Low Poetics: On Cubism, Disability, and the Distance Between the Reader and the Poem

Twenty years ago I was in an accident that resulted in the loss of function and feeling in my right hand. I was a child playing ice hockey. A friend’s skate found, somehow, the underside of my wrist. There was a lot of blood. There was surgery. Years of physical therapy. I’d been, at the time, right-handed.

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Being young—I was 11 when the accident occurred—there was a chance I could regain some degree of sensation and movement, and over time I did. But from the moment I woke in the hospital it was clear I could no longer claim right-handedness; the surgeon was quick to tell me so. I could no longer move through the world relying—consciously or not—on the dexterity and coordination of the hand I’d entered the world (if that’s how it works) using.

The process of switching to my left was not swift, and in fact I would say it’s ongoing. Writing. Brushing my teeth. Using silverware. Throwing darts. What were once tasks performed without thought became, and to some degree remain, little problems to be solved. There was once more or less a single way I picked up a pen, gripped it, wrote my name; and overnight I had to develop a new way, had to experiment with the foreign clumsiness of my left, puzzle toward what felt most right or comfortable. And as I read back over this paragraph, the process sounds very much like an experience of limitation—for years I would have described it this way, having something, and having it taken away.


On the second floor of SFMOMA, on the first wall one sees upon entering the permanent galleries, there hangs a brown-scale painting whose composition gives the impression of splintered wood. It has always looked, to me, like the artist shattered a cello across a hardwood floor and, with the resulting shards, created a semi-sculptural object which they then painted. The artist is cubist innovator Georges Braque, the painting, “Violin and Candlestick” (1910).

I inhabit an in-between space, a region between the singular demand of a task—write your name here—and the myriad ways I might accomplish the task.

Insofar as there were objectives attached to the development of cubism—to early cubist works by Braque and his collaborator-from-afar, Pablo Picasso—they had to do with presenting, within a single composition, subjects and forms from a number of different vantage points. The titular candlestick in the Braque’s painting, for example, is identifiable in profile in the painting’s center. That is, we experience it from the side, as we might upon entering a room, seeing it on a dining room table.

Directly behind this representation of the candlestick, though, we also see its base, tilted upward, as though we were looking directly down onto the object. This perspective-play allows the viewer multiple ways of seeing, experiencing, contemplating the candlestick, and  also opens a formal conversation between the upward tilted base—which is round—and the painting’s other primary object, the violin, whose rounded body is recognizable, if fragmented, in the bottom left corner of the composition.

In the relationship between the candlestick and the violin—or at least in the shards of them available to the viewer—I experience something of a lyric association. Despite the compositional distance between the two forms, they announce themselves, though subtly, as linked through their shared roundness within a composition I might otherwise characterize as geometrical and splintered.

“The subject is not the object,” wrote Braque, “it is the new unity, the lyricism which stems entirely from the means employed.” He’s speaking here, partly, in the language of poetry. And I take this quotation to mean that the objects in the painting—the candlestick and violin—what, in poetry, we might refer to as content, is in cubism less important than how, compositionally, these objects relate to one another—form. There’s something profound to me in how, from different and distinct places in a fractured and hard-edged composition, these rounded shapes seem to find each other.


Cultural critic Jack Halberstam, in their book The Queer Art of Failure, uses the term low theory to describe a mode of thinking that refutes binaries and “tries to locate all the in-between spaces,” a knowledge practice that “revels in the detours, twists and turns through knowing and confusion, and that seeks not to explain but to involve.” I am no longer right-handed, but would also not say I am left-handed. I wrote this essay by hand, for example, with my left, but if called upon to draw a circle on a canvas or chalkboard I would probably use my right. I inhabit an in-between space, a region between the singular demand of a task—write your name here—and the myriad ways I might accomplish the task.

In Braque’s painting, I’m quick to associate the rounded, upturned candlestick base with the rounded outer edge of the violin. That doesn’t mean I’m right or that it was the artist’s intention for all viewers to see a connection between these forms; it’s simply where my mind goes, my gaze. Your gaze, viewing the picture, might be drawn somewhere else.


