Amy Gerstler is a distinctive voice and presence on the poetic scene because she wears two hats: that of poet and that of art critic and artist-collaborator. In addition to books of poetry such as The True Bride (1986) and Primitive Man (1987), she has composed numerous essays for such publications as Artforum, as well as special texts to be performed at art museums. Also, she collaborated with visual artist Alexis Smith on a piece entitled “Past Lives,” which was presented in Santa Monica in 1989 and in New York City in 1990. The point here is not that her poetry has the colorful imagery and graphic power of modern art—although it obviously does—but rather that Amy Gerstler designs her poems as art events.
One approaches her poems as one might enter a sculptural space in a small gallery or an installation of various items in a large contemporary museum. One is surprised, amused, unsettled, changed, and educated in the special way that only genuine art can achieve. There is a wonderful playfulness in her work, a constant awareness of her audience, and a strong desire to interact with the reader, as revealed in her catchy titles, brilliant imagery, and short, breathy lines. Her poems seemingly beg to be read aloud and to be performed before a live audience. Like fairy tales and folktales, with their strange and dreamlike progressions, her poems unfold in one continuous motion. One surprising image tends to follow another in rapid-fire sequence, and the reader is held in suspense, as Gerstler outdoes herself with each succeeding line.
In the following passage, taken from the opening poem, “Petition,” the speaker believes that she has been reincarnated in many forms, each of which loved the same lover, also variously reincarnated. She, for example, has assumed the forms of a tin cup of curdled milk, a green shrub, and even a “well-timed squirt/ of lime juice” that protected her sailor-lover from scurvy. He, in turn, has taken the forms of weather vane, border guard, jailbird, and radio wave. She ends by hoping for utterly simple transformations, perhaps to be reborn “as that chalky substance/ that coats your tongue/ or as your white nightgown.”
These lists and catalogs of transformations and metaphorical possibilities are at the heart of Amy Gerstler’s methodology as poet and artist. She sees the world not as static fact, but as a series or chain of metamorphoses, and there is a well-established poetic tradition to support her view. The Roman poet Ovid composed his most famous work, Metamorphoses, about the beginning of the Christian era, and it was first translated into English as Metamorphoses by Arthur Golding in 1567. Robert Graves composed The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), a classic work that argues that all great poetry dramatizes metamorphosis as the basic principle in nature, especially Celtic poetry.
Of course, Gerstler did not need to study Ovid or Robert Graves to discover the principle of transformation in nature. As an amateur naturalist with a keen interest in botany and entomology, she had already seen the process at work in butterflies and other insects. In “Diary of a Lonely Antcatcher,” the speaker discusses the insect kingdom in precise detail, beginning with the metamorphosis of the order Odonata, which includes damselflies and dragonflies. The poet goes on to mention such creatures as the “False clown beetle, walking stick, stone fly, earwig, leafhopper, web spinner, lacewing, fishfly, book louse. . . . But this is only the beginning.”
A final source for Gerstler’s love of metamorphosis, as well as lists and catalogs, lies in the realm of folklore and fairy tales, which are replete with trickster figures and myriad beings who are always undergoing transformations. The classic Greek example, of course, is Proteus, able to change at will into any shape; hence the English word “protean.”
Many of Amy Gerstler’s poems rely on the familiar mode of autobiography to enclose or frame a series of metamorphoses. Whether these poems are literal autobiography is probably a moot point; Gerstler, however, makes these autobiographical and confessional poems sound uncannily real. In “Scarlet Fever,” the poet assumes the voice of a young girl stricken by this debilitating ailment. As a get-well present, her uncle presents her with an unusual gift, a book about extinct birds, creatures that she begins to bond with psychologically and imaginatively:
It would improve
my lot, I decided, to become a loon
that shed tears, to live on lizards
and soft fruit.
The poem ends with the speaker returning to her adult self, addressing her botanist-lover (a figure who appears in other poems), pleading, “Why am I/ still trapped back there,/ dimly flipping pages?”
More autobiographical data emerges in “A Hypochondriac’s Account of...
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