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The Degas


Robert Gibbons


Asheville, NC: Innerer Klang, 2013

String-bound chapbook, cardboard ends. iv+10 pp. (unpaginated)

ISBN 0-911623175. $20


Reviewed by Bent Sørensen

Aalborg Universitet (Denmark)


This book-length poem by Robert Gibbons, published in high-quality chapbook design by Mark Olson of Innerer Klang Letterpress in 2013 (but originally written in 1996, having temporarily been lost among the poet’s papers), is unusual among the poet’s mature works. Not only is it stanzaic in its formal properties, and not a prose poem of the type we have come to expect from Gibbons, but it also is structured as a numbered suite of ten meditations, primarily on ways of looking at and, more importantly, sensing the figure of Edgar Degas before, during and after his five-month sojourn in New Orleans in 1872.

The word sensing is used with deliberation in the above, because Gibbons, as always, displays as one of his fortes the ability to make the reader sense, along with him, not just the visual world of Degas the painter, but also the daily life sensations Degas may well have felt during his stay with relatives in the turbulent and multicultural city of New Orleans during the Reconstruction and renewal of the South (after all less than a decade had elapsed since the end of the Civil War). The poem is thus in itself sensual, but does not have as part of its agenda an attempt to make sense of the figure of Degas, leaving out all overt references to his and his family’s concerns regarding their economy and their racial politics, which we as critics know very well were to cause the Degas family much grief in the following decades.

Yet, the themes of black and white, of history’s crushing of the individual, and of the dynamics of one particular sense – that of sight – run through the poem’s sequence and inform it inside out. We start with the matter of color, then move on to the issue of sight, as this brings us the closest to the painter and his emotional relations, and close with a brief remark on the historical contexts evoked as well as the ones left out by the poem.

The Degas—a Black and White Fantasy

In The Degas Gibbons allows us to glimpse a world that could never be. One where Degas’ palette would be monochrome, and his paintings would all be executed in only black and white. Gibbons writes in section II of the poem: “The Degas/ I see confides to Ambroise Vollard/ that had he followed/his own tastes/ he would have done nothing other/ than black & white.” The master of color could of course never allow himself such absolute limitations, and instead we witness him honing his craft of color use in his New Orleans period, whether exercising this ability discretely in the canvas at The National Gallery in Washington, D.C., “Madame René de Gas” which is so douce that its pinks and whites float into one another, or whether allowing himself the use of strong reds and yellows as in the canvas used as frontispiece to the chapbook, “Portrait of Estelle Musson Degas” (now at NOMA) – both of which of course show the same woman, Edgar Degas’ cousin and subsequent sister-in-law. Estelle became the focus of Edgar’s stay in New Orleans, and the poem dares to voice a suspicion that it was more than the empathy caused in the artist by her near blindness that made him seek her out as subject so often.

Degas feared for his own eyesight, and we learn from Christopher Benfey’s book Degas in New Orleans (Knopf, 1997) that his first encounter with the bright daylight of the city and the reflections of it in his uncle’s upturned glasses startled Edgar so much that he quickly convinced himself that the indoor life was the way for him while in the South. However, among his first observations of life in New Orleans was an impression of how the races cohabited there. Gibbons quotes a Degas letter, commenting on the startling visual contrast of “white children/in white clothes/against black arms” – a dynamic Degas later used in canvases depicting life in New Orleans. This observation of white babies being nursed by black nannies was made possible by the not entirely unwelcome side effect of his choice to mainly stay indoors – namely that this meant he would primarily be in the company of women, whether white family members or black nurses and maids, rather than among the much more outgoing male members of his family and their political cronies and business associates.

A rare deviation from this pattern of mainly observing and painting women is found in Degas’ most famous American canvas, “A Cotton Office in New Orleans” which shows the daily business of his uncle’s working life – but still only the indoor aspects of it, behind the cooling walls of the building that held the office in which we witness no fewer than thirteen male figures either idling, or busying themselves with feeling and assessing the quality of the cotton fibers they have purchased. This canvas also comes closest to being Degas’ Black and White Fantasy, as the black suits of the men contrast brilliantly with the whiteness of the precious cotton. A modern viewer of this painting will of course also immediately associate another blackness with the motif displayed and visualize the black fingers of the workers who have picked, packed and cleaned the cotton before the white men’s fingers ever touch it. This hidden black imprint is evoked in Gibbons’ poem by the lines: “The hum & bustle of the offices with this/immense black animal force” – a quote from Degas himself.

The one man in the canvas who does no work at all in the office is Edgar’s brother René, Estelle’s husband, who sits as the painting’s centerpiece, reading the Daily Picayune and smoking a cigar. We know that René was very busy at the time with only one thing, namely ruining the family business by mismanaging and indebting it, and the canvas leaves us to wonder whether Degas did not already have a premonition of his brother’s incompetence, which would force Edgar to sell his property and art collection to bail René out and save the family from further scandal. Gibbons subtly places the financial realities of the cotton trade in the center of his lines on the Cotton Exchange painting: “The newspaper, of all things, is the center of the painting./ On November 1st the bale price for good to ordinary/ is 18 & a half cents a pound.”

Degas’ exposure to the racial dynamics of New Orleans made him reflect on his past life in a mono-racial European city, and the prospect of returning to it after his American stay: “Before he leaves/ the reunified States he admits/ he will find it strange to live again/ among white people only in Paris.” This observation evokes the lack of black hands, arms and faces as a loss to Degas, underscoring that his youthful self did not share the racist leanings of the branch of the Degas family that had chosen to settle permanently in America.

