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A Beauty Aesthetic
When I began my MFA program in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh, graduate school meant being a part of a heady, challenging adventure. My compatriots on the journey came from all over the country—Wisconsin and California, Vermont and Utah, Louisiana and New Jersey. I was in my early 30’s, a single mom who had spent ten years longing to go to graduate school in order to pursue poetry. And those three years of Pitt’s MFA program in poetry were some of the happiest of my life. Gratitude filled me every time I stepped onto the 67A bus, heading to the Cathedral of Learning to mingle with the other writers; I was thrilled to immerse myself in daily, hours-long conversations on all things poetry with such an intelligent and talented crew. We would meet—15-18 aspiring writers around huge wooden oval tables, a new draft of a poem quivering in front of each of us. Critiquing commenced quickly. The workshops could be reifying, electric with feedback that could bolster a belief in yourself that translated into: “I can do this. I have something to say!” On other days, however, some of the students in the workshops could also espouse pervasive writing attitudes that dangerously slid into rigid “shoulds” about writing: “this is how you must do it if you want to be considered a good poet.”
One of the most inescapable of these attitudes, which I found directed at many of my poetic attempts, was some version of: Don’t Write About Beauty or Beautiful Things. Doing so is sentimental. Sentimental is bad. Suspect. Cynical is cool. Funny. Relatable. But, if your interest is to write about beautiful things? Well—you may as well get a job with Hallmark—write greeting cards. This maxim haunted my first two years in graduate school. As a romantic with a deeply ingrained beauty aesthetic, I was plagued by self-doubt. I began to second-guess my subjects for poems—don’t write about my young son—too sentimental; don’t write about my garden—too pretty; don’t write about the incredible beauty of a Pittsburgh autumn—well, you get the idea. My dear friends in the program were supportive and encouraging, but other grad students in workshops could be dismissive of any poem that celebrated the particularized beauty of anything. For a while, my poems grew stilted as I tried to write in an edgier way to “please” my readers around those oval tables.
Beauty to me was not perfection. Not supermodels and fashionistas. It was not something I gave a lot of thought to attaining. I was more interested in how it was literally everywhere around me: Early morning sunlight gilding a spoon lying next to Mom’s cup of coffee. The neon whir of colors from a Seaside Heights Ferris wheel above the ocean surf. A gold beetle, metallic and glinting, clambering on the scarlet petals of my father’s roses. The silvery tumble of rainwater down the gutters, rushing toward the sewer. Blue morning glories twining a busted, rusty fence. At sunset, lavender etchings on the underside of clouds! The impossible symmetry of a clam shell—crimped pleats around its edge. I especially loved the beauty of aging, broken, or falling-into-ruins objects; there was profundity there. Much later in life, I would find that this gift of being able to spot beauty everywhere literally pulled me through some tremendous ups and downs as an adult. In fact, whether or not my beauty radar was still working became a personal barometer as to how well I was weathering some of life’s storms. When I stop being able to see and register the beauty around me, I’m afraid I will be in trouble.
Beauty is not about being unable to see the cruel, the unjust, the violent, or the ugly in life. I don’t walk around with blinders on. In fact, in too many cases, I am overwhelmed by the amount of random cruelty, unexpected terrors, or ugliness in our larger world. I feel them deeply. But being able to simultaneously see beauty provides a counterweight and ballast when it feels like the whole earth is off its axis, a-tilt with the pervasive awfulness of war or the horrific police killings of innocent black Americans in the streets. Beauty is not something to hide behind; it exists side by side with the chaos and calamity in the world. And being aware of the close proximity of beauty can help nudge my mind toward taking positive action. What can I do to reconcile these seemingly contradictory forces in ways that are manageable and realistic?
Walking the elegant gardens with my Mom and sisters outside the Musée Rodin in Paris that Thursday in the last week of March 2009, I found my gaze torn between the splendor of The Thinker deep in contemplation of the gates of Hell and the gardeners who were hard at work turning the soil to plant the garden beds with purple, white, and yellow pansies. The Thinker (originally called The Poet) was a muscular tower of a man in bronze casting situated in the perfect place (aside from the clusters of tourists) for one to spend eternity pondering—the stillness of the long garden. The four gardeners were masters of efficiency. By their clocks it was spring, by God, and they were going to paint in the bright effusiveness of the season before the day was done! Here, the cliché of springtime in Paris was a most wonderful reality—the smell of the gardener’s loam and mulch mixed with the exquisite details carved into the bodies of Rodin’s masterworks scattered among close-cropped hedges—a feast for the senses. My mother and sisters, lovely in their skirts and scarves, contributed their own sunny flutter of colors among the verdure and the bronze. Gazing on the work of Rodin and the labor of the gardeners reminded me: some beauty rises only from hard labor and concerted effort. And some beauty in both art and life has a cost.
