The paintings that comprise “Portraits of American Poets” bare their brush marks and remind you of their medium. They force you to focus on each stroke piling on top of the next, an effect seen in the dark shadow cast across the corner of Dan Gerber’s face and, on a larger scale, in this compilation essay. We notice the texture in the paintings and—because we’re already looking?—in the poems. In Gerber’s “Six Kinds of Gratitude” the sounds of flies, wind, human voices and breaths mingle with the hum of a dog’s snore; in Joseph Stroud’s “Provenance” paintings amplify the emotions provoked in Stroud by his father’s death.
How do the layers fit together? How do poems, biographies, and portraits—each complete on their own—conspire to make something more? How do the images of nothingness in Harrison’s “Letter to Yesenin” transform when we learn that the poet is blind in one eye and when we see how the painter casts light into one pupil while the other remains dark? And how do we read about Forché’s many stones “carried from one silence to another” once we know she translated and edited the poetry of victims of violence? Or, how do we read of Stroud’s wandering loneliness when we learn that of all Smith’s subjects Stroud was the only one with company when Smith stopped by? And finally, how can seven previously published works by highly praised poets have an effect—as W. S. Merwin writes regarding the familiarity of his own face—that still surprises?