PAINTER:POET = FOREST:BEAST
by Joyce Beckenstein
Ellen Wiener and LB Thompson Collaborate
The painter Ellen Wiener and the poet LB Thompson live among a close-knit circle of artists in what’s locally dubbed the un-Hamptons, the last remaining bastion of quiet hamlets stretching along the North Fork of Eastern Long Island, New York. A few years ago, Wiener, well known for her artist books, and Thompson, a prolific Whiting award-winning poet, discovered a number of shared aesthetic impulses: a love of the classics and science, the pun’s trump of metaphor, and intrigue for reality’s fade within its evanescent spirit. They decided to collaborate.
The resulting exhibition, Forest/Mirror Ink/Page, held in June at Art Sites Gallery in local Riverhead, included Wiener’s 17-foot pen-and-ink drawing, Longhand Forest, and Thompson’s Fibonacci Monstrosity, a macabre 19-poem spectacle of survival skirmishes among forest creatures. For gallery exhibitions, the poems, ascending and descending in a Fibonacci number sequence (from 1-89-1 lines) are scrolled and hidden in tubes within the drawing. A book of poems with illustrations from the drawn mural is also available. What’s unique about this collaboration, beyond its visual and literary magic, is its intuitive evolution. Unlike many notable collaborations—Guillaume Apollinaire and the Cubists, André Breton and the Surrealists, New York School poets and Abstract Expressionists—Thompson doesn’t orchestrate her literary forms to echo Wiener’s imagery. In fact, the freshness of their aesthetic dialogue suggests that they communicate more by a wink and a nod than a preordained plan. Yet as serendipitously as this contemporary pairing proceeds, it is strongly rooted within the American landscape tradition.
Think of the shared camaraderie of transcendental poets and painters, of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” mesmerized by Martin Johnson Heade’s sublime luminist light. Wiener and Thompson’s similar call and response to nature is likewise fueled by their natural surroundings, woodlands now requiring vigilant protection by eco-sensitive communities. Wiener’s vision of the sublime is hence riveted not on Emerson’s awe of purple mountains’ majesty, but within dark holes in the wilderness. Her twisting panorama of dense flora holding remnants of civilizations past—generations of broken fences and vacant glass conservatories—bear witness to humanity as its own prey. So it goes for Thompson’s fauna, particularly her grey owl as it eyes the ill-fated mole:
Look up do you see them? The double yellow discs,
the grey owl’s reflective eyes high in a cypress?
Talpa, the star-nosed mole tunnels deep for his digs:
In wet lowlands he make his tunneled home
& keeps up his stores even in snow
Finally, Thompson’s beasts, like Wiener’s abandoned habitats, cede their lives to life’s cycles:
The great owl opens her throat
gulping down the stars of Talpa’s nose…
…the pellet ejects, then projects,
sickly warm, steaming in the snow below.
Wiener and Thompson further sweep their sublime themes into yet grander ancient and mythic schemes. Epic chaos and mystery flow through both their worlds where rivers of science, legend, archeology, myth, and divine comedy converge. Thompson’s contemporary vernacular sings through the interjected voices of a Greek chorus, Virgil, Dante, Kafka, and Science, all spinning their timely wisdom through ineffable eternity. Listen as Science compares the owl’s sharp gaze to a Virgilian flame:
The owl’s eyes see you as you are,
Living human, & the Virgilian flame
Burns now toward you, fast but not far.
Twisted, encrypted ladders say
the flame is in your DNA.
Wiener spatially transports us through Longhand Forest by summoning Albrecht Dürer’s allegorical Melancholia (1514) and Albrecht Altdorfer’s (1480–1538) deeply inked calligraphic landscapes. But her symbols of human detritus—shovels, empty troughs, and crumbling walls, emerge only upon gradual scrutiny of an otherwise daunting abstract frenzy; they’re submerged within cross-hatching, coal-black holes, windswept tendrils, and striking white seas of negative space that loosen metaphor from its Northern Renaissance frame. Her drawing, like Jackson Pollock’s action paintings, launches viewers off the imaged edge, into imagined space. In counterpoint, Thompson’s poems singing the refrains of poets past bury readers deep in the psyche of a bestial universe that’s all too human.
This collaborative spiraling from ephemeral cosmos to Stygian churnings roiling Earth’s core holds together with Euclidean logic. The Fibonacci structure of Thompson’s poems replicates the ubiquitous design of nature’s spiral—found in whirlpools, shells, the inner ear, and the double helix. It echoes in Wiener’s disposition of labyrinth paths, metaphors for going into the woods and losing, then finding oneself on its other side. This oblique underlying structure stabilizes Wiener’s profuse imagery and Thompson’s expansive literary imagination by providing an invisible grid for mortals to cling to in their nano-second crossing of chaos-etched cosmic terrain. As Thompson notes:
Hard to come to terms with one’s own animality.
Survival is a bitter malady.
It’s an ambitious scheme not as easily graphed as other examples of symbolic text intoning layers of visual imagery. Wiener’s elaborately snarled skeins of stringy tree roots, for example, mimic Thompson’s indelible “mating ball” of snakes:
…Venturing from under a scoured limestone
shelf, ghost of a glacial lake that is home
to fifteen thousand garters, never alone-
…They are hungry, fretful.
…Their brains buzz with the phrase:
make more snakes.
Again & again it plays
Make more snakes.
Thompson’s lyrical sounds also rhyme with Wiener’s visual symbols. Charging stags compete for a doe:
just one clashing
into November snow.
This onomatopoeia resonates with the clang of ancient stonemasons and creaking wheels tilling medieval soil, sounds entombed in Wiener’s landscape, and abandoned like skeletons of Thompson’s interlocked stags.
The nexus of this collaboration resides in the space between intimate and immense experience, and in the disconnect between palpable places and mystical spaces we know little or nothing about, though we’re all headed there. The theme is universal, but this particular incarnation of it is incredibly profound in its intuitive realization. “We work hand in hand,” commented Wiener, summoning the ultimate metaphor: the hand that draws the mural; the hand that writes; the hand that shovels its way through the forest. But the ultimate collaboration invites viewer/readers to navigate their own imagined forest, where mortal thoughts spiral exponential choices and consequences. Or to quote LB Thompson:
In all the bang and beak of creation;
in all of the harmony of quotation,
we writhe in the flux and flinch of mutation.