process notes: letter to rodin

from The Gates of Hell

We are lucky to live just down the peninsula from the College Town. This particular college (university actually) has a large, permanent collection of Rodin’s sculptures including a cast of The Gates of Hell, which I think I could sit in front of for the rest of my life and never get bored. Last week and again yesterday, I spent some time with the Rodin collection, and was struck by the commingling of passion and suffering his work seems to embody. One interesting thing about his work is that he’ll often break the scale of a piece and include, for example, an outsized big toe, or a hand that is much too small for its body, or a too-long arm. And many, many of the eyes he sculpted look curiously blind — there, but not there. Another interesting thing about Rodin’s work is that he often leaves bodies purposely unfinished to enlarge the evocative power of a piece. Here’s something he said about that: “A torso contains all of life.” O, he seems to say, we are flawed and unseeing, never finished. By the way, this makes me think about how much to reveal in a poem, versus how much to leave unsaid, allowing the language to evoke without being bossy. But that’s another post for another day.

As I looked at the collection, I was furiously tapping notes into my phone — poem seeds and snatches of language. Words like: gouged, fragment, pocked, torsion, seam.

Thus began my most recent draft, which I came to after spending some time in my notebook scribbling all the words that came to mind as I thought about Rodin’s sculptures and what little I know of his process (one detail of which fascinates me: over time, The Gates of Hell became a work-in-progress and treasure trove of new work. He would add newly shaped forms, take away others, use one figure as a model for a new piece, etc).

Although I normally draft in my  notebook, this time I did not. And I didn’t use words from other poets as I often do — the words for this draft rose up to the page out of my scribbling and a line echoing in my head: Sir, you must know something of suffering.

I really wanted this poem to be about suffering, but as it skittered down the page it turned its back on suffering to explore themes of imperfection and longing. During revisions, I will need to figure out if both themes can coexist in this poem, or if one needs to be cut. I worked in couplets as I usually do when drafting; we’ll see if they stick. I’m also unsure of the ending which right now is tied up pretty tight but probably needs to be incomplete, unfinished, evocative.

Even so, I’ll leave you with a few lines from this draft: “This is how we meet each other, right Sir? // Headless and missing a limb, nearly / blind and tripping on a too-long leg, // the half-length of an arm / saying more about arms // than the intact limb ever could, absence / becoming presence?”

The syntax is a little too talky for me, but it’s draft with some energy behind it. I think I’ll try to revise toward the strange.

6 thoughts on “process notes: letter to rodin

    • I think the unfinishedness (new word) of many of his pieces evokes so much, and makes pathways into new art almost naturally. It was a fun draft to work on.

  1. very interesting. i was struck by your commenting that you tapped notes into your PHONE (rather than writing it down with pen and paper, as i would have imagined you to do). i wonder how much that took away from, or enhanced, your experience, as well as whether and it affected your experience (e.g. mood, memory, emotion). so i began looking online about this and found this article: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/writing-and-remembering-why-we-remember-what-we-write.html

    i’m guessing he would recommend writing your notes by hand next time. 🙂

    write on, molly. it brings me anticipation and joy to read it.

    • shannon c. so interesting that you noticed this. Yes, normally I would have written my notes down by hand. I always have pen & paper in my purse, but I had done a purse swap the previous week (purse swaps = always ill-advised in my experience) and ended up without my little pouch of writerly materials that’s usually in my purse. It kind of bugged me to be tapping into my phone (tap tap tap-tap-tap tap taptaptap!, etc) and probably took away from my experience of the art somewhat. But I was really glad to have some good way of capturing my notes, as we were outside in the sculpture garden away from a ready supply of paper. Maybe this is why I took that extra step — almost taking notes again — in my notebook before drafting?? The article you linked to is interesting….. fodder for another post, perhaps. Thanks for reading and for your encouragement!

  2. I, too, have been moved by Rodin. So many pivotal moments in my life, in which Rodin showed up: Working at the Met in my 20s and seeing a Rodin sculpture for the first time; Watching the movie, Camille Claudel (again and again) and aching to create; and, later, moving to the Pacific Northwest and stumbling across his sketches at the Maryhill Museum, an out-of-the-way treasure near Goldendale, Washington.

    Thanks for the stirring the memories, Molly.

    • You’re welcome, Drew. Thanks for reading. Now I’m intrigued….. the movie and the sketches at Maryhill Museum. Oh, and working at the Met! Wow. I lived in NYC in my 20s, too, and often went to the Met — wonder if we ever crossed paths? 🙂

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