Book of the Day: Coming to That by Dorothea Tanning

 Dorothea Tanning, “Voltage,” 1942, oil on canvas, 11 1/8 x 12 1/8″

Dorothea Tanning,”Pelote d’�pingles pouvant servir de f�tiche (Pincushion to Serve as Fetish),” 1965, black velvet, white paint, gun pellets, and plastic with pins, 15 3/4 x 17 15/16 x 15 3/4.” courtesy of the Tate Gallery, London

Graywolf Press has just released Coming to That, surrealist painter Dorothea Tanning‘s second book of poetry. Tanning, who lived with Max Ernst for 34 years, “gave full rein to her long felt compulsion to write” after he died in 1976.  Since then, her writing has appeared in a number of literary reviews and magazines, such as The Yale ReviewPoetryThe Paris ReviewThe New YorkerThe Boston ReviewThe Southwest ReviewParnassus, and in Best Poems of 2002 and 2005. Her published works include two memoirs, Birthday and Between Lives, a collection of poems, A Table of Content, and a novel, Chasm.

Tanning, who is 101, was profiled in The New Yorker last week by Don Chiassen. Here’s the abstract from their website.

One is not sure what sort of poems to expect from a centenarian, but Dorothea Tanning�s second book, Coming to That (Graywolf; $15), comes as a surprise. At a hundred and one, Tanning is the self-described �oldest living emerging poet.� Tanning is also the oldest living Surrealist, a tag she dislikes but cannot shake. Her father fought beside his friend Carl Sandburg in the Spanish-American War; Sandburg checked in on Tanning from time to time. In 1942 Max Ernst visited her studio in New York and admired an untitled self-portrait of Tanning. Ernst suggested the title �Birthday,� stayed to play chess, and fell in love.

The two were married for nearly thirty years. Much of Coming to That is retrospective; Tanning has a lot of past to cover. But it is also about living in the future, an experience someone might glibly call �surreal.� Beginning in the late sixties, Tanning did a series of soft sculptures made mostly from tweeds and other fabrics, many suggesting the female body. She wanted them to last no longer than a human life; unlike sculptures in marble or plaster, these would fall apart at roughly the same rate as a human body.

 Mini cliffhangers abound in Tanning�s poetry, a playful answer to the serious problem of how, at a hundred and one, to regard passing time. But there is no dread of mortality in Tanning. Neither is there any �acceptance,� or its blustery twin, �defiance.� Consigned to the here and now, Tanning sometimes gives us a kind of dreamy, metaphysical small talk�the most defiant use of one�s time imaginable, if time is short.

As she writes in one poem, �If Art would only talk it would, at last, reveal / itself for what it is, what we all burn to know.�

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