The Degas—a meditation on blindness and sight

Gibbons cites the phrase “The Degas I see” as a mantra, no less than four times in the course of the ten sections of the poem. In addition, similar phrases, both in syntax and meaning, help over-determine the poet’s insistence on the sense of seeing: “The Degas/ reemerging from the shadows of the South”, and “The Degas/ at the National Gallery […] shows”. Only the latter of these formulations uses the two words “The Degas” to denote, not the artist himself, but rather a work by the artist, as one would normally expect, following conventional usage. The reader is therefore slightly disoriented when encountering the first occurrence of the phrase as the poem’s very first words: “The Degas/ I see through thick lenses/ of centuries is on deck the Scotia/as it enters the port of New York”. Is this Degas, the man, or a specific work the speaker “sees”? The layers of history are conflated as we wonder where and when the speaker is while he sees The Degas in question. Soon, however, the reader determines that the speaker of the poem is able to follow Degas closely through time and space and allows the reader to journey with him as he first hovers just outside Degas’ body, and ultimately penetrates into his sensory apparatus, and “sees”, not “through thick lenses” of the past anymore, but directly through the fading eyes of the painter himself. This ability to interiorize his own gaze with that of his subject is a hallmark of Gibbons’ poetry, but it has rarely been mobilized more convincingly than in this poem.

The only time the gaze of the poet completely leaves that of the Degas of the painter’s own time and perspective is in the section (VI) headlined “Dream 10.13.96”. Here it is the poet’s own time and dream world we enter, but simultaneously it is a world consisting of a painter’s studio in which we are not allowed to see any of the canvases stored there (“only framed canvas backs visible, images hidden toward the wall”). The poet closes the section with a rhetorical question: “Now, whose task is it to get behind the blindness?” We already know the answer to that question and suspect that the poet also knows that that task falls squarely on his shoulders, as it is only through the mind’s eye of a superior writer that an ekphrasis of an unseen work of art can be produced. Through words we shall see what is on those canvases.

That this is indeed the business of the poem is affirmed by the following section (VII), which launches headlong into exactly that, an ekphrasis of the National Gallery portrait of Estelle. Estelle’s blindness elicits much admiration and pity in Degas. Gibbons quotes Edgar’s letters admiring the stoicism of Estelle (“She bears it/ in an incomparable manner”), and we note that also the poet feels uncommon sympathy and admiration for Estelle when he exclaims in his next ekphrasis (that of the frontispiece portrait of Estelle) that “Estelle in the Delgado Museum (NOMA) defies all laws of logic, arranging/ (by touch alone?)/ gladioli, chrysanthemums, ferns, etc., into the order/ Degas knew only women could bring to life”. The incredulous cry of “by touch alone?” betrays the poet’s emotions but also makes vivid the wonder Degas must have felt at watching his sister-in-law perform the impossible act of synesthesia: using the sense of touch to produce a striking visual impact via the flower arrangement. One need hardly remark that Gibbons achieves the same wonder in his synesthetic ekphrasis: we see the portrait of Estelle via the word arrangement he has left on the page.

The Degas—a New Historicist poem

Why then argue that this is a New Historicist poem, after the earlier insistence that it eschews all the unpleasantness of contextualizing the Degas family’s involvement with the notorious “White League” which sought to displace all African-Americans from political influence in New Orleans – not to mention Degas’ latent anti-Semitism which later erupted with such force that Degas became an isolated figure in French art towards the end of his life? The main reason is that the poem still paints a vivid picture of the many facets of life that travelled together with Degas’ art in the 1872-1873 period, and lets us glimpse the surrounding political and textual climate all too clearly without ever directly offering a political analysis. Other critics have drawn parallels between Kate Chopin’s novels of the 1870s in New Orleans, written a few houses down the Esplanade from the Musson residence Degas was staying in during his five months in the South. Gibbons does not allude to that, or any other literary facts, but to numerous other types of information that create a detailed life world to accompany the biographical insights into Degas, the artist – “The Degas I see”. We learn what Degas must have read in the Picayune on the rare occasion that his lazy brother saw fit to tear himself away from the reading of the news: A sensational account of “Impending Revolution In France”, followed closely by reports of political unrest in New Orleans itself: “A week later the Louisiana State House itself is seized/ by U.S. Marshalls” – a line that refers to the first rumblings of the “White League” protesting access to the ballot for blacks, and the first skirmish in a long insurrection that culminated in 1874 with the “Battle of Liberty Place” which again was only resolved after intervention from U.S. Federal troops that ended up remaining in New Orleans until 1877. René Degas, of course, played a significant role in these events on the side of the white supremacists.

It is not only the 1872 of Degas’ New Orleans stay that is evoked by Gibbons’ poem, however. Both the Civil War as immediate past and a timeline more contemporary with our day are present in the poem. The Civil War is there because it forms the situs of Estelle’s first tragedy, the loss of her first husband, a “Captain in the Confederate Army”. The poem literally suggests that Estelle’s last vision with her eyes were “the eyes of a dying man”, gazing across the distance between the battlefield in Corinth and Estelle’s Musson mansion in New Orleans. The present-day time is evoked in this connection through the words of Jacques Derrida, explicating indirectly the second sight of Estelle: “. . . the too-much sight/ at the heart of blindness . . .” (from Memoirs of the Blind : The Self-Portrait and Other Ruins). Derrida is thus marshaled to suggest that Estelle’s blindness is at least partly hysterical, caused by the trauma of losing her first husband, but revealing via her “visage” what she really has seen and still sees. This last imbrication of a present-day theorist into the structure of the Degas family-life in New Orleans and its dynamics of sight and blindness completes the picture of the poem as a trans-historical textual evocation. One that cannot but be termed a New Historicist reading – both of Degas in New Orleans and the sensory imprint of New Orleans on Degas; and via Gibbons’ ekphrases and citations, its imprint on us – the readers.


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