Old King in the New World: Restraint and Art in ‘Madame X’

by Olivia Zhu

MadamexThe pale neck of John Singer Sargent’s most notorious portrait subject graces the cover of William Logan’s latest book, a collection of poetry that pays homage to the artist in its themes and style. Madame X, named after the painting, opens with two epigraphs that establish the themes of the work: the first explicitly links Herman Melville’s Ahab to “that wild Logan of the woods,” in reference to a Native American chief who literary historian Jonathan Elmer calls “a melancholic relic,” of the same lonesome breed as both captain and poet (119). The last of his kind, fanatically in search of a poetic white whale: this is how Logan announces himself.1 The second epigraph, a quote from Roman Holiday, reveals the object of his pursuit. Gregory Peck’s expat character, attempting to resist an undressing, Shelley-reciting Audrey Hepburn, advises her to “Keep [her] mind off the poetry and on the pajamas and everything will be all right.” Taken together, the two inscriptions position the poet as an old king, yearning for the classicality of the Old World, its elegant poetry, and its restrained sexuality. Madame X, with all its recurring images of ancient soldiers and overexposed young women, is a testament to Logan’s self-assigned role as a guardian of taste and timelessness.

Like Logan, Sargent might have also been called an “old king.” Toward the end of his career, Sargent’s devotion to his brand of “realism was viewed increasingly as anachronistic and facile,” paralleling Logan’s fidelity to “a certain sense of tradition that was antipathetic to the traditions that most of the poets [his] age were following” (Churchwell; qtd. in Jalon, 16). Nevertheless, the artist and poet soldiered on. Both have defended their relatively traditionalist work, and the very first poem of Madame X hints at the poet’s artistic loneliness in doing so. “The Hedgehog in His Element” indicates that Logan, oft-maligned for his “miserable” and “bullying” criticism, is the titular creature, very much at home in his attitude and medium (1). During a phone interview, Logan admitted he “was attracted to the sense of a hedgehog as a masochistic figure—it looked as if he had been shot full of arrows.” Is Logan’s tenth work a vindication of how he has suffered for his formal style? Its introductory poem suggests so, for “like a Sherman tank forced out of the brush,” the poet is made to emerge and set up a defense in whatever prickly way he might choose (“Hedgehog” 2). The image of a self-sacrificing soldier is driven home by the poem’s concluding image of “St. Sebastian bristling with arrows,” with the patron saint of warriors—and a martyr twice over—shown as angry and defiant even when wounded (“Hedgehog” 3).

As Logan has aged, the burdens of kingship might weigh more heavily. He notes “one of the themes imposed on me by age, is age. Since I’m now in my sixties, I’m sometimes attracted to this image of death being not so distant.” The impending threat of death might explain the admiration of the aging Captain Ahab, as well as the fact that Madame X begins with poems of spring and youth but ends with poems of winter and age. Memories, regrets, and old girlfriends populate the last section of the book, and Logan closes out his work with “A Death at Badenweiler.” In this poem, the speaker witnesses the ignominious death of his brother, Herr C.: “Everyone knew his plays, of course, the stories, / though I myself have never troubled to read them” (89-90). Everyone might be aware of his work—the “of course” seems like a hasty qualifier—yet if even Herr C.’s brother has neglected to read his sibling’s plays, perhaps the writer has not left the legacy he intended. On his deathbed, the elderly man is “hoarse as the newly damned” and “all breath had vanished from the room” (“Death” 57, 60). For any creator, the denial of words and vocabulary would be a most damning punishment, indeed. Moreover, Herr C.’s sickness mutes not only the writer, but also everyone around him—there is no kind of art for anyone left. This final poem is a relatively long one for Madame X. At triple the average length of most of the other works, it seems like a final breath—Logan’s push to say everything left to say before ending.

To Logan, then, there is only a limited time to make the kind of art that he prefers, with words wrapped in a tight cage of constraint. His poem “In the Confining Hour,” is bound not only by couplets and rhyme, but also by rigorous anaphora present in each line of the work. Drumlike, he declares that “In the confining hour, in the revealing place, / comes the heart’s glottal stop, comes the lie’s restless face” (1-2). His heart might only speak the truth, however choked or reluctant it may be, when encased in structure. Like ribs, the symmetric lines wrap around Logan’s main point: this tight poetic form is emotionally revealing despite its structure, “For the confirming rod, for the concealing dress, / bring on the shadow’s bloom, bring the false caress” (“Confining” 9-10). The rigor of confinement reveals the nuances of the onset of night—it blooms, rather than simply occurs—and the nuances of a touch, for the poet detects it is naught but a “false caress.” Logan is able to detect lies, the antithesis of what he says is “good poetry, [which] is always raw in a certain fashion.”

Coupled with the need to be honest are images of women, in concealing dress or otherwise. Logan, riffing on Ezra Pound, once opined that “Poetry is the nude that stays nude” in a set of maxims on the practice of writing. He clarified his statement in his interview, explaining that good poetry “doesn’t get covered up by time,” a fair explanation for why he might prefer a more classical form—a more timeless style. Much of Madame X, too, is concerned with the art of the past, with Sargent’s work nestled among that of Doré, Manet, Praxiteles, and other luminaries admired by Logan, a self-described “denizen of art galleries.” Describing Sargent’s painting of a beautiful socialite, the namesake of the book and the poem, Logan keeps to formal rhymed couplets, perhaps in deference to the aesthetic formality he prefers. The poem’s object, though, has “a professional beauty, / which implies a certain impersonal duty / to a beauty evanescent as morning vapor” (“Madame X” 15-17). Is the portrait timeless? That her beauty disappears with a noontime sun would suggest not, although the speaker briefly attempts to compare her pale skin to a modern reference point: clam chowder. Madame X does not “stay nude.” As Logan points out, “originally the right strap had slipped off her shoulder,” an artistic detail later revised by Sargent to accommodate social mores (28).

