Estella Lauter, Transfiguration: Re-imagining Remedios Varo, Finishing Line Press, 2013
Reviewed by John Olski
Estella Lauter presents an interdisciplinary project with her chapbook Transfiguration: Re-imagining Remedios Varo. It is, in parts, biography, essay, poetry, and feminist scholarship as it repositions an academically undervalued woman in the male-dominated visual arts canon.
Transfiguration addresses two broad subjects: the artist Remedios Varo (1908-1963), and the poet Estella Lauter in the process of discovering Varo. The poem “Initiation,” for example, references a 1974 slide show by artist Miriam Shapiro in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, featuring Varo and other women artists neglected by the dominant art history. “I ordered slides,” writes the poet. “I slipped them through the cracks, across / the borders of countries and academic territories before / the ferment of the age was cooled.”
Lauter’s “borders” and “territories” suggest Varo’s own life journey, marked by displacements of war that took the Spanish artist to France and, ultimately, Mexico. In the poem “Appearance at an Imaginary Spanish Exhibit,” Lauter has the painter recount it to her brother:
Rodrigo. Don’t mourn my early death.
My life was shaped in troubled times,
but it was full of brilliant friends,
brave ideas and reckless celebrations.
How else could I have known
what fantastic vehicles we can make
for our journeys, the vast hopes
and sacrifices to save what moves us?
In Lauter’s chapbook, transfiguration references the work of a surrealist artist… women’s transformative journeys in disciplines governed by men… and a poet’s interpretive responses to an artist’s life and work – a kind of transfiguration from painted image to printed word. 13 of the collection’s 24 poems are ekphrastic, arising from the imagery of specific Varo paintings. Artworks themselves are not reproduced in the chapbook, but they are named by poem titles and can be found on the Internet for comparison with the poems.
The ekphrasis is subtle, depending much on selective description of Varo’s works. “Woman Coming Out of Psychoanalysis” begins, “She holds her father’s head / by its long white beard / only to drop it in the well.” This is fairly direct description, and the head’s identity is a rather safe assumption in the context of psychoanalysis. The next two stanzas, however, show more creative interpretation for depicted objects:
She carries a basket of waste:
the clock she must not watch,
a useless pacifier,
a key that will not open
the rooms she seeks to enter
- - his time, his solace, his quest.
In the final stanzas, little creative license is needed to note that the painted figure’s hair “stands up in horns” or that “Her mask falls, eyes / become clear, but a veil / still covers her mouth.” The power of the poet’s words derives from their placement: spare details to carry us through the painting, producing a narrative, presenting the conflict of physical unburdening and a covered mouth that cannot yet unburden itself in language.
It’s hard to imagine the poems of Transfiguration finding much success at a typical poetry reading. The language is sonically prosaic, and the imagery is fairly dependent on a grasp of Remedios Varo’s life and work. This collection seems to be positioned more for a book group, a poets’ or artists’ collective, a course in feminist or humanistic studies, or any reader with an interest in art history and access to images of Varo’s paintings. Estella Lauter cuts a unique path in the project of this chapbook, and it rewards with deep appreciation for a specific artist and the paths of women artists in general.
John Olski is a Library Service Associate for Brown County and a former adjunct instructor of college composition.