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Monday, May 23, 2005

The Eye of the Beholder.

by Gilbert Wesley Purdy.

eye: poems and retina prints
by Elizabeth Goldring.
Kansas City: BkMk Press, 2002.
ISBN 1-886157-37-5. $15.95

Note: The links in this essay/review are designed to provide a slideshow to accompany the text.

Elizabeth Goldring - the author of eye: poems and retina prints -- apparently began to lose her sight in the early 1980s. She is suffering from proliferative retinopathy - a disease restricted to diabetics. A lack of blood nutrients triggers a growth hormone, in some diabetics, causing new blood-vessels to grow in the retina of the eye. The vessels are improperly formed and eventually hemorrhage to fill the aqueous humor with blood.

Before her blindness, she had been impressively working (and networking) her way along a career path in academia. From her beginnings as a baccalaureate from Smith College, and a public school teacher of French and art, she had rapidly achieved positions at the Field Museum of Natural History of Chicago, the Smithsonian Institute and the Children's Museum of Boston, and had become a fellow at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at M.I.T. In amongst it all, she found the time to acquire a Masters, in Education, from Harvard.

The Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS, for short) is a remarkable place. Founded in 1967 by Gyorgy Kepes (whom Goldring cites as a profound influence on her work), it is dedicated to exploring the compatibility of science and art. The idea is to create art. The associated degree work is in science.

Kepes came to America, in 1937, at the behest of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy had found the backers necessary to open the New Bauhaus in Chicago. In the words of Hilton Kramer:

The dream he harbored was for a kind of art that could not be contained by the easel, the studio, or the museum. Nowadays, I suppose, we would call it environmental art, though Moholy's dream cannot really be understood in purely aesthetic terms. What he envisioned was a grandiose form of social reconstruction - a benevolent revolution in which the resources of industrial technology would be used to liberate and elevate the sensibility of the masses. The role of the artistic impulse in such a revolution would not be to produce precious objects (such as easel paintings), but to redesign every object - indeed, every visual sensation - in the environment. Art would cease to be an end in itself and become a method - the primary method, in fact - for transforming society into a happier and more harmonious community.

Kepes was appointed Professor of Color and Light. He came into his own with the publication, in 1944, of his book Language of Vision. The work is considered something of a classic.

Kepes was deeply interested in Kinetic Art composed of light, an early example of which was Nahum Gabo's 1920 light sculpture. Gabo had taken his bearings from Umberto Boccioni's continuity sculptures and Marcel Duchamps's "Nude Descending a Staircase," both of which had been influenced, in turn, by the tremendously exciting early experiments in the motion picture by the likes of Eadweard Muybridge. The studies had rapidly transformed the art world.

Through CAVS, he would finally have the resources necessary for new experiments and larger works. It was Moholy's dream come true at a level that he could hardly have imagined: Bauhaus: the New Generation, as it were. The world's finest environmental and kinetic artists joined scientists and technicians there for a continual celebration of technology and light. While the utilitarian aspect was not lost sight of, CAVS was also influenced by prevailing theories of play. Aesthetics were encouraged.

In 1974, Otto Piene - Kepes first choice for a CAVS fellowship, in 1968 -- took over as director. Elizabeth Goldring was named a fellow in 1975. The two collaborated with composer and light artist Paul Earls to create the tremendously successful "sky opera" Icarus. Piene created the Centerbeam: a 175 foot long construction of perforated pipes that continuously released a steam screen upon which light figures were projected in coordination with the story of the opera. Goldring's role seems mainly to have been as a project coordinator, of sorts. Both created the Sky Art conferences of the mid-80s.

Elizabeth Goldring's eye: poems and retina prints is an example of how the spirit of the Bauhaus renews itself still. The idea of the prints began to take shape when her eye doctor first utilized a Scanning Laser Ophthalmoscope (SLO) to flash a picture past her hemorrhages and onto her retina. She saw a clear image for the first time in years. Soon she was familiar with the machine and intent to use it as an Internet reading device for those with limited vision. A new language would be necessary: a vocabulary of images. "For me," the author writes, "the Retina Prints are visual poems."

