Saturday, February 2, 2013

Literary Art

It always seems that in the dead of winter, when I'm trapped inside the confines of my house daydreaming myself away to a tropical paradise or just somewhere above 30 degrees, I get a little artsy-fartsy.  Years ago during my senior year of vet school, on a fairly quiet rotation called "ancillary" where we fine-tuned our histopathology skills in the mornings and spent the afternoons slipping on blood on the necropsy floor, and therefore had no patients to care for and were finished by 4:30 every afternoon, I had some time on my hands.  This rotation was in February and being cooped up in my one-bedroom apartment in bone-chilling Lafayette, Indiana, I revived a passion of the art work of Edward Hopper.  

Months prior to this, I visited the Indianapolis Museum of Art, where I encountered my first Hopper painting: Hotel Lobby.
Hotel Lobby, Edward Hopper (1943)
At the time I was completely unfamiliar with Hopper's work but I recall being drawn to this painting.  I loved it.  I found it had the simplistic power of suggesting a million different stories of what was going on in the scene.  I remember standing in front of it for minutes, just staring and getting lost in the possibilities.  This painting was like the opening of a novel, laid out visually right before my eyes. Researching more of Hopper's work, I discovered he painted one of my favorite paintings of all time, Nighthawks
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper (1942)
I read this painting was on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, which is where I set out on a bitterly cold Saturday during my ancillary rotation.  Ironically, the exhibit showcasing Hopper's masterpiece was closed for renovation during my visit, but I did see a few of his other works and of course bought a few goodies at the gift shop.  One of my prize possessions from this trip was a book called The Poetry of Solitude: A Tribute to Edward Hopper by Gail Levin.  A small collection of poems inspired by Hopper's works, this book contains the culmination of all things wonderful in my world: a poem written my one of my favorite authors (Joyce Carol Oates) about my favorite piece of art, Nighthawks.


The three men are fully clothed, long sleeves,
even hats, though it’s indoors, and brightly lit,
and there’s a woman. The woman is wearing
a short-sleeved red dress cut to expose her arms,
a curve of her creamy chest; she’s contemplating
a cigarette in her right hand, thinking that
her companion has finally left his wife but
can she trust him? Her heavy-lidded eyes,
pouty lipsticked mouth, she has the redhead’s
true pallor like skim milk, damned good-looking
and she guesses she knows it, but what exactly
has it gotten her so far, and where? — he’ll start
to feel guilty in a few days, she knows
the signs, an actual smell, sweaty, rancid, like
dirty socks; he’ll slip away to make telephone calls
and she swears she isn’t going to go through that
again, isn’t going to break down crying or begging
nor is she going to scream at him, she’s finished
with all that. And he’s silent beside her,
not the kind to talk much but he’s thinking
thank God he made the right move at last,
he’s a little dazed like a man in a dream —
is this a dream? — so much that’s wide, still,
mute, horizontal, and the counterman in white,
stooped as he is and unmoving, and the man
on the other stool unmoving except to sip
his coffee; but he’s feeling pretty good,
it’s primarily relief, this time he’s sure
as hell going to make it work, he owes it to her
and to himself. . . . And she’s thinking
the light in this place is too bright, probably
not very flattering, she hates it when her lipstick
wears off and her makeup gets caked, she’d like
to use a ladies’ room but there isn’t one here
and . . . how long before a gas station opens? —
it’s the middle of the night and she has a feeling
time is never going to budge. This time
though she isn’t going to demean herself —
he starts in about his wife, his kids, how
he let them down, they trusted him and he let
them down, she’ll slam out of the goddamned room
and if he calls her Sugar or Baby in that voice,
running his hands over her like he has the right,
she’ll slap his face hard, You know I hate that: STOP!
And he’ll stop. He’d better. The angrier
she gets the stiller she is, hasn’t said a word
for the past ten minutes, not a strand
of her hair stirs, and it smells a little like ashes
or like the henna she uses to brighten it, but
the smell is faint or anyway, crazy for her
like he is, he doesn’t notice, or mind —
burying his hot face in her neck. . . . She’s still contemplating
the cigarette burning in her hand,
the counterman is still stooped gaping
at her, and he doesn’t mind that, why not,
as long as she doesn’t look back, in fact
he’s thinking he’s the luckiest man in the world
so why isn’t he happier?

~ Joyce Carol Oates, born 1938, American poet, novelist, and essayist

Now, if only one of my other favorite authors, Margaret Atwood, would write a poem inspired by Dogs Playing Poker, by C.M. Coolidge, I will have found my nirvana.

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