One of the very few facts that should keep artists inspired to make more art is that the present moment is always the point in history with the most art made. One stands on Westminster Bridge and, looking at Big Ben, overhears a couple planning to film a mukbang. Turning to see who they are brings the London Eye into view: white, high-tech, across the brown water that cannot have changed much, except by how it’s been framed—which, on second thought, is really an enormous change. And this must change us too—for all these differences to be experienced as a cohesive, almost understandable moment. The situation should be terrifying to the artist, whose job, supposedly, is now to capture all this additional stuff, where people speaking Farsi on their smartphones walk against the Tower of London’s outer curtain—to capture what might be called that “anachronism,” but which actually makes perfect sense, at least about how it all happened, and now happens, since, generally, we have the facts. The reconciliation for the artist, though, is that more has come before them than has come before anyone else.
This is where Troy Jollimore has planted his garden, and these are his Earthly Delights. No art can be old. He turns, in the figurative museum he’s made of his book, from Bosch to Tarkovsky, and all of it is here, now, converged. The titular poem of Jollimore’s collection takes up the necessary specificity of all this accumulation: it happened in a certain order, and had to, but now, in our present, what does that order mean? It doesn’t register as order.
Because order matters: breakfast, then lunch,
then dinner, dessert following the main course;
the orgasm, yes, but the foreplay before;
old age, yes, but first youth . . .
Yes, there’s the “historical progression,” the fact of how it’s happened, but Jollimore asks if there’s “some other way” (and when a way is presented as “other,” we should assume this will be the way in the end, not the other way):
at any moment, we might slip partially
or even completely into any one of them,
or, for that matter, as if at any moment,
an elemental intrusion from hell or paradise
might erupt, without warning, into our lives . . .
Jollimore is asking how he should view Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, but really how we should approach all art, and not just visual. We see it in our historical moment, but should we be trying to look at it otherwise? How could we? Surely we’d just be pretending. But is pretending to be a different observer actually, ironically, becoming a different observer?
It’s a different, though related question, to ask how we should look at this intricate painting with so many scenes all at once. All at once is how the world happens, but, as Keats and Jollimore will remind you, the piece of art is a little different, even if we can’t see it outside ourselves. This leads, in Jollimore’s poem, to a restart and correction, as well as a wonderful proclamation on the problem—the good kind, where a resolution is more emotion than argument:
Because order matters, yes; but our lives
are not orderly. And art, precisely
because it is, feels at times like a mere
detached imitation, yet can also feel
as if it were more like life than life
One of the reasons why “poets on poetry” remains a powerful subject, even if a little overpopulated, is that in the very rumination about the role of art, that role is fulfilled. In thinking about how to represent experience, Jollimore has done it.
The second section, “The Republic Forgets,” turns to the particular insanity of our cultural moment and America beneath the Trump administration. But the poetry excels not where “these days” are lampooned or our cultures criticized, rather where Jollimore incorporates his concern of the contemporary observer with the unique situations of today: corporate public relations, movie theaters, and a devastated environment. These are precisely the three things he weaves together in “Silence and Residue of Waters,” where the artificiality of actions, whether in sex or announcing Amazon’s drone delivery service, can hardly be critiqued, since this, in the context of the poem, is the same experience of the actor:
A thing on a stage is perceived by so many eyes at once
it can practically disappear beneath the weight of all that seeing.
Which explains, perhaps, the dream of being an actor.
“All that seeing” renders the subject so indefinite because it’s something different in each viewer. And the public sphere is so mighty that it creeps into private moments when the person carries it to a bedroom:
. . . later, in the room you borrowed
to make love to her, you felt, dimly, the presence
of an audience . . .
The anxiety of public observation is private as well when, even in the most intimate and genuine of acts, we cast ourselves as being observed. It is the seeing of yourself as seen, rather than as seer. Perhaps it’s like privately enjoying The Hobbit trilogy or a bad rom-com, but, if you were to watch the same thing in a group of friends, you would have to comment that no, this is not particularly successful. What are the parameters? When you ask yourself the question what do you enjoy? it starts to feel like any answer must be artificial, since it won’t be the pure enjoyment itself.
The meditation of the big poem at the center, “American Beauty,” is how to “learn art” today—how, given the problems and climates conjured in the first two sections, to educate oneself. In keeping with the book, the particularities are film. What should the looker look for? What should the consumer of art learn? Jollimore colloquializes this heavy, old discussion with the “corruption of our youth” theme, perhaps even older (given Socrates was convicted for it). He speaks to the adult about kids:
Let’s tell them, in fact,
that the movies are positively
bad for them.
Because, first of all,
there’s some truth to that.
And because, secondly,
they understand better
than the rest of us, sometimes,
that getting too much of what’s good for you
is not always good for you.
One of America’s many euphemisms for education is “to go outside.” Jollimore voices that, but points the kids in the direction of the movie theater. What will they learn there? To look at evil from where good is, and then at good from where evil is. The corruption of the youth is the disruption of what is called good—of showing different perspectives, which so much art has done so well for so long. The education of art is nothing less than the freedom of a mind when art shifts what had been fixed perspectives.
To get back to where we started, Jollimore reminds us of the ever-present nature of a view:
no viewing is privileged, no viewing comes closer
than any other viewing to being a genuinely
‘true’ or ‘real’ experience (whatever, in this context,
true or real might mean), and there is therefore
no way to attach to a film a precise date
In this sense, nothing can be “re-read” since it’s not a duplication, it’s not the thing done over, but something new: a new production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, or the Mass in B Minor heard at age sixty versus twenty, or “Soonest Mended” read again the next day because you wanted again the same sad feeling you got when you read the end, but it didn’t come the second time. The viewer has no choice but to see it now, but the experience is always that it’s already happened, and you’re a little late: “that world, that Italy, that cinematic / moment, have vanished. . .” This seems unfair, to be constantly arriving late, having missed the moment, and Jollimore ruminates:
It is perhaps
the cruelty of the world, or perhaps just the cruelty
of art, which depicts and pretends to preserve
the world, to keep this vanishing constantly in view
We accept his first “perhaps,” but cannot believe the second. If the cruelty of representation—of art—is that it pretends to be real, while it is as memory is to living, that cruelty is of the world it is a part of, and not of its making. “The world” is the world of human experience, which is always already happening: things gone recollected. That Jollimore knows this is clear, but our frailty is such that we will hate the messenger that tells us what the truth is before we would hate the truth, and art is the messenger from the world.
About the Reviewer
Keene Carter is from Charlottesville, Virginia. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org