This Week, I Read Robert Frede Kenter’s An Audacity of Form

Image Credit: Gabriele Diwald

“the shattered rattling windows never change; not since the flood

despite the possibility – it is no anomaly here, the pelting rain

dictating typewriter fingers.”

This is my favorite line from An Audacity of Form by Robert Frede Kenter, a book of poems, with accompanying photographs by Julia Skop. It evokes the persistent rain in New Orleans, a city that I was privileged to call home once.

Kenter’s text is paired with Julia’s photographs, setting up a dialogue between them. These are primarily in the form of black and white images of New Orleans, in the aftermath of the hurricane— abandoned shopping carts, filled with detritus; a man in a wheelchair, waiting for the streetcar on Canal; as well as the interior of an art shop, with crystal chandeliers and sculptures; the live oaks at Audubon Park.

There are also paintings, by Kenter—portraits of a dancer in a style similar to Matisse–it reminds me of Woman in a Purple Coat. The dancer is portrayed only in part—from the hips up, and from the back. The third rendering is from the front, but the face is stylized. The figure is somewhat blurry, unfocused.

The work takes place during the time when Skop was in New Orleans, prior to her sister’s death from cancer. Sarah was a talented ballet dancer, burlesque performer and Tulane professor, hence the paintings of a dancer. Just like the dancer portrayed in the paintings, readers only get a part of her—not the whole. We only have what we are shown—mostly her death, and the grief stemming from it.

Her life would have been extraordinary, though—to be both an artist and a professor at a prestigious university—actually, I’ve never heard the terms “burlesque dancer” and “college professor” used in the same sentence. There’s a straitjacket of propriety and prudery that’s placed on female academics, in particular. Sarah’s a fascinating character, one who is elusive throughout the text—slipping away, so to speak. This is someone who expressed herself through her body—and then to be betrayed by that same body—that had to have been devastating.

My favorite poem from the book is “Lines I Found For You,” which reads: “When you care for someone you live in a very heightened way/ But you are not here/ Not anywhere any more./ No one is around And I am dreaming low flying birds.” The image here is apocalyptic, but it’s paired with the feeling of care. The speaker says, to this unspecified other: “where the rain falls over your face and neck let me protect you.” There’s a sense of tenderness in the piece; the speaker cares for the person that he is writing to—misses them. It’s elegiac in tone.   

New Orleans itself is an elegy, when it rains, and the streets flood above the tops of your rain boots. If you’re not careful, you’ll get swept away. Despite that, the city has been rebuilt, although there is still the threat of it happening again. The sea is rising, and global warming means that it’s sinking further—by several feet per year. I lived in New Orleans for five years, arriving approximately two years after Hurricane Katrina. During that time, I heard so many stories from individuals who had been there before and during the storm. I had classes that specifically discussed New Orleans literature. It seems to be a mythology of its own—the city that was taken by a storm and the sea—and then was brought back. The thing that I found the most prominent about these stories was not the destruction, but instead, how everyone who was a native New Orleanian was adamant—no matter what they lost, they were coming back. No matter how broken it was, they were coming home.

An Audacity of Form itself pays strict attention to form and detail. All of the pieces, poetry and visual art alike, are haunting, and at times, verging on the chaotic. It dances in between flood and aftermath, time and place, grief and healing—it’s a work of collaborative art, where the poet/painter and the photographer are aware of the dark spell that they are casting over their audience.

An Audacity of Form comes out this week from Ice Floe Press.

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