Looking at ”Violin and Candlestick,” I’m reminded of John Ashbery‘s early love poem “Some Trees,” in particular its opening lines: These are amazing; each / joining a neighbor, as though speech / were a still performance. I’m reminded, especially, of how in just a few lines the trees from the poem’s title become something spoken, or a replacement for language—how, through a quick series of sonic linkages, the word “trees” becomes, or at least develops a lyric connection to, the word “speech.” Treestheseeachspeech—we hear the word evolve down the page, and though there exists a logical gap between where we began (trees) and where we find ourselves (speech), there is a certain subconscious trust one has in rhyme and assonance which allows, in the reader’s mind, for an associative relationship to open between two seemingly disparate words. Suddenly, the entangled trees are an expression of love, or perhaps are what, of love, language fails to capture. It is the new unity, the lyricism which stems entirely from the means employed.


I’m finding that part of why I return so often to “Violin and Candlestick—as opposed to other paintings in the same gallery; say, O’Keeffe‘s Lake George—is that the act of viewing it feels very much like a generative act. I’m invited into the composition, encouraged to identify, across the greater painting, shapes and shards and forms that seem to want to be seen together, puzzled together and reconstituted on a canvas only I can see. I’m allowed, that is, my own unique experience of the art. And it’s for similar reasons that, as a reader, I’m drawn often to poems one might describe as especially elliptical or fragmented.

[pullqu0te]This type of art offers experiences not of singular, linear interpretation, but of multitude—the question becomes not Do you see it? or, in the poems, Do you get it? but rather, What do you see? What is your reading?[/pullquote]

The title sequence in Mean Free Path—the third poetry collection of Ben Lerner, an aesthetic descendent of Ashbery’s—spans 34 pages over two sections of the book and is at its core, like “Some Trees,” a love poem. Or it is at least a poem that, in content and procedure, engages with—maybe challenges the possibility of—the love poem as a mode:

To keep light from the object falling
Gently on a little clearing. They call this
Like rain that never reaches ground
Reading, like birds that lure predators away
Virga, or the failure of the gaze to reach

Sentences in this poem do not begin, necessarily, where the line begins, and almost never continue from one line to another. They peter out, stop short; they sometimes resume later in the poem, and sometimes never return.

Rain that never reaches ground, for example, refers to the meteorological phenomenon Virga, which in the poem does not appear in the line after its description, but two lines down.

Syntactically, the meteorological description is applied to the word reading—as if to say, no single reading can “reach ground,” can bridge the gap between the poet’s creation and the reader’s interpretation.

I personally hear, in Lerner’s poem, a speaker trying over and over to formulate language in proportion to their feelings—and over and over, failing, having to recapitulate, try again.

And that’s love // And that’s elegy

The reader is left, then, not with a poem that proceeds linearly, but rather a poem that offers many different ways to proceed, conditions ripe with possibility, interpretational plurality. The aim, according to Braque, is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact, but to constitute a pictorial fact. I feel the invitation to enter Mean Free Path, to make my own associations and meanings, leaps between ideas and images positioned not necessarily next to each other, compositionally. The gaze, in this type of work, cannot fail to reach. It lands where it lands.


I can’t say with certainty that the disability I live with, and the daily puzzling it requires, has necessarily prepared me in some way to experience the art of Braque, Ashbery, or Lerner. But I know for sure that when the teller at the bodega on the corner of Perkins and Grand hands me my change, I have to pause a moment—I have to decide which hand to extend to receive the money, whether I can afford the gesture without losing grip of the groceries I’m holding. I know for sure that these moments, my days, are little puzzles.

I feel welcomed by, welcomed into, such paintings as “Violin and Candlestick,” such poems as “Mean Free Path.” This type of art offers experiences not of singular, linear interpretation, but of multitude—the question becomes not Do you see it? or, in the poems, Do you get it? but rather, What do you see? What is your reading?

Today at the store I needed eggs and fruit, crackers, two large bottles of sparkling water and a block of cheese. The man at the register extended two singles, a few coins. My hands were full and he put the change on the counter. I told him he could keep it.


Featured image: “Violin and Candlestick,” Georges Braque, collection SFMOMA. Gift of Rita B. Schreiber in loving memory of her husband, Taft Schreiber.

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