Several Publications by Basil King:
77 Beasts: Basil King’s Bestiary
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, New York, 2007)
Learning to Draw / A History: Twin Towers
(Skanky Possum, Austin, 2005)
Mirage: A Poem in 22 Sections
(Marsh Hawk Press, New York, 2003)
(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2001)
(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2000)
(Spuyten Duyvil, New York, 2000)
The Complete Minatures
(Stop Press, London, 1997)
Devotions, with Selections from A Painters Bestiary and 14 Drawings from Intentions
(Stop Press, London, 1997)
Learning to Draw, Learning to Paint, Learning to Write: On Basil King
A Basil King Painting
What draws a poet to write about a particular artwork, artist, or artistic milieu? Given that poetry, or at least verse, happens primarily within the dimension of time, and that it gravitates to the sounds of words as an organizing principle (concrete and digital poetry notwithstanding, perhaps), there should be more of an explicitly declaimed affinity between poetry and music, as contrasted to poetry and art, within or beyond the literary canon. And yet, while some marvelous poetry has been written as a result of a poet being moved by, say, one or another symphony, it is the world of painting and sculpture that more often becomes the source of a poet’s muse. Perhaps there is a profound otherness a poet might feel for visual art which beckons (I say this as someone who has written poems on art and who views the human condition as one predicated on uncertainty—it is perhaps the fixed quality of most visual art, situated as it is in space, not time, which attracts me and provides me with some resonance).
Basil King is not an ekphrastic poet. He is a visual artist. He is also a poet. He is not, though, an artist who tries his hand with words, in the sense that Ulysses Grant was a general who was a superb memoirist, or Winston Churchill in much the same way. All the same, King’s work is that of a writer who is really an artist—still, he is not merely an artist who writes. In his poems and prose vignettes King thinks associationally and even downright illogically—or would it be better to say visually? The closest comparison with his writing I might be able to make is the poetry of John Ashbery who began as an art critic, who is completely comfortable in the world of visual art, and who has an instinctive feel for it, and for whom the world of art is a second world as if being an artist were for him a second self; this orientation fundamentally shapes his verse. Ashbery’s is the logic of music although it is inflected by the silence and persistence of art and by art’s capacity to present what might be least plausible. Finally, though, Ashbery is a poet. King, on the other hand, is a visual artist, a sublime draughtsman and painter. He is also on intimate terms with poetry. And his writing is unique. It provides a fortuitous entrance into the world of art, as it exhilarates readers for its literary inventiveness and lyricism (as if it might take an artist to show poets how to be lyrical).
King’s most recent book, 77 Beasts: Basil King’s Bestiary—the latest chapter in his intellectual and personal, spiritual engagement with art, with the particulars of art, and with particular artists—is a testimony in which King the man and King the artist are inseparable though each is distinct and equally compelling. Following upon books like Mirage, Warp Spasm, Devotions, The Complete Miniatures, and Identity, and even a book about his relationship as an artist with various poets, The Poet—we find King in 77 Beasts to be more an artist who writes than a writer who draws and paints, but this book establishes him as a writer who is documenting his life-long encounters with a number of artists or their works, who is probing the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of them in tandem and intertwined with his own life.
Ultimately King is probing the meaning of his vocation. Thus he can speak playfully, and at the same time quite soberly, to the painter Arthur Dove, in a personal voice, as one artist to another as well as one human being to another, of their mutual love of the visual, palpable world:
Brother, we are Doves. Let us not be too complacent. You know, when I sail my boat, straight lines intersect a curve and I deflect from the ordinary course of things and think I can have everything. Every snow flake before it touches the ground will be mine. Every cloud, every grain of sand, every beat of my shoe makes music. It is called music. Music. My romance. (77 Beasts 145)
The world is alive—or better to say King is, and by implication Dove was, alive to the world. Moreover, art makes the world coalesce and makes freedom possible. And if there can be a reality for King or Dove then King has found it in the manifest world.
King does not feel himself to be alone. He enjoys his kinship with Dove. To be sure, he is in touch with artists past and present in this book and in his earlier work as well. In thinking about the painter Gwen John, King writes, in Mirage,
Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. Nobody. Oh, let there be nobody. Paint nobody, paint language. Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. Let the shadows unroll. Let the shadow cover the mountain. Let the shadow be. Let the world stop. Let paint be. Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. Let poetry cease. Let the shadow be. Nobody, nobody paints just for themselves. (Mirage 43).
Reading King one gets the feeling that poetry is everywhere and that it will never “cease.” The reader may sense that King sees himself as alone. Or perhaps King is not alone but he is simply awakened to his own vulnerabilities, and it is being vulnerable that marks all living creatures as in fact being alive and cognizant. But of course he is in communion with other artists. Yet he does not deny his own solitude, in either his art or writing. His book Identity appropriately begins, movingly, viable in memory, as follows.
Primrose. In the Lost and Found there are packages that people want to forget, want to lose. The books that Basil Cohen brought from England have his name covered over with bandaids. He was wounded and I covered young Basil’s wound with bandaids and woodruff. The bandaids and the books are on a shelf. The woodruff is gone. The wound remains. (Identity 7)
Are time and memory ephemeral, while the work of art endures, or does even an aesthetic object have a time frame? “Basil Cohen” in the above passage is Basil King. King’s boyhood was difficult. He was born in England, and brought up there during World War II, after returning from Detroit at the start of the war, with his willful mother, to the London bombings and subsequently to a school in the country—“a Jewish Summerhill,” King has called it, a Dickensian institution in which the children were academically superior but the teachers and administrators, who saw the children as a bother, were vicious toward them. This atmosphere bred loneliness and perhaps shame. What is more, King was born with a physical deficit on one side of his body, due to an incompetent doctor who delivered him at birth. As true of most children, King’s early life was powerfully determined by the adults around him, in King’s case often for the worse.
King eventually made his way back to Detroit. Other members of his family emigrated as well. King’s birth name, Cohen, was changed as a result of happenstance. First his uncle emigrated to America, later followed by King’s immediate family who, having discovered that the uncle had changed his name to the more Christian-sounding King, went along with the masquerade and became Kings too. But this undermining of King’s sense of himself caused an existential crisis for Basil Cohen who really did cover the name written in his books with bandaids.
At sixteen, he was admitted to Black Mountain College, the youngest person there, and without a high school diploma. This beginning overall has, I feel, profoundly affected King’s work. The images in his paintings—sensuous, supple, and slightly abstracted—are haunting, and it takes awhile to realize why. A sadness permeates them, but it is unannounced and subtle, visually realized with exquisite delicacy, a deliberate aesthetic; the sadness wells up inside the viewer slowly. The images are delicate, cerebrally intriguing, and at the same time poignant.
In King’s own early struggle to abandon abstract art (which he finally did by throwing off the heavy influences of the abstract expressionist painters he knew at Black Mountain College and in New York City), he found a freedom in the finitude of narrative (perhaps in part through his friendships with a great many poets and writers such as Robert Creeley, Paul Blackburn, Fielding Dawson, and Hubert Selby, Jr.). His brief poem about Fairfield Porter ends with the declaration, “Dissolve the abstract / and find reason in an unreasonable / world” (77 Beasts 9). King’s prose pensées and lilting verse pieces are, for all their finely honed insights into the works of artists who make up the book’s titles, passionate, deeply personal dialogues with these people, which often imagine the distinctive details that fill in an artist’s life. Hence it can be hard to tell if the opening lines of, for instance, his low-keyed poem to Rembrandt are an act of impersonation or King’s candid, private, uncensored, even as they are gently shaped, thoughts:
I smell rhubarb heading my way and I recall
how much paint it took to paint her legs.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about it.
If I’m to render dogs in men’s clothing
then why should I comb my hair!
(77 Beasts 43)
There is a capricious, non-linear way of thinking that comes through in a lot of King’s verbal pieces, which I am coming to feel belongs more to the realm of art than of literature (as if his poem were in essence a painting), and yet there is also a kinship in these works between King and his fellow artists that does hold a world together, if only momentarily, if only long enough to take in the scene and be changed by it. Of course, this sense of the unexpected makes sense as well if one were to postulate that much of his writing is like found art, is taken from the moments of his actual life, but (to continue the metaphor here) this found art has been delicately altered, mediated.
King’s writing is deeply knowing—both in the sense of art historical knowledge and of the wisdom of a painter who has had a life-long love affair with art—and deeply felt, personal, intelligent, and at times painfully honest. His poem “Esteban Vicente” reads, in part,
Like the armor of a clock
I have found my limits
are emotional As I
describe the language
my lattice my lace
circumscribe an order
of being I am not
We paint from memory
those things that are nearby
of your portrait
I squeeze your heart
and feel jealousy [….]
(77 Beasts 56)
Vicente, or possibly King, may be jealous; in any case this feeling is part of a larger relationship that transcends any particular moment. One senses this even as it is the moment that is rendered most often in King’s work. The feeling is part of a grand restlessness that comes from living with vulnerability, and living with it for King means comprehending and celebrating it. This comprehension could take the form of somber praise, even in the face of tragedy—for instance when he writes knowingly of Mark Rothko, in Twin Towers (a chapbook portion of a larger, ongoing work titled Learning to Draw / A History):
Rothko was ill when the horizon line refused to yield, divide and guide him as it had always done. He felt betrayed. His surface had become a Trojan horse that released unbearable monsters. No color could appease them and they pecked at him as if he were the lowest barn yard runt. Rothko committed suicide. (Twin Towers 16)
That last, merely factual, statement comes fast upon the uncanny ventriloquism King manages—could anyone but a fellow painter, yet one who is a gifted writer, be able to speak from inside Rothko’s mind?
King’s books are at once the work of an artist and writer, as well as a perspicacious art critic, and in the deepest sense a friend of the artists he engages. There is no body of writing quite like this. Reading his work, I feel jealousy at times for this artist who is also a poet, and always I am in admiration of him.
Burt Kimmelman has published five collections of poetry -- Musaics (1992), First Life (2000), The Pond at Cape May Point (2002), a collaboration with the painter Fred Caruso, Somehow (2005), and There Are Words (2007). For over a decade, he was Senior Editor of Poetry New York: A Journal of Poetry and Translation. He is a professor of English at New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of two book-length literary studies: The "Winter Mind": William Bronk and American Letters (1998); and The Poetics of Authorship in the Later Middle Ages: The Emergence of the Modern Literary Persona (1996, paperback 1999). He also edited The Facts on File Companion to 20th-Century American Poetry (2005).