The cover of The Flood, a chapbook of poems by Molly Brodak, is mostly an empty white page. Over halfway down is a cramped dark square, a painting of a wood in which dogs and deer chase, “The Hunt” by medieval artist Paolo Uccello (1460). Beyond this page are all the paintings by Uccello that the chapbook doesn’t show the reader, perhaps for practical reasons, but also, I suspect, for strategic ones. The poems invoke Uccello’s art, but they won’t try to master it. The poems tell us, “An image is a refusal of all else” (“Scenes of a Monastic Life”). They tell us, “A painting is whether you can finish it” (“Detail”). Setting these declarations against calls to the artist, voices from inside the paintings, and encounters with their details, these poems are incisive attempts to define the terms of the act of creation. Reading these poems, I felt myself staring into the words and the interior space they created. I was looking for paintings I couldn’t see, trying to make visual and emotional sense of violence and darkness, of the Plague, the Flood, all kinds of misleading light, and death by apocalypse.
If, as Brodak writes, “image is a refusal of all else,” then what if an image tries to insist on everything but death, to refuse death’s attempt to deny it? At times, Uccello tries to paint nothing less than the end of the world, all of it, and the book’s opening poems address his paintings of Noah’s ark:
Panic, because suddenly everything signifies,
a kind of net of sunlight, pulling all directions at once;
the background’s flaw is that it beckons:
the poodle’s boat, Noah’s palm, the dove-magnet:
A barbarity! A flame at the vanishing point!
Where things trace back to one man’s wanting,
which is often the wrong thing for him altogether.
So people drowned. There things emptied of humanness,
made violent in the deaf water, became filth.
Get used to it, Noah told his sons, drunk, sad as God—
in a story, the first to die are the ones who don’t tell stories. (“The Flood”)
The poem shows how, in the painting and elsewhere, desire for life becomes a problem of perspective. In a world desperate to stay a world, even the background must beckon. The survivors, as angry as they are—Get used to it, says Noah—become the artists, the ones who must tell the stories. They remain to drink, to speak, to paint what happened. Uccello’s painting studies “panic,” a world crowded with too much meaning, and “panic,” the poem “Lock the Theater” claims, is “the opposite of language.”
There are so many things these poems could do, being words about an art form that lacks words. Brodak’s poems don’t dare try to translate the paintings into linear English. Rather, they set image against utterance to consider the dangers and potential of the unspoken. They obsess over the density of his landscapes, which some consider his greatest flaw. In “Awful Paolo,” the poem tells us a critic calls him “half-artist,” because he’s “unencumbered by introspection, half-eaten by perspective, his pet machine.” This poem contemplates the idea of Uccello’s relationship to perspective as weakness, then presents it with an energy that reveals its power:
Using a driving parallel structure and careful rhythms to build momentum, the poem ends with that surprising transformation—and the artist’s limitation (“since he had never seen a chameleon before”) becomes a revelation.
Brodak’s poems use repetition, juxtaposition and fresh figurative language to suggest the problems of image-building. They express impatience at times, asking Uccello in “Distant,” “Didn’t you have a Beatrice,/ or at least a Laura, who could look/ where the painting is looking?” They move between the world inside the painting and the process of making it with a focus on the importance of the mediators, the artist and the words, that shows how, like the halo Uccello paints over the head of a figure in “Clocks with Heads,” “a thought blocks vision.” A poem finds Uccello’s own frustration brushed into his work:
What’s striking to me is the positioning of points of view—here, between Uccello and the speaker. The poems navigate between them, lyrically and rhythmically, showing how the act of seeing the painting helps establish the viewer’s identity, its inadequacies either creating, or mirroring, her own (“there’s not enough of me to say it right”).
The poems in The Flood are challenging and rewarding. They consider the mistakes of multiple points of view, then deliberately make those same “mistakes,” moving between voices—of a girl in a painting, a contemporary viewer, an art critic writing 75 years after Uccello’s work, and even, in “Barber-Surgeon Father,” what I assume is Uccello himself. If I could ask for one more thing from this collection, it would be more context—in the form of epigraphs, notes, or more reproductions of Uccello’s work. While the absence of this information does keep the relationship between the poems and the paintings nicely complicated, and keeps in play the idea of history, perspective, language, and the process of art-making coming between the eye and the image, I found myself most invested in poems where I could picture the art. The stakes were higher for me in poems about paintings of Biblical narratives, because I had some background. Knowing more of the story behind paintings in poems like “Advice for Princes” and “Miracle of the Profaned Host, 1468” would enrich my understanding of the poems (and did, when I was able to find the art elsewhere). This is true even when the poems address the way painting resists interpretation, when, as in “The Hunt (Last Painting),” “the black gesso” is “showing through,/translating blankness, what cannot be resolved by a figure.” Even when I wished for information, Brodak’s bold poems made me pay attention and care more about what I can and can’t see. They are unafraid to move their words into hard spaces—into violence, story, history, images abandoned or in process, and into the hand of Uccello, the color on his brush.