Toby Altman

“I welcome you / when it is me / who arrives,” writes Fred Schmalz in “Bird song trumps dumptruck,” the first poem of his debut collection, Action in the Orchards (Nightboat, 2019). It is a delicious paradox: maintaining and canceling the distinction between self and other, subject and object. And it is particularly suggestive in the context of a book where, as Schmalz writes, almost every poem “responds to encounters with art.” “Bird song trumps dumptruck,” for example, emerges from encounters with “a small clay bowl received as a gift from the poet Jenny Browne and seeing dancer Julian Barnett perform in Johannes Wieland’s “Portrait.” Poetry about art generally presumes a distinction between the poet and the art object: the poet describing, with painfully poignancy, an artwork that has a frame, hangs in a museum, probably engages with classical myth (Think of W.H. Auden in the Musée des Beaux Arts). Schmalz opens a vertiginous alternative. The poet and the artwork are collaborators. They constitute each other. The distinction between them is pliable, subject to sudden reversals.

Schmalz is both a poet and a member of Balas & Wax: an art collective that works with poetry, ethnography, and multimedia to create performances and installations. His interests as an artist are broad, resistant to the boundaries that usually separate media and disciplines. This makes him unusually congenial in his own encounters with art. Action in the Orchards responds to an astonishing range of works—dance, ceramics, illustrations, performances, artist talks, opera, paintings. Few of his poems remain in the museum, with its regulated interactions between viewer and artwork. They draw on conversations, letters, chance encounters; at times, the poet is a participant in the artwork. Such is the case in “Flux,” a poem that

draws from an encounter with an artwork from the inside—as a performer. In choreographer Johannes Wieland’s “Flux,” I ran on a treadmill countersunk into the floor of the stage for the duration of the performance. People danced and strobe lights went off around me . . .

Despite Schmalz’s intimacy with Wieland’s piece, the poem “Flux” has an oblique relationship with the artwork:

how can you trap the sky
in its present state I act
as though every day is
unable to catch me

With its ambiguous enjambments—and its probing questions about the “present state” of the atmosphere—the poem is far from the carnivalesque excess of the original. Schmalz does not describe Wieland’s work or the experience of performing in it. This is broadly paradigmatic: throughout the book, Schmalz refuses straightforward affiliations between his poems and the artworks he encounters. Instead, the relationship between the poem and the artwork becomes generative and unstable, a site of uncertainty.

Schmalz thus raises vital questions about what it means to encounter an artwork. What are the limits of such an encounter? When does an encounter with an artwork end? This seems like a straightforward question: you stand in front of a painting in a museum, then you move to the next one. Even when working with museum pieces, though, Schmalz stresses the strange duration of his encounters: they tend to persist, to haunt. In “Twelve Twomblys (Lepanto 2001),” Schmalz carefully documents the conditions in the gallery where the paintings were displayed, noting “[it] is impossible to view all at once, since the first and last paintings are almost 180 degrees opposite each other.” But he turns to the circumstances surrounding his visit to the gallery in Munich where Cy Twombly’s late work, Lepanto (2001), was exhibited:

This visit came in the days leading up to the German marathon championships, in which I was a competitor. I was staying with the choreographer Ryan Mason, who lived at the time around the corner from Thomas Mann’s house. I spent the mornings doing my last brief pre-race strides in front of the white wall around Mann’s home.

Over the course of the note, the encounter multiplies; the boundaries of Twombly’s work blur. They grow to encompass Thomas Mann’s house, the history of German literature, the poet preparing for a marathon outside it, contemporary choreography: “I welcome you / when it is me / who arrives.”  The poem that results stages this blurring, this expanded form of being. “I am the burning sun, the spider’s dance over water,” Schmalz writes. The speaker of the poem is many things at once: the largest and brightest thing in sight—and a miniscule movement. If there is something ecstatic about this blurring and expansion, it is also full of tension: Twombly and Mann are not necessarily willing participants in the collaboration. Schmalz is careful to mark those tensions, noting, “The man I didn’t tell haunts me to Venice and back.”

Schmalz’s encounters tend to generate short, lyric poems: his writing is elegant and precise. Nonetheless, by the end of the book, some readers may hunger for more specific engagements with the works themselves—for poems more explicit about the way they relate to the works they encounter. This is the downside of Schmalz’s interest in the collaborative dynamics of encountering art. It is a small price to pay. And Schmalz is capable of turning it to his advantage: for example, in the long poem, “Documenta 13 daybook,” which engages with almost twenty works exhibited at the 2012 Documenta Exhibition in Kassel, Germany. In the profusion of short pieces that make up this long poem, Schmalz mimics the sense of being overwhelmed and engaged that characterizes such large art-world happenings: “bring me the art stars of tomorrow / bring me their handbags,” he writes in one of the book’s most biting passages. Reading through the dynamic, tumbling encounters that constitute “Documenta 13 daybook,” it seems natural to count Schmalz himself among such future art stars. Like the artists he writes about, his work expands the capacities of art itself, and pluralizes the experience of encountering it.

Action in the Orchards
by Fred Schmalz
Nightboat Books, 2019
$16.95 paperback; ISBN: 9781937658984 W
144 pp

Toby Altman is the author of Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017) and several chapbooks, including Every Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg (Except One) winner of the 2018 Ghost Proposal Chapbook Contest. His poems have been published in or are forthcoming from Gulf CoastjubilatLana Turner, and other journals and anthologies. He holds a PhD in English from Northwestern University and an MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.