PHILIP DACEYS The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins, through its aesthetic method as well as its subject, suggests that the artists role is to fuse the scientific urge to catalogue with an intuitive desire to enter deeply into subject, to know from the inside out. As the visual artist observes all sides and angles before painting a subject, Dacey rescues Eakins voice from found materials, speaks through Eakins imagined voice, observes Eakins as subject through the filter of his own personal perspective, and creates the voices of other historical figures speaking of and to Eakins and all within the first four poems of the collection.
As the detailed chronology of Eakins life beginning the book suggests, Dacey wants first, as did Eakins, whom he quotes, to [g]et things as they are. But [a]n outline of a man is not a man; to get Eakins as he was and as he remains, in his surviving artwork, Dacey observes his subject as Eakins would, from all angles, interior as well as exterior, and the persona poems that engage Eakins voice through imagination and collage are among the books strongest. These include the opening poem, Found Sonnet: Thomas Eakins on Painting, which juxtaposes phrases from Eakins writings to embody a reading of the artists guiding aesthetic, and the collections beautiful penultimate poem Reflections on Water: The Lost Lecture of Thomas Eakins, a meditation on water and light, and on the artists role of re-creating flux through the apparent stasis of canvas and paint.
Eakins painted to dissect, Dacey writes, and Daceys own desire to dissect can produce powerful scenes, such as in the second section of Elegiac, entitled Seymour Adelman: The Bonfire. While the scientific impulse insists first on the facts here, that this was 1729 Mount Vernon Street,/the year 1938, and Susan Eakins had just died, the poem moves quickly into the more generative territory of elegy, allowing us to mourn the incredible loss of work as we witness a misguided family friend burning boxes of Eakins photographs after his wifes death. While she believes she is protecting his reputation by destroying these fetishes, what we see is the destruction of the artists vision, of the beauty he drew from his subjects, those women rising
as ashes, flecks
papery breasts on a breeze, thighs pulsing upward
with red light, abstract hollows and dunes
once waists and hips . . . .
Knowledge of the human body, Eakins believed, was essential for the artist. By teaching his students how to paint the nude figure, he enables them to see themselves with an eye naked as Gods.//Or as a doctors, an aesthetic embodied in the best of Daceys poems, the scientific fully wed to the artists other half, the seer. Dacey, in portraying Eakins, understands that the artist who looks deeply into subject will discover there self as much as other, just as this artist who most carefully observes will see himself ultimately as part of the scape he paints. In Thomas Eakins: The Badlands, Eakins, on horseback, watches as a cowbird hops from his horses head to Eakins own knee; the bird reminds him and us why he has left Philadelphia: he has been dismissed from his position as Director of the Pennsylvania Academy School for using nude models in his classes, and is, as Dacey notes in the chronology, recuperating from the traumatic event:
The bird seemed to me a muscle with wings,
quick and compact and appetitive,
and I thought of the muscle in Philadelphia
the ladies did not want their daughters to see,
no bigger than a bird, its moves stitching
the seamless landscape of anatomy.
To Eakins, the bird behaves as if the human body were as natural as the bird itself, touching Eakins hand as if it were but part of wide Dakota,/handscape a form of landscape, and neither a threat.
Eakins life, his ideals and disappointments, and his art, both what survives and what has been lost, compose a continuous circle into which Dacey draws himself and his readers. In the books final poem, Coda: Painting Eakins, Dacey writes: I apply a word, here, there, step back, admire/. . .The face begins forming. Mine? The portrait as/self-portrait. I see him only in my light. But this is a wonder, not a failure, of the artistic venture: painter, writer, reader all are joined through that most human gaze, the artists single, and singular, vision. Whether on canvas or page, the artists creation is at once window and mirror, the horizon joining self to world. Through this books rich imagining of one artist, Thomas Eakins, what Dacey ultimately offers us is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of art itself, that most intimate labor.
Sandra Meek is the author of two books of poems, Burn (Elixir 2005), and Nomadic Foundations (Elixir 2002), a collection largely based on her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. In 2003, Meek was awarded the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry, and the Peace Corps Writers Award for Poetry, both for Nomadic Foundations.