Letters to Goya: Poems, Titles and Letters to the Dead
Cinco Puntos Press
Paperback, 978-1-9410-2698-4, 160 pgs., $29.95
April 7, 2019
James Magee is a multidisciplinary artist with multiple iterations of himself: each new face comes with its own personality, its own art in its own medium, each comes from a different place, and each is singular in what it projects.
Letters to Goya: Poems, Titles and Letters to the Dead spans several centuries, geographical spaces, and voices. The pages are like a discombobulated set of windows. Every window we open, we look upon a different space in a different time. Each turn of the page is a new vision, a new letter, a new voice, a new love note, crumpled and thrown out, picked up, and reimagined. Time and space are confused, and the physical realities of the pages are confronted with our imagination.
The book is divided in two sections. "Titles" is a collection of poems and songs written through the years as accompaniments to sculptures by the poet. Each is its own miniature drama, with a new narrative emerging. "Letters to Goya" are love letters written by the Duchess of Alba to Francisco Goya, Court Painter to His Majesty Charles IV of Spain. In real life she was one of his patrons and, possibly, they were lovers. Here, the Duchess lives at the Waikiki Trailer Park in Sweetwater, Texas, in the mid-1950s.
She sits at her old typewriter. In West Texas, time and distance are something altogether different than anywhere else. When you drive the highways, the land changes so gradually it seems nothing is happening. Yet when you stop, you find an abundance of life, from the great horizon to the microscopic detail. This is what you need to do with her letters: stop and take a breath—within the mundane you will see the beauty.
She writes letters to an old lover. Centuries have gone by, eons of history have happened, whole civilizations have risen and fallen, and yet she speaks to him of her everyday life as if it were only yesterday that she stood for him in her boudoir, black Spanish lace half covering her hair and her bodice, being coy while he paints her portrait.
"Oh, Solo Goya,
Can you believe it! Sears has bath mats on sale for a dollar a mat and I am standing here, like a damn fool, trying to figure out whether I should rush down before they're all bought up."
Every letter is a love poem of the mundane. The cracks in the concrete at the local A&P, the hamburger that used to graze the pasture, or the old Chevy that blew a gasket. In one letter dated July 29, 1955, she tells him, "The Yankees have fallen into second place and yesterday our Sweetwater Ponies lost to Snyder 5 to 2, and that's after having beaten the pants off of Abilene the day before."
Addressed to Frank, to Frankie, to Francisco, I imagine the Duchess is writing to me, that she's an old lady I knew a long time ago from the small West Texas town where I grew up. And it makes sense that she would retire in Sweetwater, at Waikiki Trailer Park.
In "Titles," each poem is a series of small narratives, exposing new conflict and new drama with every single poem. There is a sexual tension throughout the selection, longing (real or imagined), a future not yet here, a mixture of the fantasized, the experienced, and the reality of blood and bones.
Twelve years later I am staring out of a window
upon an unfamiliar city before dawn.
I feel men stirring.
I smell their wet hair and touch their thighs.
A white liquid flows languidly beneath the sidewalk.
Below me a middle-aged, shirtless figure,
with a large birthmark on his back, bangs on a shop door.
No one answers.
Magee takes us through his imagination, the universe seen through the lens of a wide desert-scape with a mountain range in the background. Dirt, poverty, escape, naps, large concrete sculptures in the middle of the desert that serve no immediate purpose (and not to be soon understood), scraps of metal, scraps of dreams, empty soup cans, dirty rags mixed in sweat and old gasoline.
The poems are printed where you have to hold the book sideways—turn it all the way around to read the letters—and this is part of its charm. It's a never-ending book meant to be a pain in the ass, and I mean that in a good way. You won't be able to read it from the first page to the last, because, well … there are two first pages, and who can find the last page?
Go sit in the dirt against an old tree, read a few lines, fall asleep to the imagery, and let the smells and noises of your surroundings mix with the poems. Take your time—it might take years to digest this book fully. That's okay.
In 1978, the incredibly prolific American artist and poet James Magee rooted himself in El Paso and Juarez. Michigan-born, Ivy League-educated to be a lawyer, gender-fluid, ex-taxi driver and off-shore roughneck, Magee made his home on the border. He somehow bought two thousand acres in the desert east of El Paso, and began creating The Hill, a massive stone work on the scale of Stonehenge, his on-going opus of the last four decades. He also created large metal collages, ornately framed, which he “titled” with remarkable poems.
Then the artist Annabel Livermore (a retired Mid-Western librarian) sprang from Magee’s imagination. Annabel was not to be alone. Horace Mayfield, a gay artist, likewise sprang fully formed from the same imagination. Annabel lives in one house, Horace lives in another, and Magee migrates between the two. (Mayfield’s house, it should be noted, is outfitted for wheel-chair access because along the way Magee lost both legs to disease.)
The sculptures and paintings of James Magee and Annabel Livermore (and more recently, Horace Mayfield) have been presented in major exhibitions across the United States and Latin America. Magee’s The Hill is quickly becoming an art aficionado’s destination, except visits are rare and managed by the Cornudas Foundation. The Smithsonian recently purchased Magee’s archives.
François Pointeau was born in Rennes, France, and moved to the United States with his family as a child. He is a poet and writer of short stories. Pointeau’s first poetry collection, Beer Songs For the Lonely (New Belleville Press), was published in 2014; Good Feeling: Seven Short Stories (New Belleville Press) was published in 2015; his latest collection is Songs of the Rollin Chateau. He also produces the podcast “Radar Talk Intimate.” Pointeau lives in Houston. You can visit him online here.