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Suszynski: Sentinels in a vast sea

Imagine looking at a piece of paper covered with what you initially perceive as black inky writing. At first, you must squint, because the writing is very difficult to read. But as you move closer, you realize that you cannot read it.

You think, this is a language I am unfamiliar with. But the words, or whatever they are, seem more like pictures or representational squiggles. Then it hits you: Are these words at all?

When I first came across Mirtha Dermisache’s art, this went through my head. I felt fooled at first, then a little angry. Who was mimicking words like this and calling it art?



It’s funny, though. Just the other day, as I was combing through documents of mine, getting rid of some and keeping others as I usually do at the end of the year, I came across her work again.

I had printed her piece Diario No. 1, Año 1, and filed it away for safekeeping. Diario No. 1 is a newspaper rendering. Dermisache liked commenting on mass media. Her comment about this particular piece being that the viewer is literally reading unintelligible news.



One could think of Dermisache as a poet. Poems also play with language in a way that transfigures words into sentinels in a vast sea. These sentinels mean one thing, or they mean infinity. In trying to understand my reaction to Dermisache’s art, I pulled out Mary Oliver’s “A Poetry Handbook.”

In the first few pages, Oliver writes, “ … poems are not language but the content of language.” If I were to think of Dermisache’s work in this way, then her art is neither the language, nor the content of language, but perhaps signifiers of a greater message. When I first picked up Dermisache’s work, I initially believed it to be writing, the art came second.

Here’s another image I find myself returning to. It’s been snowing all week. One day, I looked outside my window and saw the aspen trees distinctly against the brown grass of the hill. As the next storm moved in, and I picked my head up from work, I almost lost sight of the aspen trees.

I squinted, moved closer to the window — and was able to discern the characteristic dark, inked eyes that punctuate the white of the bark. But looking out at the landscape in front of me, suddenly this image was only suggestive of the aspens, I could no longer see them. Like Dermisache’s language, the trees had transfigured.

Language is a series of images: “Poetry is one of the ancient arts, and it began, as did all the fine arts, within the original wilderness of the earth. Also, it began through the process of seeing and feeling, and hearing, and smelling, and touching, and then remembering — I mean remembering in the words — what these perceptual experiences were like, while trying to describe the endless invisible fears and desires of our inner lives,” Oliver says.

With each passing of a year, I feel that my own system of language shifts. I have in my toolbelt a wealth of new experiences and observations, which ultimately informs the words I use to express myself.

I find that the simple act of reading a book introduces a new world, just like stepping into a newly coated field of snow; the images I once saw now buried, now different. Now, perhaps, unrecognizable yet still suggestive.

“Imagery, more than anything else, can take us out of our own experience and let us stand in the condition of another instance, or another life. It can make the subject of the poem, whatever it is, as intimate as honey — or ashes — in the mouth,” Oliver states.

In these last two weeks of a topsy-turvy year, Dermisache’s art holds more significance for me. I have picked over my own words, tried to make them count. But sometimes, and this also applies to my conversations, I feel that I am staring at a canvas of discordant scrawl. So, to look at a page, and not know exactly what it is saying, except to tell me to decide for myself, is refreshing.

“How patient are you, and what is the steel of your will, and how well you look and see the things of the world? If your honest answers are shabby, you can change them,” Oliver tells me.

Not everybody loves poetry. Sometimes I don’t; although, I do spend a good chunk of time dedicating myself to it. I believe everybody can be a poet without having to write a poem.

In fact, it’s quite a noble pursuit to look at life as if everything, each object, has lyrical value. The aspen trees outside accumulating snow, for example.

I think this is why Dermisache makes so much sense to me now. Often people feel excluded from poetry and that is why they do not like it. I felt this way myself periodically. But if we take away that part that feels exclusive, we have a series of representational images. You can derive whatever you want from those images. This week, hopefully during a moment’s rest, I challenge you to be your own poet, for yourself. Shuck those things that make you feel shabby and start preening for a new year.


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