Still Life on Water: Megan Burns on Motion Studies by Brad Richard


Motion Studies, Brad Richard, Word Works, 2011

One of the central motifs in Brad Richard’s Motion Studies is the examination of the visual arts and their ability to transmit an emotion that transcends the bounds of space and time. It’s a subject taken up by many poets, the close examination of paintings and photographs, but in Richard’s hands this act of seeing into the painting delves deeply into personal trauma and the philosophical theory that time is not divisible and therefore, change is illusory. The study of motion that an artist attempts to replicate in paintings and photographs is translated into words as Richard uses these studies to push language to the shattering point. What emerges from the break is a stunning and deep resolve to enter into a communion with art that allows us to look ever more deeply into our own small lives. From his family history to his personal trauma after Hurricane Katrina and from Whitman’s lineage to painter Thomas Easkin’s obsessions, Richard weaves together these disparate thoughts into one line that points to “the telling a bridge back to that crossing” (75) or in other words, the story that we are always making of our days.

Divided into four sections, Richard begins with a sequence of poems about daguerreotypes and ends part one with his first poem titled Motion Studies, which outlines a recurrent theme of time caught in the act of happening. He uses the philosophy of Zeno to outline in a series a poems the idea that “time is composed of instants too small/ and dense to divide” (24). Richard returns to this idea throughout the book adopting Wittgenstein’s play on words that objects are either what we define them as or not; an idea that hearkens back to the painter’s or even the photographer’s desire to capture time. The daguerreotype in its day was a type of magic bringing forth an instant, but Richard argues this illusion is just one part of the greater illusion that time is moving past us and that we are not always trapped ourselves.

The next section begins Richard’s long examination into a painting by Thomas Eakins, Swimming, which is the cover image for the book. In several poems, Richard returns again and again to the painting and Easkins’ life outlining his interpretations, research, and his characterization of Easkins’ world through characters such as his wife. This continued meditation on this one painting provides Richard with a way to explore his own complicated relationships with his family, his desires, and his grief. The view he imagines of Easkins watching several young males naked in the water echoes Whitman’s celebration of the male body. The beauty of the male body and the gaze on it by the male speaker is a complicated terrain in both Whitman and Richard’s time; and perhaps, unfortunately, what makes these poems so compelling: the need to normalize and draw attention to the beauty of homosexual desire. Richard compares the male body to the works of art he admires: “their art/ like yours, to exclude yet hold me” (57). The proximal distance between the viewer and the art is repeated and redefined as the speaker notes the distance between himself and the bodies that he admires; in this case proximity is far outweighed by an abstract distance bounded by cultural norms and attitudes. In this section as well, the mark that Hurricane Katrina has left on the poet appears suddenly in a poem called Waterlines, and from this point the book’s examination of art is always tempered with this personal sorrow. Richard closes with his second poem titled Motion Studies, a temporal examination of his family’s past that includes an uncle who had to be hurriedly buried before his family could reach him due to a flood. These male bodies take all forms in Richard’s book; like Whitman, he sings of the lover, the artist, the father, the brother, the son, and the corpse.

In the next two sections, Richard returns again to this complicated notion of time being indivisible, and he continues his intense examination of Thomas Easkins’ life, which in turn informs his own ordering of his memories and experiences. In the third poem titled Motion Studies, the speaker returns to the uncle whose burial was not attended due to a flood and this event is transposed over his experiences with the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. Time folds and repeats, and the speaker notes that a journal the uncle kept that was swept away by Katrina’s floodwaters was the nexus for writing these poems. Again, art replaces what is lost and attempts to make sense from what is seemingly random. Richard in his book is able to order the images that inform his life so that they recur in rich, descriptive ways, a point that belies the chaos and disorder that often accompanies any reality. The book closes with the fitting image of the speaker swimming in a pool speaking to someone in an imagined letter about the destruction of New Orleans. Swimming, art, trauma, beauty, survival: all swirls round in these poems, and Richard reminds us: “And where their motion shatters/ on the river’s wrinkled face/ let my image swim against decay” (30). Like the painter and poets before him, Richard contends with nature in its beauty and destruction, and he makes with his poems a stalwart against the coming end, an attempt to capture motion and to still the moment.

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Megan Burns is a poet, performer, essayist, and editor. She edits the poetry magazine, Solid Quarter, which is dedicated to poets working in the tradition of the long poem. She has been most recently published in Trickhouse, Horseless Review, Callaloo, New Laurel Review, and the Big Bridge New Orleans Anthology. Her book Memorial + Sight Lines was published in 2008 by Lavender Ink. She has two chapbooks: Frida Kahlo: I am the poem (2004) and Framing a Song (2010) from Trembling Pillow Press. She lives in New Orleans where she and her husband, poet Dave Brinks, have run the weekly 17 Poets! Literary and Performance series since 2003.

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