SRO Poetry Reading

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On February 6th there was a poetry reading at the SRO gallery connected to their current exhibit called “Unextinguished,” a show about landscapes giving modern versions by six artists including one of the gallery's owners, Cecilia Whittaker-Doe. I was interested in this event because it would be similar to another that had been held for Lawrence Swan and Rebecca Aidlin. He read from a memoir about becoming an artist and losing his wife to cancer, and she brought her band to play music. Both performances did add something to the art work these two artists had put on display. Another reason I had for going was that I had written a review of the landscape show but met none of the artists except Cecilia. It is always interesting to meet the creator of an art work and try to figure out what went on between them.

So about 6:30, half an hour late, I showed up at SRO and found that the reading was in progress. Cecilia was reading work by Theodore Roethke who had provided the title for the show. “Unextinguished” is about the death of nature and its resurrection, very appropriate for this show. There were three of the artists from the show present besides Cecilia – Sahand Tabatabai, Cathy Diamond, and Cathy Nan Quinlan – and they all read works from the classics. Oddly enough what impressed me was less the works they read than their movements or lack thereof. Sahand was in constant motion. When I entered he was sitting in the front and immediately offered me his chair. After that he was sitting on a chair in the back, then he moved to the floor to one side and then to the floor on the other side. He was also very responsive, making comments on virtually every poem read. When he read it was from classical Persian poetry though he also read a poem on display in the subways. His movements reminded me about a quality of his paintings, which are all of the Valmont Cottonwood tree in Colorado. The paintings show the tree in a dazzling light, but that light makes it hard to distinguish what is there. However, after long viewing, objects do show themselves. Sahand's constant movement and supportive comments reminded me of his work, hard to pin down but very much worth the work to figure it out.

Cathy Diamond stayed securely in her seat until it was her turn to read; then she came to the front with a large sheaf of papers. She read works by Shelley, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Emily Dickinson. In her case the reading made the room feel like a classroom, and I gather she is a teacher as well as an artist. She not only read her selected poems but explained them, and at the end she offered them as handouts for those wishing to do further study. Her performance added something to her works, which I had taken to be exotic, that is, to be going into an unfamiliar landscape and making discoveries in a strange setting. I now added to this that there is a pedagogical aspect to this. She is perhaps a bit of tour guide pointing out to her viewers things in nature they may not have noticed.

Finally there was Cathy Nan Quinlan who was sitting on the floor with her back to the wall. She refused to get up, and she read her poems by Elizabeth Bishop just where she had settled. If Bishop is a quiet thoughtful poet difficult to read, so is Ms. Quinlan as a artist. Her paintings are quiet and contemplative dealing with the relationship between water and vegetation. In her case, as with Sahand, things can pop out at the viewer. In “Profusion,” it is a woman who is very much in the shape of a flower. The message I got from Quinlan at the reading was: be still and think. Her approach is a meditative one.

Cecilia was the organizer of the show and the reading. Thus it was appropriate that she wind it up. So she read more of Roethke, but then Jim Bishop arrived and read something from the NewYorker. The evening provided a small event, very pleasant with unexpected surprises.

PoetryJonathan Judge