Faddism and trends are another concern of Logan’s. While Madame X was once considered risqué, the painting is conservative by modern terms. Compared to Logan’s undergraduate students, whose “low-cut jeans” display their stomachs “like a cold slice of mutton,” Madame X is demure in comparison, a sign of how tastes have changed (21, 23). While Logan expressed an aversion to seeming “geezerish” in describing youth fashion, it would have been difficult for him to write such a poem without the benefit of witnessing other decades’ trends, be they long hair, bralessness, or baggy pants. His wisdom, then, is employed to warn his students away from trends, as reflected in his preference for “teaching tools” and “craft,” allowing a budding poet to fall back on well-structured forms if ever their “habits can’t deal with a subject” (Logan). He urges them to learn the classics, in case a poetic version of “low-cut jeans” ever goes out of style.

Implicit in “Madame X” is one more of Logan’s lessons for poetry—one regarding restraint. Parenthetically, he asks, “Is nothing more sexual than a taste for suggestion?” (26). Does restraint—in poetry, in sexuality—improve the art or experience? Thinking back on the second epigraph, in which Gregory Peck’s character urges the Princess Ann to put on pajamas, it briefly seems as if poetry and sexuality are interlinked. He must shut her up and cover her up, for propriety’s sake. Yet Logan’s poems do not appear to express quite the same linkage, for every interaction with the book’s many female figures tends to end in disappointment. In “And Now for Something Completely Different,” his speaker focuses on poetry, as well as the pajamas; he “wanted to be Achilles,” choosing to be a legendary warrior (12). To do so, he sacrifices the chance to be with “a girl in a yellow dress,” who he sees but once in his youth, and all the associated comforts of hearth and home (7). In brusque tercets and short sentences, Logan can only “peer into” a home, “as a god would,” for his Achilles is neither welcome in nor invulnerable to a room in which “the television blazes / as a fire used to” (“And Now” 1-2). Each stanza is walled off from the others by the conclusiveness of periods, just as the speaker is kept separate from domestic comfort and companionship.

Keeping away from temptation and exercising restraint: that is what leads to great art, suggests Logan. In the same kind of couplet style exhibited in “Madame X,” the poet discusses being inspired by a lissome American tourist, admiring her but not approaching. “The Back of a Girl in Florence” is striking, as classically beautiful as if it had been “chiseled by Praxiteles” (22). Despite her allure, Logan stays the course, as he “kept silent rather than take the risk” (29). He keeps to roughly the same meter and pacing, and his couplets are always complete. In doing so, he can idealize the girl, ignoring that her “loveliness would soon decay” to immortalize her in art as his “walking odalisque” (“Back” 28, 30). Timelessness matters more than indulgence, he concludes. Like the beauties “Venus de Milo, Nike of Samothrace,” perhaps Logan’s girl in Florence can become a classic, too—but only if he renders her from afar (7).

William Logan’s old king is a self-sacrificing one: he has risked barbs from other critics and poets to protect his craft, and he has given up personal comfort to practice his art. Madame X provides a consistent theory of why that might be so. Though Logan noted that there was no grand plan for the motifs that occur throughout his work, he noted that a “poet is generally looking for things that provoke him in some way, and if there is some continuity in the images, it is probably due to [his] background.” If so, it seems that the poet is provoked by the subjects of aging soldiers, martyrs, muses, and especially art. It is no coincidence that his book is a series of ekphrastic exercises, describing a vast array of paintings, statues, letters, and classical poems. In confronting and interacting with a pantheon of work that has provoked him, Logan seeks to vindicate his own.

1 The choice of passage is no accident either. The poet has already described Moby-Dick as the “Great American Novel [that] has already been written,” referring to it frequently in his poetry and criticism. Moreover, Logan-the-poet views Logan-the-chief as the arbiter of an inevitable justice. In an interview, he revealed one of his favorite anecdotes, wherein the chief learned he had been tricked by a man, and subsequently hunted him down and killed him, paralleling his admission in other articles that he has “a ‘prosecutorial temperament’ himself” (Jalon, 17).

Sources

Churchwell, Sarah. “How John Singer Sargent Made a Scene.” Guardian [London] 30 Jan. 2015: n. pag. Guardian. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. .

Elmer, Jonathan. On Lingering and Being Last: Race and Sovereignty in the New World. N.p.: Fordham UP, 2008. Google Books. Web.

Jalon, Allan M. “The Most Hated Man in American Poetry.” Poets and Writers Magazine 1 Nov. 2000: 14-18. ProQuest. Web. 30 Mar. 2015. .

Logan, William. Madame X. New York: Penguin, 2012. Print.

Logan, William. Personal interview. 1 April 2015.

Logan, William. “The Nude that Stays Nude.” Poetry Foundation. N.p., 1 Apr. 2013. Web.

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