Review: The Spokes of Venus by Rebecca Morgan Frank

Aza Pace

Rebecca Morgan Frank’s poetry collection The Spokes of Venus presents a smooth, sensitive exploration into the subtleties of perception and art. The book takes as its starting point the story of Percival Lowell, an astronomer who testified that he had seen canals on the surface of Venus, when what he actually saw was a reflection of the blood vessels in his eye. Considering Lowell’s error in the book’s titular poem, Frank concludes that projecting life onto the inanimate world is part of being human: “Everything before us / looks like life." In keeping with the poems’ fascination with different modes of perception, Frank investigates the nature of observation and insight by engaging with the visual arts.

In this collection, Frank responds to the work of various artists, including Abraham Walkowitz, Franz Kline, and Pablo Picasso. Frank negotiates an intriguing line between the ekphrastic and the more associative. Perhaps the most evocative of these poems is “On the Symbolism of the Lamb,” which takes part of its inspiration from the gory, ritualistic performance art of Hermann Nitsch. The slaughter of a lamb is unsettlingly tempered by input from Allen Ginsberg and William Blake:

Little Lamb, Little Lamb—Allen Ginsberg sings.

Sings, He is meek and mild, / he became a child. Abraham’s knife

throats his lamb of a son, ready to lay his guts on the altar

for a god. Sings Blake, Little Lamb who made thee? The artist… 

Although the visceral, pointed language in this poem makes it somewhat of an outlier in terms of tone, its stimulating consideration of creation, performance, and religious tradition is consistent with the other poems in this collection. “On the Symbolism of the Lamb” blurs the distinctions between poetry and art, creation and destruction. This highly referential poem ends on an unflinching statement that could belong to the artist, the viewer, or the poet: “I’m not afraid. I’ll chew the gristle of my own heart."

In a collection so deeply invested in cerebral questions of self-portraiture, the reader is occasionally frustrated by the poems’ failure to engage with themselves as an art form or to direct the questing gaze back onto the words themselves. When this does happen, however, the results are dazzling, and the reader feels the flutter of excitement that results when poems challenge the mind and the emotions simultaneously. In “How to Look at Pictures,” for example, Frank ushers the reader into an art gallery but urges her to resist the poetic instinct to create narratives for the painted subjects. These subjects take on an eerie quality: one “has been following you” and a “small girl” is “staring furiously.". The reader is invited to assume the painter’s identity and way of seeing by refusing to acknowledge what is not visually present in the paintings. In this poem, Frank’s meditation on the creation of art generates stunning lines that reassert the validity of the poetic, narrative impulse:

Let your eyes wander back to the girl.

She is trying to say something but her mouth

Has been painted deliberately shut. Her lips, thin.

By bringing poetry into conversation with art, Frank invites readers to broaden their field of vision, and Frank’s inquisitive, meditative tone makes The Spokes of Venus a pleasure to read and contemplate. Despite the book’s final assertion that “it’s best not to look into the nuclear burn,” the reader leaves this poetry collection with a fresher sense of sight, one that looks to experience everyday life in terms of the musical, theatrical, and artistic.