Along the way, Goldring worked with Rob Smyser -- then manager of the M.I.T. Computer Resource Laboratory -- to do the initial interface of an SLO with the Internet. The feat comprised a genuine technological breakthrough. In this fashion, she has become one of the pioneers of the telemetric medical stations now being developed for use as a diagnostic tool in outer space and other remote locations where a specialist cannot be physically present in order to make direct observations.

Once the SLO image could be digitized, the technology was at hand to invent the retina print. The point of CAVS, after all, is to create works of art. The images were colorized using standard Photoshop™ software. (SLO images are necessarily black and white, at present.) Goldring's goal of helping to invent a low cost SLO to interface with the Internet, thus allowing the visually challenged to see in the virtual world, has been more difficult to accomplish. In her role as poet, she and her students continue, as well, to work at developing a serviceable visual language for those whose impairment will not allow them to read any considerable amount of normal text. The efforts range from retina prints to haiku-like poems such as "Pear Falls."

Finally, in 2002, the efforts of Goldring and M.I.T. were joined with those of the University of Missouri's BkMk Press in the volume eye: poems and retina prints. The journey has been a long one and the book is yet one more step along the way. Simple and dignified, it is 104 pages of word and visual poems.

The poems-proper begin with descriptions of travel. Most apparently describe the years before the onset of her retinopathy as they contain normal descriptions of a sighted person clearly the author. They are spare even by today's standards. A number of the retina print poems are painted with Photoshop™. Others are in black and white. At times there are several to a page. Only rarely does a print serve to illustrate a poem-proper.

The better poems in the volume are consistently retina prints. "Descent" gives a fair impression of what it must be like for a visually challenged person to descend an unfamiliar and ill-lit stairwell. "Door on Sabrina's Retina", with its combination of letter and pictogram, is a nice example of one of the methods being pursued in the creation of a new visual language. "September Eleven" is far better than the vast majority of 9/11 poems. There are several simple and effective visual puns.

It is not that the poems-proper do not have their moments. Those moments are generally snippets of poems that predictably read like a short oriental verse form. In the poem "Lavender":

A nun crosses the field,
her fluttering habit
a lunar bird.

In "Beijing":

twist to shape words,
whispered calligraphy.

The poem "Multicultural", in which the poet deftly navigates an ambiguous situation, is a nice bit of work throughout its 14 lines.

There are also some unique touches. Most of the travel in the poems was apparently expensed. At Taroudant, Morocco, the travelers find it impossible to get a receipt from their taxi driver. It is the kind of detail that says more than it seems to say on the surface. In the poem "Reconstructing Dan", the title is printed as the second line of the poem - taking Charles Bukowski and Lyn Lifshin (and, now, about half the poets in existence) an interesting step further.

Still, there can be no doubt that the retina prints dominate the volume. There are two reasons. First, reductionism works far better in pictures than in words as the rule. Second, it is clear that the retina prints are the result of a rich and patient creative process whereas the poems are not. Add to the creative process the fascinating technological and visual arts aspects and the prints have an advantage that even the finest of poets would find difficult to overcome.

That is part of the experience of reading eye: poems and retina prints. Poetry has yet to find a technology. Perhaps poems such as "Pear Falls" promise to bring it into the kinetic realm, but, delightful as the poem is, it still seems likely that the craft will have to look elsewhere for its avant garde effects. In the end it must look, as always, to words that have been given the attention and invention that this author has given her retina prints.

In the middle of her climb to the heights of academia Elizabeth Goldring was stricken with an affliction that might have broken most people. Instead she turned it into an advantage with the same determination that had fueled her ascent through academia from its inception. She is now a senior fellow at CAVS. Poet, visual artist, co-inventor, and academician, she is a leader in the most ironic of fields: the visual field. This, too, is part of the experience of reading eye.

Gilbert Wesley Purdy’s work in poetry, prose and translation has appeared in many fine journals, paper and electronic, including: The Georgia Review, Jacket Magazine (Australia); Poetry International (San Diego State University); Grand Street; The Pedestal Magazine; the Valparaiso Poetry Review (Valparaiso University); SLANT (University of Central Arkansas); Orbis (UK), Eclectica; and Quarterly Literary Review Singapore. His Hyperlinked Onlne Bibliography is now also hosted at BlogSpot. This review first appeared in the online journal Sidereality.

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