The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue
Art Books

Meeka Walsh’s Malleable Forms: Selected Essays

These writings grasp the most seemingly insignificant detail and weave an entire text around it.

Meeka Walsh
Malleable Forms: Selected Essays
(ARP Books, 2022)

Let me salute this astounding compilation, in fact, convergence, of magnificently composed pieces, brought together by a wide-ranging mind whose character and viewpoint work that kind of marvel. Just take a first look at some assorted things in layers of perception, endowed with a sense of lift. Meeka Walsh, editor of Border Crossings, has indeed mastered that “plummet and swoop” of a particular bird she’d loved. She has known, in fact knows always, how to share that rise in temper as in sight. This volume is about the double participation of the writer and the reader into and with the image.

I find very perfectly and not embarrassingly stated Meeka Walsh’s own autobiographical writing: we feel included and honored to have permission to visit her homes and her presence. I have felt superbly rewarded for our friendship, writing for Border Crossings, and visiting Winnipeg for various art writings and transmissions about Surrealist visual and verbal art created and exhibited there, in various collections. We might direct our attention to just plain objects, knitting texts about them, concentrating our focus upon them, or simply collecting them for no particular reason. Jean Baudrillard has been quoted as finding collecting a “response to alienation,” something akin to that lostness I experienced.

Among hundreds of artist’s names in this volume float ones I’ve cared and written about—Carolee Schneemann, Roland Barthes, Gertrude Stein, Lee Miller, Nancy Spero, Claude Cahun, and Marcel Moore. This collection feels at once familiar and instructive—where we have been, what we have seen, whom we have loved. How wonderful it is to grasp the most seemingly insignificant detail and weave an entire text around it! Walsh selects the comma in Nabokov, William Gass’s analysis of the translation of Raum—“the space of things” in Rilke. The essay also offers pairings with Sharon Olds and Cynthia Ozick; Joseph Beuys and John Berger (my favorite, as one might suspect). Additionally, there is a more than useful, essential section devoted to photography. (Apart from having co-taught three courses with the super-star-brilliant Rosalind Krauss, who wrote the best texts on the topic, photography is a very distant land for me.)

Oh, and what discoveries: John McPhee encountering Charles Baudelaire and how the “reconstruction of Paris revealed the nature of technology … as the capacity … to reorganize the visible world.” Of course, and we couldn’t have approached Proust without seeing how Baron Hausmann had altered everyone’s conception of and navigation of Paris.

Every quote serves every image: scarcely imaginable would be a volume of this importance without a reference to Walter Benjamin owning Paul Klee’s small drawing of 1920, the celebrated Angelus Novus. He says of it that the angel wants to fix the wreck of the past, but the storm blowing from Paradise “drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.” What Walsh manages to create out of the storm of references and readings is something of a marvel. Like a homo faber, not a lesser-sounding donna faber, but a faber mirabilis.

Walsh has a “firm, fixed sense of place” in Winnipeg. How odd, that I too, on my rare visits to visit Eric Ormsby—southern poet and writer, husband of my friend Irena Murray—or gallery-hop with the composer Matthew Patton, felt exactly that also—when the car bearing me about was plugged into the electric heater, when I was once welcomed in the very grand hotel there, exploring the under-the-ice rooms with their books and hangings, even when I was lost in the blank white of the snow with no focal point: lostness is different in that North, and perhaps I never really returned to wherever we think home might be.

Finally, I am taken up with the section on women, and within it, the splendid chapter entitled “Subjectivities: Three Women,” which cites Celia Paul in her Self-Portrait, “I am my own subject”; and Barbara Loden, the director of the film Wanda state, “Everything I do is me.” Wonderfully close to us are these statements, whatever our present sense of ourselves, our work, and our world. They remain.


Mary Ann Caws

Mary Ann Caws is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Literature, English, and French at the Graduate School of the City University of New York. Her many areas of interest in 20th-century avant-garde literature and art include Surrealism, poets René Char and André Breton, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, and artists Robert Motherwell, Joseph Cornell, and Pablo Picasso. Conceptually, one of her primary themes has been the relationship between image and text.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

All Issues