Poem as collage, collage as poem
These Silence of the Lambs poems of mine have always been especially rooted in the visual. Even when the poem series was just an idea, I had imagined the words side-by-side with illustration. But I am not a visual artist and I let this self-knowledge stop me from attempting this parallel path for a while. Thankfully there are poets like Matthea Harvey and Kristy Bowen who show how this line can be crossed by the poet and in tandem with the poem. Matthea, with her mermaid-appliance silhouettes and her photographs of miniatures. Kristy, with her collages combining the mid-century housewife with the carnivalesque with the natural world. Their approaches to their visual art are so intertwined with their poetic styles and subjects that they make the perfect complements to each other.
Because I think collage is, essentially, the predominant principle guiding my creative style (even in writing poetry—especially for this specific poem series), I finally realized that this was the appropriate visual medium for me to use in this particular project. My obsession with strangely-named wildflowers became the base from which I constructed these collages. The juxtaposition of the subtle beauty of these plants that pop up everywhere from backyards and roadsides to woodlands and riverbanks with their morbidly associative names struck the same perfect balance of bleak elegance and gorgeous grotesquerie that I looked for in writing each of my Silence of the Lambs poems.
These are the illustrated texts I chose for this cutting up and mashing together, all books that I had laying around or bought cheaply for just this purpose:
- The Compleat Farmer: A Compendium of Do-It-Yourself, Tried and True Practices for the Farm, Garden, and Household. The Main Street Press (1975)
- Gray’s Anatomy (1901 Edition). Henry Gray, F.R.S. (1974).
- The MacMillan Wild Flower Book. Clarence Hylander & Edith Farrington Johnston (1954).
- Webster’s Unified Dictionary and Encyclopedia. H.S. Stuttman Company, Inc. (1961).
Each of the six poems in the Silence of the Lambs sequence is paired with a collage. These collages are not strict illustrations of the poems they are paired with. That feels too boring and repetitive to me, creatively speaking. They start with the same idea and image touchstones as in their corresponding poems, but then they branch off in their own directions. Sometimes they end up in nearly the same place, but they take a different route to get there.
Do you spook easily, Starling?
+ hooded skullcap / plate 171
That is rather slippery of you, Agent Starling.
+ boneset / plate 217
Why do you think he removes their skins, Agent Starling?
+ birdfoot violet / plate 112
Look at him, Starling. Tell me what you see.
+ lady's thumb / plate 45
How do we begin to covet, Clarice?
+ nightshade & bittersweet / plate 173
Have the lambs stopped screaming?
+ sheep laurel / plate 136
With the first collage or two, I was cautious. Unsure of my limitations in this medium, I stuck to the paper cut-outs from the texts. By the third collage, I grew more comfortable with superimposing contrasting images on top of each other, combining the botanical and human anatomical. Working on the last few pieces, I began incorporating erasure poetry (which really is just another kind of collage-work) of wildflower descriptions, cut-outs of small design elements from coupon circulars, using needle and thread to imitate blood vessels. This experimental tangent into visual-art-as-complement-to-poetry was not only fun, it was extremely fruitful, producing new pieces that now function as legitimate contributions to a growing poetry manuscript. Huzzah!
I really wanted to include the full scans of each of my finished collages here because I'm so excited about them. But I also wanted to hold them back just in case I decide one day to submit them for consideration for journal/magazine publication outside of the manuscript (in which case, "publishing" them here would likely disqualify them). So as a compromise with myself for myself, I've included a "slice" of each collage here in this post.