Coming to That by Dorothea Tanning

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Dorothea Tanning’s Coming to That is a book full of imagination, creativity and intellect. Reading this collection, which was published a few months before her death in January of 2012, is a great joy as it reveals the imagination of a poet and an artist (not to mention a centenarian).

I’m often impressed with poets who take risks in their writing, and sure, being 100+ definitely takes some edge off, but what I enjoyed most about Tanning’s poetry was her inventive subject matter. For example, in the poem “Cultivation,” Tanning writes in a Peter Rabbit meets Tim Burton sort of way. The poem begins:

Cultivating people can be arduous,
With results as uncertain as weather.
Try oysters, meerkats, turnips, mice.
My mouse field was a triumph…

Here, she compares people in an imaginative way that reminds me of T.S Eliot’s Prufrock by conjuring up oysters and meerkats. She continues the poem by merging not only the landscapes of city and country, but also the technological landscape of the 21 st century:

Now, as before, each day dozens
Of perfect mice leave for the city.
There, they have made many friends
Among computers, and with them
Are developing skills inconceivable
To their forebears. Already these
Cultivated mice and their computers
Penetrate guilty secrets…

Her mice leave for the city. Her mice have friends, some are “among computers,” and these mice have guilty (perhaps avatar-esque) pleasures and secrets. Every time, I take a risk in my own writing, whether imaginative in content, creative in form, or delusional in constraints, I’m proud of myself. And, every time, I discover someone else who has also done it. This time, it’s a famous 101 year old! It’s refreshing to know that someone who lived over a century, who was married to the famous painter Max Ernst, and friends with many other famous writers and artists was still so unique and fearless in regards to her art and her poetry.

My favorite poem in this collection is, “Interval with Kook.” Here, she gives the reader a definition of look in her epigraph, “Kook: A hybrid of unknown origin, often mistaken for a human being.” In the poem, the speaker meets a kook, forms an unlikely relationship and is then forsaken. I can’t help but wonder if Tanning was a Tolkien fan. When the speaker finds the kook, it feels like Bilbo Baggins waking up on the bottom of Gollum’s cave and discovering both Gollum’s strange language and strange behavior:

It was then I saw the kook.
Tall, he stood over me
Wearing a droop-winged hat.


It was that easy.
We climbed to my place
On Kickapoo Hill.
He stayed.

She domesticates the kook by inviting him into her home and thereby into her personal world. Furthermore, she is tender and kind and even intimate in that she renames him: “my kook.”

Before long I had come
To think of him as my kook
Not ‘That kook,’ ‘This Kook”
Of ‘Some kook.”
No, he was my kook.

By calling the kook, “my kook,” she endears him to her. This is a common writer’s tool, but here, the hybrid is entering the human sphere and we, the reader, believe her. Similarly, I saw this same technique this week, in reading Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal. Here, Winterson describes the many ways in which her mother was a religious fanatic and a monster, but she also refers to her mother as, “my monster.” Again, we have another endearment. It’s ironic to think that two small letters “m” + “y” could do so much to a person or thing.

Another poem that resonated with me was the poem “Woman Waving to Trees.” The poem is simply about a woman standing beneath the trees, but the woman notices the extra-ordinary within the ordinary. It’s a beautiful poem about taking the time to notice what is beautiful in the world. Though it is again, imaginative and even fantastic, it brings careful attention to the familiar:

Not that anyone would
Notice it at first.
I have taken to marveling
At the trees in our park.
One thing I can tell you:
They are beautiful
And they know it.

I enjoy this poem for the way it admires the world and praises it. The poem continues and the woman waving at the trees is in perfect synergy with the trees themselves. They communicate through their gaze at one another. The poem ends with a direct address by the speaker to the trees:

…Raise your
Heads pals, look high,
You may see more than
You ever thought possible,
Up where something might
Be waving back, to tell her
She has seen the marvelous.

The poem “Waiting” discusses the past and the future in a meditative way. It feels almost like a journal entry in the way it begins:

Back then, with time on my hands
And in our back yard, I waited for the future.
The Future. For me as for everyone else,
The very words had a whiff of promise.
If things were not going too well at present
They would surely delight us in the future.

The speaker is writing from a new frontier, or a new decade. I enjoy the hope in the poem and the lack of despair. It is hard to write about one and not the other. The speaker discusses the many ways in which a person can “wait” and the many places a person can “wait” in. It’s a comical and lyrical poem. It feels reflective of a lifetime, but of course, could just be an invented world. I particularly enjoy the second to last stanza for its conversational tone:

Still later, when I was more in touch with
The world, they told me, “You have a future.”
I thought that over. Even if I believed them,
What did my little future, whatever that was,
Have to do with the real thing, whatever that is?

Tanning brings the world into her poetry and that’s something I enjoy. Here, she uses dialogue to extend the internal conversation regarding the “the future” and “the real thing.” We are all searching for the “real thing,” and never knowing what it really is. Tanning’s poetry is as unique as the artwork she’s produced over the years. It’s real and vibrant, even at the end of her life. This last book of poems is a simple treat – an embrace.

I’m pleased to say, that I recently learned that Dorothea Tanning’s poem “Graduation” will be one of the new featured poems in Poetry on the Subway in New York City. What a wonderful way to pay tribute to a great poet.

Leah Umansky's first book, “Domestic Uncertainties,” is forthcoming in 2013 by Blazevox Books. She is currently at work on her second book of poems. Leah also hosts and curates the COUPLET reading series in New York. Read more at her blog: More from this author →