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Raft of the Medusa

“Where do we find ourselves?” wrote Emerson in his essay, “Experience.” One hundred years out from the Great War, we have come to locate ourselves in the somewhere we call postmodernism, adrift in a location approaching Wit’s End. What do we find ourselves carrying? Everything, it would seem. In art, in literature, it feels as if everything has come before us. We are the belated ones, the bone collectors, the recyclers.

Tom’s stripping down of Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa to Raft, verbally and visually, renders the question—Where do we find ourselves?—both pressing and a-temporal. The Raft of the Medusa was presented as a genre painting, a history painting, but through its expression of human error and human struggle, and through its contemplation of what we carefully call in-human behavior, it begins to push away from any particular historical shipwreck toward the unthinkable shipwreck of history itself.

In preparing to write my poem in response to Raft, I read about Géricault’s own preparations for responding to the wreck of the frigate Méduse: his conversations with survivors, his visits to hospitals and morgues for direct encounters with dying and dead flesh. Having gathered these forms of information, he is said to have shaved off his hair, and gone into monkish seclusion, barring visitors from his studio.

Though I’ve never met him, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine Tom in a similar mode of ascesis. What impressed me most about Raft are its phenomenal acts of translation. Compositionally, he is honoring Géricault’s reckoning with parts and wholes, but he is sharpening the conversation by stripping it down to bare constituents. Whatever God the shipwrecked sailors of the frigate Méduse might have prayed to appears to “hang in there” in the form of light bulb. Windows interiorize the raft from outer space—but do they have panes? Is it stars floating into the human situation, or some kind of cosmic shrapnel? And what kind of material populates this raft? If the flesh of these creatures were any paintier they’d be clay. It is the tactile translation that interests me most here, the urge I have to press these clambering forms together into a ball.

Obsessed, bewildered

By the shipwreck

Of the singular

We have chosen the meaning

Of being numerous.

 

This section from George Oppen’s 1968 book length poem, Of Being Numerous came to mind as I studied Raft and its forebear, The Raft of the Medusa. The singular and the numerous—both paintings call us to reckon with these irresolvable dimensions of being. Where do we find ourselves? My fascination with Tom’s painting stems from its demand that we see how far we have come with this question—and how incapable we are of escaping it.