“Giacometti, Nine Figures” (AGNI issue 83), is one of two poems I have written about the man and his work, which in his case are inseparable. Both poems appear in a book called Breather I worked on for many years (which is now “done” and looking for a publisher).
Breather revolves around Marcel Duchamp. The title comes from his answer to Calvin Tomkins’ question about what he did with his time since his declaration that he no longer made art—“I’m a breather,” he replied.
Once I became interested in Duchamp, whose entire career as an iconoclast is basically related to overturning conventional ideas about how to exist and what art is, I read a lot of books about him and also got interested in people who kept being talked about in those books, like Giacometti and Beckett. For all three of them, to be a breather was inextricably entwined with being an artist. Duchamp’s way of existing was to pare it down: when he traveled, for example, he took no luggage but wore an extra shirt with a toothbrush in a pocket; when he died, he died, unexpectedly, almost accidentally, while laughing.
Giacometti lived just as eccentrically; I was fascinated with the way his life was his art, I was fascinated with how he worked, how he lived. In this poem I first try to show the way he worked, what his obsession was and what the feeling of the figures that results is: he was obsessed with the human figure as an object in the vastness of space that surrounds it—he kept trying to get the right “perspective” on it, which is one reason why the figures kept dwindling both in his sculptures and in his drawings. During the war, which he had to spend in Switzerland, he returned to Paris with “three years work in six matchboxes.”
The last two “figures” in the poem (his mother’s skirt and the pears) are taken directly from incidents in his life that struck me as emblematic and that I wanted to incorporate in the poem just as they were. Perhaps I should have had notes explaining their presence in the poem, but I think I was trying to do what he was doing: whittle down the figure of a life to what is essential before it disappears into space.
There’s a famous story about Giacometti drawing pears in his father’s studio: “Once in my father’s studio, when I was eighteen or nineteen I was drawing some pears which were on a table—at the usual still-life distance. But they kept getting smaller and smaller. I’d begin again, and they’d always go back to exactly the same size. My father got irritated and said: ‘Now start doing them again as they are, as you see them.’ And he corrected them to life-size. I tried to do them like that, but half an hour later my pears were exactly as small to the millimeter as the first ones.”
In a well-known photo of Giacometti, he is locked in a gaze with his mother who sits opposite him—they look at each other, their heads turned toward each other, while the rest of the family sits blithely between them looking at the camera. Here is the first “gaze,” which would become so important to Giacometti’s work. He was devoted to his mother all his life; he painted and drew her all his life. When he married, he married a woman with her name. As a very young boy he perceived his mother in an image that terrified him; he wrote of it later: “The long black dress which touched the ground troubled me by its mystery; it seemed to be a part of the body, and that caused a feeling of fear………” This terror which he experienced also sometimes occurred when figures he was watching in the street seemed to disappear into the void which surrounded them. How were they connected to being? Where did they begin and where did they end?
I had an experience of this sort of inexplicable terror when I was about eleven. I found myself on the third floor of my grandmother’s house in a little room that belonged to the outcast of the family, my uncle Angelo, the alcoholic. It was a bleak little room that contained a bed, a closet and a dresser, and it overlooked a railroad track next to a highway. As I stood there a train came, and the instant I heard its piercing whistle, I froze into a terror I have never forgotten. It had to do with the terror of being “here,” alone, existing. I think this is what Giacometti’s terrors, and he had a lot of them, had to do with, too.
Like the drawings and sculptures, Giacometti’s writing is incisive. The café he went to in between working was as much a part of his life as his studio; there he would have his usual hard-boiled eggs and ham, two large glasses of Beaujolais and two large cups of coffee; he would meet people he had appointments with, he would draw on the covers of magazines, and sometimes, if alone, he wrote.
“…(the) head and figures (I was sculpting) seemed to me to have a bit of truth only when small.
“All this changed a little in 1945 through drawing.
“This led me to want to make larger figures, but then to my surprise, they achieved a likeness only when tall and slender.
“And this is almost where I am today, no, where I still was yesterday…perhaps if I could draw them it would no longer be necessary to create them in space, but I am not sure about this.
“And now I stop, besides they are closing, I must pay.”
Ioanna Carlsen is the author of the collection The Whisperer. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Hudson Review, AGNI, The Beloit Poetry Journal, and elsewhere. They have also been featured at Poetry Daily and in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180. She won the 2002 Glimmer Train Poetry Open, and her work has been selected for two print anthologies, most recently Pomegranate Seeds, a collection of Greek-American poetry. She lives in Tesuque, New Mexico. (updated 4/2017)