On Vona Groarke's recent work

Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Hvile (Rest) (1905) is a work equal in visual ambiguity and complexity to Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656). Hammershøi’s painting presents a woman sitting in a chair with her back to the viewer. A slump in the shoulders angles the right part of the neck into shadow. The eyes are turned away. The face is withheld. If this is a scene of “rest” for the person in the room, it is also a scene of refusal on the part of the gendered subject of portrait-painting, who in this case rejects the work of sitting to be painted (or the millions of portraits subtitled, invisibly, Work). And in rejecting this work, she abjures the ethical relation that, for Emmanuel Levinas, is formed by the dramatic encounter with the “face.”The cost is exhaustion. Looking at her back, I see myself possibly as accomplice (who is it who watches me from behind?), inevitably as voyeur (am I approaching?). But there is very little pleasure, terror, mystery, or responsibility in this encounter. Any strong emotion in the scene irrupts into filigree: the scalloped edges of the bowl, echoed by the folds of the sleeve, or the bow-tie-like back of the straightbacked chair. To look at this painting is to feel that my very eyes have become inconvenient, embarrassing, unstoppable, and that I would pluck them out or close them if possible. Yet this seems to be the one thing that I cannot do. 

“The Interiors of Vilhelm Hammershøi,” from Vona Groarke’s most recent collection X (Gallery Press 2014), comes first in “The Hammershøi Sequence.” Held captive by Hammershø’'s Hvile last summer at the Musée d'Orsay, I now find the first line of Groarke's poem asking the same question that continues to occur to me: “What is there?” An odd question: it announces the onset of ekphrasis, at the same time that it seems to discount the possibility of finding anything in the paintings (“what is there to see?”). But not for long: a similar woman appears, “seated, / in whose neck light steadies / itself.”

The subjects of this sequence, and of X in general, are exteriors, interiors, and the elements of their composition: “what you take for company” (“Closing Time”). In Groarke’s work, the world leans in and out and over: the snowdrop insists (“A Pocket Mirror”), the sun insists (“The Box”), the rain hints (“Midsummer”), the storm “presents itself” (“The Storm”). These could be so many instances of the pathetic fallacy, were it not for the minimal presence and agency of the “I” in the poems.  To the extent that the “I” exists, it exists (x ist’s?) in order to draw the features of the surrounding environment into relation with one another and with itself.

This is one motive for metonymy. Groarke’s poems are governed not by an agonistic relation between the subject and the world — Stevens’s vital, arrogant, fatal, dominent X of the real — but instead by a logic of accomodation, of living with and being beside. But this version of the phenomenological epoché must also be understood as political, as the waking dream of rest for the global subject, whose interiority is conjured up, commodified, and turned face-forward into the work that has no end.

Groarke, Vona. 2014. X. Loughcrew: Gallery Books.