Edward Hopper (Graywolf, 2009) is a complex and striking work of narrative-lyrical poetry, skirting on the epic, that is also one of the more interesting books of poetry to be recently published in English. There are a number of things that make Lawrence Venuti’s translation of Ernest Farrés’s book of poems in the voice of Edward Hopper unusual. One should be obvious from the previous sentence: a tripled persona in which translator speaks for poet who speaks for painter. Another is the scope of the project as a whole; Edward Hopper is envisioned as a complete sequence, gripping in its narrative-lyrical arc, though the poems equally stand alone. The book is also a work of ekphrasis—each of the 51 poems taking its title from a Hopper painting—but radically departs from mere description. The biographical (or pseudo-biographical) engagement with Hopper’s oeuvre sketches its own chronology, re-contextualizing each painting, and shedding new light or shadow on the works.
One might expect a poetic work of ekphrasis to be centered around the image, but what is most immediately enticing about this book is the narrative-lyrical arc which appropriates Hopper’s works and biography, subjugating them to the voice of the poet while the poet simultaneously becomes subsumed in them. It is a book of poetry that demands attention from the reader at every move, and demands that attention on its own terms. Like listening to a symphony in full, the poems in their individual movements culminate into a picture of a life that is at once specific and universally recognizable. Venuti, like a great conductor, moves the poetry through his own language that neither obscures nor clarifies the richness of the original, but allows it to be heard in its full tonality. The composition and translation both are ekphrasis at its most successful, its most layered. In “Self Portrait, 1925-1930” —the first poem in the book, and the only one with an overt intrusion of Farrés’s voice—Hopper is reincarnated through the Borgesian mirror of the painting into the body of Farrés. But the transmigration is incomplete, and the voice slips in opportune places throughout the book to reveal a Catalan poet seeing Hopper’s North America, and in it the broader scope of modernity’s disillusionment. Farrés shares Hopper’s “fears, obsessions, anxieties” and the immediacy of their pressure on the landscape and people resonate through the language, preventing even the slightest distancing of the voice.
The ordering of the poems is brilliantly narrative, moving from the self-reflective interior to a railroad station and train that takes Hopper/Farrés from a rural setting to the archetypal city and eventually through middle age to Cape Cod. The bulk of the book is comprised by a sequence of cityscapes, including Hopper’s famous “Nighthawks, 1942” as an existential dialogue between the man and woman in the painting confronting the realization that “nothing in life is irreplaceable.” These insights, sometimes heard in the voice of Hopper, sometimes in a muted Farrés, and sometimes in the voice of the subject of the painting (which is always ultimately the self of the artists) border on the overly philosophical. It is the ironizing context of retrospective engagement with modernity, and the plurality of persona, that pushes these reflective moments into poignancy. Voyeurism and aural intrusion into the painting implicate the reader as well as the poet/painter/translator in these mini-dramas in which every subject is self. “Hotel Room, 1931” exemplifies this, spinning into the dizzying progression of time:
At the hotel a woman in her underwear
pores over a train timetable. An hour later,
in low spirits and bone-tired,
she’ll start to pace around the room
leaving a fruity fragrance in the air
that reeks of mustiness.
A week later they’ll be no
tangible results. A year later
she’ll be the object of caresses.
Another four and no lullabies.
Another ten and the delicate balance
between youth and age will be gone.
Another twenty and she’ll cling
to an expansive ethics of listlessness
and Triumph of the Will.
Another century and nobody’s
going to remember a thing about her.
In two centuries there’ll be
no polar ice caps. When five
billion years go by,
there won’t even be a sun.
The fixed moment in history recorded in the painting expands into present and future—a bleak shared future of oblivion. We intrude on the intimacy of the moment, as Hopper does, and intrude on the intimacy of the moment of Hopper’s painting it, as Farrés does. This woman, privacy violated, becomes the catalyst for an ironic nihilism in which we are “directly implicated” (“The City,” 1927).
The city poems pulse with motion and frenzy, the fears and passions of a young Hopper/Farrés. In “The City, 1927” we along with him are submerged “deep down, in the very marrow, amidst a whorl / of elliptical subjects, colorful scenes.” Here, the careful density and pace of sound and rhythm in the language is evidence of a masterful translation, and Venuti’s Farrés is most powerful in places like “Summer in the City, 1949”:
The man is looking for trouble,
thrills, sublime ecstasies, places
short on folklore, deals,
calculated approximations, objects
of desire that grab
your attention and keep
your cool, the latest rage
at your fingertips, binges,
infatuations, sexual icons,
irrefutable proofs, joyrides, advice
within parentheses, green lights, comfy shoes,
forms of expression that presuppose
supremacy, free tickets to the game,
ways of killing time that are reckless and frenzied,
the upper hand before bellyaching, answers
as plain as the nose on your face.
The woman, however, is looking for love.
The building, pulsing momentum of desire, of the city, and of moving through life is enthralling. The places where syntax slips over the enjambment—“grab,” “keep” and “rage” sliding into “advice” and “answers”—brush against the erotic tension of this poem, and the concise unenjambed second sentence of the poem counterpoints the cascading frenetic energy of male desire. Just glancing across the page at the Catalan reveals Venuti’s masterful treatment of the poem, which in the Catalan is one line shorter and doesn’t place the woman on a line of her own. There’s also the surprise of “bellyaching” which glides smoothly in the voice of Hopper, until the startling realization occurs that this is Hopper speaking Catalan and so “bellyaching” is a moment of linguistic impossibility that prevents the reader from becoming too comfortable with the language.
The frenzy of youth and the city thread through the bulk of the book, tempering bit by bit as the feminine (the presence of Nivison, Hopper’s wife and model for many of his female figures) becomes more prominent. The diction becomes mimetic of the journey out of the city to the bucolic Cape Cod setting, expanding into placid, airy and languorous description. The prosaic overtakes the poetic as comfort and familiarity replace the angst and frenzy of youth. Towards the end, as we fall into a comfortable rhythm, we are told:
You’ve got this down pat. We sketch orbits
around a highly valued microcosm,
a landscape composed of organic dust,
and calmly accept that the march of time
will make us different from what we were,
filling with meaning what was empty
emptying of meaning what contained it.
(“Sea Watchers,” 1952)
In “Sun in an Empty Room, 1963” (my personal favorite Hopper painting), which is placed near the end of the book, Hopper via Farrés via Venuti tells us:
I rediscover myself and leave a sign.
. . .
All the same, I’m not moving very far.
No matter where you go, you never find
the way out of the labyrinth.
The labyrinth of these poems are much more than an homage to Hopper. They are a rediscovery. A new look at the intricate stories that make up the imagined life of one of the most important twentieth century U.S. painters. A poetical-fictional biography that succeeds in its imaginative power to entice the reader into believing it as truth, which of course it is. Like the works of great art they illuminate, these poems reveal a moment (of life, of time, of history) in its fullest dimension. In this book’s ambitious transcendence of the individual, Farrés shines through Hopper as a poet to pay attention to.