hesse): https://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/2010/eva-hesse-spectres-1960

Unnamed Road (Jungjin Lee): http://www.jungjinlee.com/israel/

Cartas, 1986 (Elizabeth Catlett): https://www.artsy.net/artwork/elizabeth-catlett-cartas

Woman with a Double Bass (Suzanne Valadon): https://www.wikiart.org/en/suzanne-valadon/woman-with-a-double-bass-1908

Self-Portraits (Käthe Kollwitz): https://www.kollwitz.de/en/self-portraits-overview

Topography of War (Doris Salcedo): https://tr.pinterest.com/pin/256775616228239428/

Self-Portrait, 1620 (Sofonisba Anguissola): https://i.pinimg.com/originals/1a/fb/0a/1afb0ab9e828debfbd3fccf0aa235bb8.jpg

Drawing (Jim Ann Howard): https://www.artic.edu/artworks/187298/untitled

Everglades (Jungjin Lee): http://www.jungjinlee.com/everglades

Gelatin Silver (Nancy Marshall): http://www.alexandriaquarterlymag.com/poetry-susanna-lang/

Icarus (Jyl Bonaguro): https://masqueandspectaclejournal.wordpress.com/2015/11/29/featured-artist-jyl-bonaguro/

Self-Portrait as an Allegory of Painting (Artemisia Gentileschi): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-Portrait_as_the_Allegory_of_Painting#:~:text=Self-Portrait%20as%20the%20Allegory%20of%20Painting%2C%20also%20known,painted%20by%20the%20Italian%20Baroque%20artist%20Artemisia%20Gentileschi.

Physalis, or Winter Cherry (Mary Delany): https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/mary-delany-physalis-winter-cherry-a-paper-collage/FwGkMTfzSEglgw?ms=%7B%22x%22%3A0.49238957419898144%2C%22y%22%3A0.5004640543449923%2C%22z%22%3A8.503365252549363%2C%22size%22%3A%7B%22width%22%3A2.3887267827477237%2C%22height%22%3A0.8592494216763654%7D%7D

 

Reviewed by Sean Steele

Susanna Lang was born in New York, has published three full-length poetry books, translated the work of other poets, and is currently a creative writing instructor at the Chicago High School for the Arts.

You can read Lang’s full bio, as well as order Self-Portraits and her other works, at www.susannalang.com

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