Peace Corps Writers

The Mystery of Max Schmitt

The Mystery of Max Schmitt
Poems on the Life and Work of Thomas Eakins

by Philip Dacey (Nigeria 1964–66)
Turning Point Press
October 2004
96 pages

The Mystery of Max Schmitt
Reviewed by Sandra Meek (Botswana 1989–91)

PHILIP DACEY’S The Mystery of Max Schmitt: Poems on the Life and Work ofPrinter friendly version Thomas Eakins, through its aesthetic method as well as its subject, suggests that the artist’s role is to fuse the scientific urge to catalogue with an intuitive desire to enter deeply into subject, to know from the inside out. As the visual artist observes all sides and angles before painting a subject, Dacey rescues Eakins’ voice from found materials, speaks through Eakins’ imagined voice, observes Eakins as subject through the filter of his own personal perspective, and creates the voices of other historical figures speaking of and to Eakins — and all within the first four poems of the collection.
     As the detailed chronology of Eakins’ life beginning the book suggests, Dacey wants first, as did Eakins, whom he quotes, to “[g]et things as they are.” But “[a]n outline of a man is not a man”; to “get” Eakins as he was and as he remains, in his surviving artwork, Dacey observes his subject as Eakins would, from all angles, interior as well as exterior, and the persona poems that engage Eakins’ voice through imagination and collage are among the book’s strongest. These include the opening poem, “Found Sonnet: Thomas Eakins on Painting,” which juxtaposes phrases from Eakins’ writings to embody a reading of the artist’s guiding aesthetic, and the collection’s beautiful penultimate poem “‘Reflections on Water’: The Lost Lecture of Thomas Eakins,” a meditation on water and light, and on the artist’s role of re-creating flux through the apparent stasis of canvas and paint.
     Eakins “painted to dissect,” Dacey writes, and Dacey’s own desire to “dissect” can produce powerful scenes, such as in the second section of “Elegiac,” entitled “Seymour Adelman: The Bonfire.” While the scientific impulse insists first on the facts here, that “this was 1729 Mount Vernon Street,/the year 1938, and Susan Eakins had just died,” the poem moves quickly into the more generative territory of elegy, allowing us to mourn the incredible loss of work as we witness a misguided family friend burning boxes of Eakins’ photographs after his wife’s death. While she believes she is protecting his reputation by destroying these “fetishes,” what we see is the destruction of the artist’s vision, of the beauty he drew from his subjects, those women rising

    as ashes, flecks
    of flesh,
    papery breasts on a breeze, thighs
    pulsing upward
    with red light, abstract hollows and dunes
    once waists and hips . . . .

Knowledge of the human body, Eakins believed, was essential for the artist. By teaching his students how to paint the nude figure, he enables them to see themselves “with an eye naked as God’s.//Or as a doctor’s,” an aesthetic embodied in the best of Dacey’s poems, the scientific fully wed to the artist’s other half, the seer. Dacey, in portraying Eakins, understands that the artist who looks deeply into subject will discover there self as much as other, just as this artist who most carefully observes will see himself ultimately as part of the scape he paints. In “Thomas Eakins: The Badlands,” Eakins, on horseback, watches as a cowbird hops from his horse’s head to Eakins’ own knee; the bird reminds him — and us — why he has left Philadelphia: he has been dismissed from his position as Director of the Pennsylvania Academy School for using nude models in his classes, and is, as Dacey notes in the chronology, recuperating from the traumatic event:

    The bird seemed to me a muscle with wings,
    quick and compact and appetitive,
    and I thought of the muscle in Philadelphia
    the ladies did not want their daughters to see,
    no bigger than a bird, its moves stitching
    the seamless landscape of anatomy.

To Eakins, the bird behaves as if the human body were “as natural as the bird itself,” touching Eakins’ hand “as if it were but part of wide Dakota,/handscape a form of landscape, and neither a threat.”
     Eakins’ life, his ideals and disappointments, and his art, both what survives and what has been lost, compose a continuous circle into which Dacey draws himself and his readers. In the book’s final poem, “Coda: Painting Eakins,” Dacey writes: “I apply a word, here, there, step back, admire/. . .The face begins forming. Mine? The portrait as/self-portrait. I see him only in my light.” But this is a wonder, not a failure, of the artistic venture: painter, writer, reader — all are joined through that most human gaze, the artist’s single, and singular, vision. Whether on canvas or page, the artist’s creation is at once window and mirror, the horizon joining self to world. Through this book’s rich imagining of one artist, Thomas Eakins, what Dacey ultimately offers us is a thoughtful meditation on the nature of art itself, that most “intimate labor.”

Sandra Meek is the author of two books of poems, Burn (Elixir 2005), and Nomadic Foundations (Elixir 2002), a collection largely based on her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. In 2003, Meek was awarded the Georgia Author of the Year Award in Poetry, and the Peace Corps Writers Award for Poetry, both for Nomadic Foundations.
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