Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Landscapes and Voices

The Flemish artist Frans Masereel was born in Blankenberge, Belgium in 1889. He became one of the greatest woodcut artists of the 20th century and is best known for the "novels in pictures" he produced, including The Sun: A Novel Told in 63 Woodcuts (Shambhala, 2000), originally published in 1926, and Passionate Journey: A Novel Told in 165 Woodcuts (City Lights, 1988) which also first appeared in 1926. Massereel was identified with leftist and anti-war political movments all his life, and often produced illustrations for posters in support of demonstrations and other political events. He was also commissioned to illustrate special editions of the work of Oscar Wilde, Leo Tolstoy and Emile Zola.

Masereel died in Gent in 1972.

My favorite of Masereel's books is Landscapes and Voices (Schocken Books, 1988) which originally appeared in 1929. Rather than a novel, Landscapes and Voices may be likened to a collection of poems. Each woodcut stands alone, and many of them suggest discreet little narratives. About 10 years ago, I wrote a series of poems in response to some of the illustrations in "Landscapes and Voices." Several of the poems were published, none with reference to Masereel or to the particular woodcut that provided the prompt.

Here's one that was never published, but for which I still have (as Louise Gluck might say) "an embarassed fondness."

AND VOICES" (1929)

A man with his chin in his hand
looking at the stars.
The table and the empty paper
awash in starlight.
Suddenly, a woman, alabaster in her body,
the way light is always
a movement against darkness.
She inclines toward the window
reaching out to touch
the curve of his chair.
Of this, he remembers the absence of words.
And between the stars, the darkness.
The sweetness that is made of it.


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