January 9, 2020 § 3 Comments
By Barrie Jean Borich
I remember my copy of H.W. Janson’s History of Art, circa 1962, that paean to the canon that sat on so many household bookshelves, including, for many years, my own. Janson’s book is a history of the Western tradition of visual art from inception to the mid-twentieth century, a recounting with myriad gaps. I recall the rough cover and the pages broken after too many moves, how I kept the book for years to make up, I thought, for all my own missing knowledge, but finally got rid of it because of how much was left out of its pages.
The textbook’s textured gray cover, and the title centered in a formal nameplate, is replicated on the front of Ray Gouirand’s new lyric essay cycle The History of Art (The Atlas Review, 2019). The history of art Gouirand recounts is not the canon of works collected in the famous textbook of the same name, though she does borrow the title from that tome. So then, what does this borrowing mean for a contemporary queer lyric that is determinedly not about canonical art, a book that is, ecstatically, about a body that does not inhabit the approved center, a book that speaks from the gaps in all the old teaching?
Many of our books, and many of our bodies, are commonly mistaken for collections of proper and approved attributes, yet the queer femme behaves, makes, and finds pleasure in anything but the conventional template of women’s sexuality. The queerest thing about the lesbian femme is her refusal to comply. She is, in terms of the heterosexual paradigm, recognizable to straight men, but not available to them. Her “cover” is an ironic birthright. She refuses what she is told is her natural power. Her pleasures are elsewhere. “Like something that suddenly has a place to be missing from (22).”
This is the entryway into Gouirand’s History of Art. She looks at the female form, but does not make conventional connections. She begins the book describing what she sees, as a girl, in Janson’s big book of art codes. “Inside the book, the figures hard & stone, in black and white. Studyable, from a place still and bound. What made them my first lovers—I could look for as long as I wanted… We recognized each other (5).”
Gouirand describes not simply an affinity with the female form as object of her desire, not simply the early identification with pleasure, not even only pleasure itself, but something else, something queerer. She knows somehow, long before she has either language or experience to fully understand, that what she sees in the history of art are the first inklings of what will give her life. She can’t understand yet, but she will later remember. “The first time I came, that’s who was there. I filled myself instinctually & pressed down into what I felt (6)”.
The inheritance of the queer femme is the expression of what is commonly understood as the feminine, which makes the lesbian femme’s use of what is called womanly—woman being another old form with too many gaps— a lot like Gouirand’s borrowing of the book cover of an outdated history text. In an interview for her publisher, The Atlas Review, she describes her understanding of corporeal desire as not passive, but as an artist-made thing. “I grabbed the echo of that title for my own in part because I think great art is deeply erotic, and often born of echo. It draws us out of our typical abilities to perceive and sense, and expands our awareness; it confuses the limits between our consciousness and the consciousness we can access or visit or experience. There are consequences to that. Art sees us.”
To be seen by that which she sees herself is the idea through which she writes an erotics of the queer femme. The parts that art destroys are the histories that stand in the way of remaking, a woman unconstrained by canonical control who knows, and even becomes, her own pleasure. This is a new history of art. “It is like a tree cracks inside, whips the whole way up. For a split second I am exact. I am what I ask for (23).”
To understand this remaking we must consider the particularly treacherous position of the queer femme body, and consider how a book cover can either represent or skew. In a line appearing late in the cycle Gouirand writes: “I don’t look for art in search of a mirror. I look to it to destroy the parts of me that can be summarized (43).”
What are these parts that art destroys? We join the speaker’s body in these pages. We meet her at the vanishing point. We too find our missing skin. So many lines of these essays peak and resound, unmaking and awakening, but this queer femme erotic is not only about artifice destroyed but also a lyric of the parts that cannot be summarized, the body’s pre-verbal spaces.
Holding Gouirand’s essays in my hands I return to that older, broken history book, and what it could have meant to see myself not mirrored but engaged in its pages, as more than a cold stone body epically gazed upon, as a doer as well as a receiver, as a speaker who makes herself out of the base summary of those gaps. In The History of Art Gouirand writes of meeting the hunger of this queer dissatisfaction, of accessing and serving a queer body’s need to be a work of her own making.
Barrie Jean Borich is author of Apocalypse, Darling which PopMatters said “… soars and seems to live as a new form altogether. It’s poetry, a meditation on life as ‘the other,’ creative non-fiction, and abstract art.” Her memoir Body Geographic won a Lambda Literary Award and her book-length essay, My Lesbian Husband won the Stonewall Book Award. Borich teaches at DePaul University where she edits Slag Glass City, a journal of the urban essay arts.