Voices in the Dark

So I headed west,

to grow up with the country.
Across those prairies,
with those fields of grain.
And I saw my Devil, and I saw my deep blue sea…

-Gram Parsons

Gray, heavy sky; dark days with steady rain and sodden ground- glorious weather, really. Parts of our state have had no significant precipitation since September.

I had made quite a few monotypes this spring, but then hit a sort of wall. It’s normal to take a break, then come back to finish strong for the show season, but also I hadn’t really figured out what the monotypes were about. This isn’t all that unusual. I often work off snippets or glimmers of an idea, hoping that improvisation and gesture, or just day-to-day experience, would provide a full concept.

So I worked on this telephone pole ( above), which is actually outside my back door. I’ve put it in a number of large monotypes, so it made sense to do a small polymer plate etching. The subject gets admired a lot. People admit somewhat sheepishly, their fascination with the subject, though I can’t remember anyone buying one!

What I like about the admittedly somewhat prosaic image is that it’s a visible manifestation of absence. It’s interesting to me that a conversation between faraway strangers may be passing above me, just out of earshot, so to speak. The rain and clouds add a bit of pathos, I guess. Hence the title, “Signal To Noise”. It’s a metaphor one of my favorite authors, Thomas Pynchon, explores in his novel “V”. You would think that with the technology for transmitting the message improving everyday, we wouldn’t miss so many.

A polymer etching involves a thin metal plate coated in a photo-sensitive emulsion. Many people expose them in the sun, and you can also do a monotype right on top of the plate, then etch it, and that’s what I’ve done here. I added Chine Colle’ for a bit of color. It’s a nice thing for me, since I don’t produce the monotypes very quickly. Now I can print 5-10 images, sell them throughout the year, and at a more affordable price. Can you tell show season is coming? As marketing psychology tells us, one must have bins chock full, or sales suffer.

At the same time, constantly making the smaller work can be vaguely frustrating. The smaller, improvised images often make the jump to larger and more refined iterations. I have to “jump off my train of thought” to refill the bins, as those are the popular purchase around here. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’m constantly starting, and never really finishing, an idea.

The second image, a monotype, is a better example. I love it, but I’m pretty sure it’s nowhere close to where it could be. Where could it be? As the rain continues to come, and I’m still spending my nights on the couch, I’m starting to look to my current reading for an answer. Where better to look for metaphor and message than to the writings of the American Romantics?

Melville, Whitman and Dickinson, along with the Luminist painters, such as Martin Heade and Fitz Hugh Lane, captured the search for American identity in the pre civil war years of cultural ferment. Cynthia Griffin Wolff in her eponymous biography of Emily Dickinson, has a good sense of those times, and what makes us tick, even now. I recall Dickinson being taught as a reclusive genteel eccentric . But her most famous poem features her narrator in a carriage with death, driving “out past the sunset”. Oh-oh. A spiritual journey that ends in darkness, this from the Belle of Puritan Amherst.

Wolff places her in the context of her times, in which authors like Emerson and Thoreau, but also the Hudson River School and later Luminists defined the American spirit. They understood America’s westward path is toward the light and away from darkness, yet also into vast space and isolation. The Luminist painters especially, but also Melville and Dickinson, understood the spiritual absence where the conflicted Puritan soul met the isolation of the vast American landscape and its implicit relationship to the American experience.

Conversely, the revival movement of Emily Dickinson’s girlhood, which stressed “wrestling” or struggling with faith, just as Jacob wrestled with God, sought to define American experience in the absence of any state endorsed religion, or, I might add, artistic academy system. Jacob “strives” until dawn, forcing God to bless him before He leaves. As Wolff points out, God is not seen in face to face encounter with Man again in the narrative, appearing as a burning bush, blinding light, etc. She notes too that Moby Dick is the mostly absent force of nature whom embittered Ahab, whose name relates to Jacob, struggles against.

Emily Dickinson sought an identity in a society that offered few choices- mother, person of faith- to women. Dickinson rejected the revivalists and rarely left her room, where she met God, the Devil and the details of meaning and poetic space on her own terms. She understood the role of existential absence in American spiritual experience. Her famous dashes are tokens of a self actualized subjective voice, but they are also tangible marks of absence.

Her writing, at turns simple and agreeable, then abruptly dark and isolate, calls to mind one of the beach scenes of John Kensett.

Melville died in obscurity until rescued decades later by academics. Whitman’s bold incantatory affirmations of identity were revived by the Beats. Dickinson’s dashes were posthumously removed by her first editors. The struggle to come to terms with the anger and idealism at war in the heart of the Puritan soul continues, now more than ever, in this “damp, drizzly November in [the American] soul”. Puritan idealism is exemplified in its original assertion that each person may treat with God without the mediation of a higher (state, or Papal) authority. This is the essence of spiritual identity.

But as soon as Cromwell turned westward toward Ireland, the darkness and violence began. King Phillip’s War, and Sand Creek eventually, inevitably, followed, each westward step bringing us closer to nature, yet farther from God, and into absence and isolation. Irish, Native Americans, Women, Gays, all “striving” then and now to find identity in the face of the Puritan anger that vitiates our culture. Just as Puritans themselves once did.

It turns out that ruling one’s soul, and ruling others’ as well, are mutually incompatible things.

A monotype, or any kind of print, seems a good medium with which to interpret a poem. The white space that is, I believe, at the essential heart of any print, mimics the striving for meaning from absence at the heart of Ahab’s struggle, and the dark inky bits mimic the words on the page with which the American Romantics forged a cultural identity.

Graphics and printmaking have been the medium of advertising messages and mass communication before the electrons took over. Prints brought visions of the American west back to immigrants, and helped to fill in the void. They were cheaper and more quickly produced, and thus less beholden to elites. They are part and parcel of the American “message” in the turbulent and earth-shaking 19th century, as were the poets and novelists of the American Romantic era.

A poem or print is certainly more concise than this misty digression. The iconography of print- its dashes and white voids, even its squishes, blobs, smudges and spatters tell a story. As always, one can only hope the message is getting through.

3 replies on “Voices in the Dark”


I love the correspondence between Emily Dickinson’s dashes and the negative space in a monotype of yours.

Well observed and written. Very good piece.

Thanks for putting it up.


Thanks, Herm! My passion for the American Romantic era, and the artists, poets novelists who defined it (and us) probably outpaces my actual knowledge of it. But it is the heart of American culture, and should be explored by any creative, even if armed only with one’s intuition.

Again, wow, Joe- there is so much here I will need to read it again! This explains your current show so perfectly. Also, I too am fascinated by telephone poles- something about those physical lines in the landscape that are so graphically appealing. Additionally when you think about the important role they play in connecting lives via their power of communication…well, there’s a lot there! I was actually looking at one of your telephone pole pieces, and that image of the house on the desk with the chair is just great!

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