Devil’s Paintbrush by Desirée Alvarez


-Reviewed by Alice Allen-


While the dust-jacket of this book describes Desirée Alvarez as a visual poet who makes ‘magical-realist compositions addressing human interaction with the natural world’, some of the most successful poems in this prize-winning collection, with their beguiling mix of allusion, reference and image, owe more to the techniques of collage than magical realism.

Poems such as ‘The Art of Bell Ringing’ set out seemingly disparate subjects, one stanza at a time, like torn-off strips stuck onto the page: Roosevelt in his boat cloak, soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge, Brancusi, a boy stealing eggs.  The notion of bell ringing invoked in the title suggests repetition and chime and this encourages the reader to find resonances between these seemingly unconnected strands.  And by introducing a bolt of human feeling into the centre of the poem with the startling statement: ‘I no longer want to know the names of human things’, the disparate strands are gathered together and given meaning; this is a powerful exploration of war, death and the pain of memory.

Elements of collage are even more obvious in the poems that are double-spaced and where each line, more or less, comprises a complete sentence. Sometimes, when a poem takes this form, the absence of any enjambment can give it a stolid, list-like quality, with no resonance in the line endings, no possibility to discover music in the breath of the line.  In some of Alvarez’ one-sentence-per-line poems, ‘The Lace Makers’ for example, I found the lack of any tension around the line caused an overall impression of sagginess in both form and content.

Alvarez writes well about family relationships and the collection is alive with portraits of mothers, fathers, grandfathers and great aunts.  Never sentimental, these poems often show a real sense of excavating the past through the writing, unearthing memories with the pen in an attempt to fix a portrait of the person within the poem. In ‘Great Aunt’s Diary’ the speaker is searching for memories:

When I was grown and she no longer with us,
I searched for traces of her gentle hands,
her choir voice.

She finds the great aunt’s typewriter in the tool shed with a ‘butter-yellow’ page from her daybook still in the roller and the great aunt writes herself back into life, back into the poem.

Similarly, in the wonderfully titled ‘Abstraction Is Enchanted Ground and I have Something Terrible to Paint Before Harvest Time’, memories of a grandfather are interweaved with descriptions of the painting process itself:

the richest blue for water, thirty browns for beach grass.
Blend into sky where tree begins and ends.

Through similarities of colour and texture, a Van Gogh wheat field evokes memories of a linen sofa the speaker once sat on beside the grandfather.  The title’s use of Van Gogh’s statement about abstraction being enchanted ground sets the reader thinking about memory and abstraction, memory and perception, how we piece the world together around us.  In these family portraits, the act of painting or the act of writing makes something real again, something actual in the form of the poem or the painting, to counteract absence and loss.

As well as a poet, Alvarez is also a visual artist and teaches art at many institutions.  It is not surprising that the human impulse ‘to create’ is at the heart of many of her poems.  The collection is busy with people making, doing, grafting and she often uses notions of making as a way to explore dark themes. In ‘The Piñata Maker’, the hollow forms of donkeys and bears painstakingly made from ‘wet paper ribbons’ swing on ceiling hooks while the carniceria’s caged animals ‘blink in the twilight before dinner’.  In ‘War Doll’, soldiers returned home from war pass the time with the therapeutic job of putting new heads on broken dolls.

In ‘Counterspell’, a teacher is watching a child draw an apparatus ‘to keep out evil’.  The poem skilfully moves between the boy’s developing drawing, ‘The magnetic safety shield of light blue crayon’, the tanks and ‘atomic explosives’, and the teacher’s thoughts provoked by such images:

I tell him to make one tiny entry to reach the gold.

I would have made the treasure miniature
but he sketches a big yellow mango

hanging with a crown at the top.
I don’t tell him what I read today –

about the dogs left behind in Chernobyl.

The teacher then sees herself as a child:

Remembering my own small fingers
reaching into the dollhouse to fix a calico curtain.

Before I knew the world was not in good hands.
Peacefully they sat at the dining table – porcupine, bear, mouse.

I love the depth of colour in this poem: the blue crayon, the miniature gold, the big yellow mango. The imaginary worlds of boy and teacher take their place in the collection alongside other created worlds: a Piranesian prison made from a leaf, a shoebox diorama of bonsai forests and extinct species, a house for breath made out of glass.  These imagined worlds are places in which to explore notions of reality and perception, safety and risk, our place in the world.

This is a collection of many different registers and styles, restless and exuberant, measured and contained.  At times I felt there were several different books or chapbooks here with an array of competing themes and styles.   Alvarez, is at her best when writing about memory, absence and loss, the cat, ‘filling the hawthorn tree with hunger’, the deer-hunter broken by the eyes of his kill embodying ‘the urge of the flower to open’.

The poem ‘Mysterium Tremendum’ is one of the most powerful poems I’ve read about childlessness, evoking both spiritual hunger and the hunger to have a child

Mother and child, gilded and radiant,
you are the paintings I look at longest.
No men in the gentle madonna worlds.
Light blazes from the unknown into all
the mornings and nights
I do not have a child to hold.

These are powerful poems with thunderbolt lines of emotion catching you unawares, and it is well worth reading through the collection to find them.