Tuesday, January 12, 2016

John Keene's "Acrobatique" and the poet as short story writer

Edgar Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque
It's not uncommon for poets to draw on paintings for inspiration for poems. William Carlos Williams's poem "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" refers to a painting of the same name.  Wallace Stevens's "The Man with the Blue Guitar" corresponds to Picasso's The Old Guitarist; Rita Dove's "Agosta the Winged Man and Rasha the Black Dove" refers to Christian Schad well-known image. And last year, Robin Coste Lewis's volume Voyage of the Sable Venus spoke to Thomas Stothard's "The Voyage of the Sable Venus from Angola to the West Indies."

Where are the short stories by black writers that expound on paintings?

I actually raised that question in retrospect, after reading John Keene's story "Acrobatique" featuring an acrobat who is the subject of Edgar Degas's Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. In Keene's story,Miss La La, or Anna Olga Albertina Brown narrates, in part, as she performs high above the ground on the high wire. Part of what makes the form of "Acrobatique" innovative is that Keene presents the story as a single, extended sentence, re-presenting the movement of Brown in the air.

As a poet, Keene is definitely aware of the extended tradition of poets engaging paintings in their works. In some ways, he brought that sensibility to his project as a short story writer in "Acrobatique." The experiment with the single, extended sentence also reminded me more of a poetry project than what I've typically encountered in short fiction. 

In one interview, Keene noted that Brown "was such a superstar all over Europe, and she’s captured in this iconic painting and many people know of the painting, but almost no one ever asks the question, 'Who is Miss La La?'" His story about the acrobat underscores the overall theme of his collection Counternarratives concerning the production of alternative or hidden narratives, especially in relation to black people.

A substantial body of modern and contemporary black poetry addresses the idea of counter narratives, or back talk. After all, the concerted interest in persona poems among several black poets involves them offering hidden or under-developed first-person perspectives of black people. Echoing the practices of poets, Keene, as short story writer, takes on the persona of a black historical figure  and allows us to listen in on her presumable thoughts.

A notebook on John Keene

No comments: