Review by Claire Farley
This is part of the secret when working
in cadmium red. Knowing the first brush
stroke, feeling out when to stop the colour
from overbearing the white space. Knowing
how much pigment is too much for one piece.
How to ease out the measure between paint
and brush with the grip of your fingers.
Many poets, I think particularly of Wallace Stevens and Frank O’Hara, have seen poetry as the sister art to painting. One of my favourite poems to take up this relationship is Anne Michaels’s “The Day of Jack Chambers.” This poem alludes to the work of Canadian painter Jack Chambers and draws a beautiful parallel between painting and poetry. Michaels writes,
You explained visual time,
how there’s no weight without shadow.
Nothing falls, every figure has a ghostly buoyancy.
You explained how Chambers grounded things with his light,
leaving the ghost inside.
I understood this by thinking “language” instead of “light,”
how everything suspended stays temporal.
I understood it as a grammar of beauty
with its apex of loss,
dishevelled burning trees half leafless.
While only one poem in Sonia Di Placido’s collection Exaltation in Cadmium Red is in direct conversation with a visual artwork, her poetry is an exercise in the “grammar of beauty” that Michaels is evoking. Such a broad question as how does art reflect life? can be approached in innumerable ways and is often present as poetry’s subtext. Di Placido takes up this conversation very subtly in her collection of poems by drawing attention to her palette of language and symbols as capable tools of powerful creation and commentary, as well as precise description and reflection. In “Imaginings,” she sceptical of any direct reflection, and revels instead in the process of creation. The artist constructs an image of an experience or a personality through various lenses, “kaleidoscopes, microscopes, the looking / glasses that give us miniature imaginings to laugh at.” Despite (or perhaps because of) these lenses through which we perceive, she asks “But how to demonstrate?” The demonstration that Di Placido is seeking in her poems seems to be a reflection that succeeds in, as Michaels’s says, “leaving the ghost inside.” There must be “just enough skin” (“Imaginings”) between the artist and the world.
The sleeve of her book names several of the intonations of the hue that structures the collection:
Shades of cadmium red have persisted throughout history as the most exuberant of in the oil-painting palette; the hues meant to be mixed with other oils in subtle, specific, and precise doses for greatest effect. This body of poems revels in this fanatical, fantastic colour to express the heights and depths of passion—engaging in meditations on prayer, spirituality, feminism, and the breadth of existence in a post-colonial, trans-national and transsexual age.
Di Placido works in different voices as painters work with brushes. While lyricism can often have a quality of self-indulgence, her poems enact a deep intimacy with her audience that is grounded in the sensuality of her language rather than anecdotal framings. We see shades of a poet exploring femininity, spirituality, sexuality with a focus on becoming. Her detail often seems to have a purpose beyond description and reminds us of the emotional and social power of observation. In one of my favourite poems in the collection, “Occupy this Room,” awareness of one’s surroundings is an act of protest. “Occupy” has political connotations and Di Placido implies that to be present in one’s tasks and intimate with the tools we use to perform them is a revolutionary action in our contemporary social landscape. In contrast to “Occupy this Room,” in “Talking to the Undead on Facebook” she characterizes our social illness in which “It’s all now. Instantaneous,” and we are zombified by the false-presence of interaction mediated by a screen.
If Di Placido has a project in this collection, it’s to remind us of the emotional and intellectual importance of tasting, smelling, breathing. This reminder, however, seems as related to a spiritual sense of awareness (a mystical Catholicism wafts like incense through the collection), as to the sensuality of a nonna inhabiting spaces and relationships through touch and food; a way of being that is associated with comfort and freedom in these poems.
drunk on audacity,
Our mouths will chew
language will tickle
This sensual freedom is not just Dionysian pleasure; the intellectual desires that sustain us, that we ache for, are not unlike our physical ones. In “Big Things”:
I’m dying to tell you about big things
great things that we find with our fingers
Only small selfish desires that fingers ache for –
such things as the clever writing of words.
The language that Di Placido seeks and that “will tickle / both tongues” is a language that is tasted on our tongues and by our intellect – the “grammar of beauty” that is as difficult to master as oil paint.
Sonia Di Placido is a poet, playwright, writer, artist and actor based in Toronto, Ontario. Besides her most recent collection of poetry, Exaltation in Cadmium Red, Sonia has two chapbooks: Vulva Magic (Lyrical Myracle Press, 2004) and Forest Primitive (Aelous House press, 2008). She has also published poems and creative non-fiction profiles in blogs and magazines such as Toronto Quarterly Blog, Carousel, The Puritan and The White Wall Review and various anthologies such as Walk Myself Home, An Anthology of Violence Against Women, (Caitlin Press, 2010) and The Poet to Poet Anthology (Guernica Editions, 2012).