Paris was a dream to me. The French did not just believe in beauty; they set about making everything beautiful—storefront windows, cathedrals, bakery goods, clothing, parks, gargoyles, book stores. And all those markets where the round globes of peaches, plums, apples, nectarines, were built into enticing pyramids that called passers-by over to fill a bag with beauty that you could sink your teeth into. Within the two stories of the Musée Rodin, a choreography of awe-struck tourists wove and pivoted between marble figures passionately embracing. Yet, beyond the exquisite technical detail of the figures in Rodin’s The Kiss, or Camille Claudel’s The Waltz lay the great mystery of this art.
Why did the marble and bronze figures seem more vibrantly alive than many of the tourists snapping photos in the rooms? What gave the sculptures’ gestures, longing looks, grasping hands such dynamism? It was the only time I’ve been in a museum where I could truly imagine the sculptures coming to life when night fell and the tourists left them alone to their own canoodling. Eros was in the room; there was a palpable zest and lust radiating from so many of the nudes. On the second floor, directly in front of a window opened wide to the manicured gardens below, was a marble sculpture of a woman’s back and buttocks as she began to rise out of her bath. The sunlight pouring in the window only added to the fluidity of movement and the sense that she would soon be standing, dripping wet, and in need of a robe. When I would remind myself that all this beauty I was drinking in was carved from stone, it seemed an impossibility, a magician’s trick. And the robust je ne sais quoi of the artwork became all the more alluring and mysterious.
It made me think about how our interaction with any art involves the audience/viewer/reader bringing their own experiences, biases, and understandings to a work and how much this informs our response to it. And what I carried with me into that stunning museum with its radiant white figures was residual sadness. A long-time romantic partner, a man I had at one point lived with for eight years of my life had—a year prior—reunited with me only to find us separating again. Face to face with the eroticism and romance of those entwined lovers, I slipped back into my own memories of love and lust with my ex-partner and the complexity of our years of engagement. Beauty is a projection and a reality, both. I was compelled to stand for a long time gazing at the entwined figures cast in marble or bronze, suffused by their beauty, partly to allow for the longing and memories that welled up inside me. But the sculptures had a separate integrity that radiated the joy of being in a body. So much intense design and labor went into making it so. But that didn’t account for all of it. Based on the faces of the other visitors there that day, I knew I was not alone in being enraptured by theanimus found in that which should be inanimate.
Rodin’s smaller work The Cathedral—a ballet of disembodied hands—finally made me weep. The stone carving sits alone on a podium, a sculpture of two right hands, belonging to two different people. The fingertips of one hand curve slightly, giving a glancing brush to the underside of the other’s fingers. It is flirtatious, secretive, a communion. Both hands together form a kind of Gothic steeple. But it is the empty space between the two touching hands that opened my heart and made me weep. They had so much left to explore! All that possibility between them. Such is the power of beauty—to lift you up and crack you open; to both remind you and make you want to forget. Beautiful art captivates a viewer, but it is a fixed point. The rest of us move on into the continuum of time.
All this beauty was a comfort. I was in the right place to be getting over a break-up. My older sister, Tricia, an art curator who ran a gallery herself, walked with me and taught me about the complicated relationship between both of the genius sculptors whose work was exhibited in the Musée. Auguste Rodin and his Muse/mentee/lover Camille Claudel—had been entwined in a tempestuous, ultimately catastrophic relationship. The story of Claudel’s eventual descent into madness and her subsequent commitment to an asylum cannot be divorced from the cruelty of the times in which she lived, where a woman’s talent and genius could not be acknowledged. And certainly it cannot be divorced from her mentor/lover Rodin’s cruel treatment of her. This beauty came at a very high cost. And all of it—love and lust, longing and cruelty—went into the carvings of these magnificent works of art. I couldn’t help but wonder if their tumultuous passion for one another had somehow breathed life into the open mouths of the marble and found its way into the very veins of the stones they carved.
Once, at the tail end of three sessions of hypnosis, my therapist said, “All right, now you are going to climb an enormous staircase, ten high steps leading to heavy double-doors at the top. As you rise onto each step, you will drop some of your grief and leave it behind. When you come to the top of the staircase, push open the doors. You will then walk into the most beautiful vista you can imagine.” I had consulted this hypnotherapist to help me get over grief over a loved one’s death. Deep in my hypnotic trance, I slowly ascended the staircase. It was a physical unburdening; I literally laid some sorrow down on the first tread and dropped fistfuls of depression on the next riser. As I continued climbing, slowly, I could feel myself lightening. When I reached the top of the staircase, I smiled. I already knew what I would see when I pushed open the doors: a peach-red sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean, colors stippling the dunes and blushing the shoreline in wide orange strokes, as the foaming waves, flecked in gold-leaf, dashed the beach. This had long been my vision of beauty, and under hypnosis, I was no less confident that it would be my vista.
I swung wide the doors and stepped over the threshold: no salt air, no sunrise, no ocean, no horizon line, no pipers or seagulls. In my trance, I ventured a little further, looked around, and must have said out loud, What is all this? Because my therapist replied: Tell me what you see. I was standing atop a hillside on a trail sloping gently downward through overgrown meadows. An October nip in the air, and the fields were sun-flooded, the goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace so aglow, I had to close my eyes for a second. The therapist’s faraway voice intruded: Keep telling me what you see. I walked on the path. Red-winged blackbirds skirted the cattails in the pond down below. Wild mint filled the air. Purple spikes of ironweed were velvet beneath the saturation of late-afternoon light. Perfect counterpoints to a gospel chorus of yellow. Above me, the maples were fire coronas. The colors were as vivid as a child’s crayoned drawing. From the distant canopy, crows chortled. A vision of geese in their V-ballet soared overhead, honking in a cloudless blue sky. A groundhog waddled across my path.
Then, from the tangle of gold and tawny grasses, a deer emerged and stood calmly on the path ahead. He held my gaze with a surprisingly human look. His eyes beamed sympathy, affection. Then the deer walked toward me. I had a flicker of fear—until the deer laid his head on my shoulder as if to embrace me. I could feel his beating heart. He radiated serenity, and I put my arms around his neck. I felt at peace for the first time in a very long time. We stood that way in the chilly breeze, at ease, the sun brilliant on our backs. Then, quickly, the deer turned, white tail flashing and with a strong leap, disappeared into the scrim of grass and wildflowers.
When the hypnotherapist brought me out of my trance, I wondered about this deer, about my new vision of beauty—why had it changed? Something fundamental in me had shifted and reconstructed itself. I was no longer a girl or teenager on the beaches of Cape May or Seaside Park, NJ. Having lived for decades in western PA, which is chock full of woodlands and forests, streams, and rivers, my subconscious mind absorbed a new definition of beauty, one born from years of experience walking on trails where chipmunks scattered and black snakes might startle your walk. Without realizing it, I grew attached to this inland landscape thick with deer and wild turkey, just as I was attached to the salt spray and beach roses up the coast of New Jersey as a child and teenager.
But there was a much more profound reason my vision of beauty had changed. When I snapped out of the hypnotic trance and sat up, in essence “returning” to the doctor’s beige office, my therapist told me she had never—in her forty years of doing hypnotherapy—heard another patient talk about meeting or embracing another living thing during that “vista” moment.
“The deer—it was your brother—I’m sure of it” she said.
From the second I had embraced the deer, I’d felt a shock of recognition. I was relieved to hear the doctor validate this possibility. And I also realized, as I played the details of my vision back in my mind that the place I entered there was a very familiar place to me—the high fields of Beechwood Farms, an Audubon Nature Center in Fox Chapel, just outside of Pittsburgh. On the summer day Brendan died, a dear painter friend, John Sokol, had convinced me to walk on those very trails with him.
“I want you to be somewhere beautiful on this sad day, so you can always remember him this way, too.”
And so we hiked the trails for hours that hot August day. John kept a respectful distance from me, allowing me my grief. I remember a need to touch everything I passed—the gold brushes of the grasses, the fallen leaves on boulders, the goose feathers in the path, the pond water skimmed by dragonflies. I wanted to hold to the earth that Brendan had left. Every so often, John would call back to me the name of something: Timothy! Yarrow! Lupine! Beauty as sustenance. Beauty as transcendence. And to this, my subconscious offered broad fields of October light as a reunion place, as one last embrace for my brother and me.
Copyright 2021 Sharon Fagan McDermott
Sharon Fagan McDermott’s books include Life without Furniture (Jacar, 2018).
Detail: L’Abandon, Camille Claudel, 1886-1905. © Musée Camille Claudel, photo Marco Illuminati.