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Hearing the Brush: A Response




Tucked near the back of Field Language[1] is a selection of Jane Rohrer’s poems, accompanied by her husband, Warren’s paintings. “Hearing the Brush”—a selection of 13 poems, twelve paintings, and two photographs—has the integrity of a stand-alone chapbook. The editors have created a nuanced arrangement that follows the arc of Jane’s development as a poet, her communion with Warren, and the emergence of a strong solo voice after his death. Not only does the arrangement track artistic development, it also sets up a conversation between word and image that creates a third dimension in its resonance in the reader/viewer’s reception of the work.[2]

Warren’s paintings take center stage in Field Language, the catalog published by the Palmer Museum of Art. But in “Hearing the Brush” Jane’s poems fill the page: the paintings reproduced in the lower right hand corner serve as gorgeous visual footnotes.

Such a playful size reversal brings Emily Dickinson to mind. A poet of brevity, she was enamored of invoking vast spaces in her compact poems -- “The brain is wider than the sky . . .” Likewise, Jane’s poems in this selection are “writ large” in the design of these pages, even as their compact language gestures towards Warren’s monumental paintings. In solidarity with Warren’s acts of looking, Jane looks at the world, too—often at the same fields, the same vistas—with a vision that allows space for his, too. But her point of view, which often includes Warren’s presence, offers a radically different perspective.

In the Field Language digital companion video, “Language and Land,” poet Julia Spicher Kasdorf says of the Rohrers, “It’s clear that they are both working from the same world,” Then she poses questions invited by the juxtaposition of their work: “How do you translate experience into something visual? How do you translate experience into something verbal?”

“Hearing the Brush” offers readers an opportunity to play with these questions.

The opening poem, “In the Studio,” draws the reader into layers of looking, complicating what it means “to see.” Its final line—“his ear close, hearing the brush”—provides the title for the exhibit. The title of the poem recalls Christina Rossetti’s famous poem written to her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “In an Artist’s Studio.”[3] Rossetti’s poem muses on the face that looks out from all of the canvases the artist has portrayed, but Rohrer’s poem is concerned with the artist himself as subject, and the ways he is represented.

In the poem, the speaker observes her husband, painting, as he is photographed by a documentary filmmaker; meanwhile, a local news photographer takes a picture of the artist as he is being filmed. “I am a camera” the poet declares, as she pictures the successive act of image-making for the reader: “Now you are in the picture.” To portray the artist who is focused on the painting the poet switches from sight to hearing: “his ear close, hearing the brush.” Vision is the most analytical sense; hearing the most spiritual. The hushed sound of “brush” at the poem’s end grants privacy to the painter in the midst of all this scrutiny, demonstrating that the artist is attuned to a world we cannot see, even though he paints it for our vision.

“In the Studio” shifts from the sense of sight to the sense of hearing, opening our awareness that Warren’s experience as artist is inaccessible to even his most intimate partner, save through his paintings. The gesture of listening to the brush is rendered even more poignant in the context of the inherited deafness that was part of Warren’s family.

Accompanying the poem are two photographs of Warren’s paints and palette, reinforcing the reader’s sense of presence in the studio.

Just as “In the Studio” asks readers to consider what kinds of information come from different senses, the act of reading Jane’s poems in tandem with Warren’s paintings demands that readers make a sensory shift from one mode of artistic expression (visual) to another (verbal). Weaving back and forth from viewing to reading, we sense the mysterious presence of what lies beyond the work—the acts of perception that inspired them.

A shared Modernist aesthetic informs both paintings and poems: they investigate the materials and processes of their own creation. In other words, they are not about something else as much as they are about the intrigue of their own creation. Jane’s poems are meta-poetical, about language, just as Warren’s paintings are about the ways in which color and brushstroke and layers combine to create textures that intrigue the eye. Another shared element is the use of layers: Warren planned elaborate layers of color and stroke to achieve the effects of his paintings, Jane uses syntax as well as shades of meaning.

“Daily Life,” for instance, is a single sentence, but most of the poem is contained in an extended parenthetical between the first work and the final phrase. In the poem, the speaker lies in a hammock and observes her husband “revolve” around her the parenthetical structure of the poem creating a sort of verbal hammock between the posts of first and last lines.

“Tracking the Amish Quilt,”[MOU1] the longest poem, central to the grouping, begins with an extended parenthetical, referencing the 1971[4] landmark exhibition of Amish Quilts at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, which elevated them from useful craft items to “art objects” in the minds of the public and collectors. The poem tracks a journey the speaker takes with her Amish neighbor, Lizzie, to see a quilt at Lizzie’s mother’s house. Waiting for the others to join her, the poet notices Lizzie’s husband Elmer in the field: “threading the/ rows with seed, covering his straight/design. God.” Then she notices a ragged quilt of great beauty tossed out beside the barn. Lizzie offers her the quilt: “Oh that/ old thing. You make have it, it’s worn out./ What are you looking for?” The poet’s act of “looking for” becomes the poem’s subject.

This is one of the few poems in the collection not centered on Warren. Rather, the poet observes and evaluates the world around her, weighing the value judgements of that world. She observes the ways in which the hierarchical structure of Amish belief is manifest in their lives, boys following in the wake of their father’s plow, women planting flowers “according to authority.”

In hopes that her trip will bring her to a quilt she is imagining—“my naïve Rothko quilt”— she finds instead

A Nine Patch Square. Its center grows old

in a newly grafted border field,

so informed, so practical, so ugly.

The best of both worlds. A stitch in time.

The quilt’s aesthetic value has been ruined by contemporary mending. (In fact, after Amish quilts gained price value after the Whitney exhibit, many Amish quilters attempted to reproduce the older style of quilts but used modern synthetic fabrics, rendering them uninteresting to collectors.) Noting with an ironic smirk her own disappointment in the quilt, the speaker suggests that her own values depart from both those of the Amish, and those of art trendsetters.

Suppose the small facts of my life

Are scattered, that I must look

For them down these side roads

As though they are lambs

Forgotten, left

Out in the

Meadow—

Mind.

The art of the poet finds its way in its own making.

Warren’s “Fields: Amish I” (1974), is paired with this poem. Whether or not Warren’s paintings were influenced by Amish quilts is a question for debate, but there is certainly a conversation between them. (For more on this, see Ervin Beck’s review of Field Language in this issue, as well as Janneken Smucker’s chapter in Field Language, “Tracking the Amish Quilt,” titled after Jane’s poem.) In the “Mennonite Creator’s Group” discussion, Warren calls the aesthetic of Amish quilts “abstract depressionism,” because they are so locked in, so framed by received tradition. Smucker notes in her chapter that gender roles remained scripted in Jane and Warren’s relationship as well, especially on the farm (Field Language, 79). Yet Jane embraced her role as Warren’s partner in art as well as in life, and had already begun to participate in a poetry writing group in Lancaster while living on the farm . Again, in the “Mennonite Creator’s Group” summary in this issue, John Ruth suggests that we only see the artistic merits of quilts because we have been instructed to do so by experts. Jane disagrees, confident in her aesthetic instincts—“No, if I would have seen them, I would have known they were good, but they weren't shown.”

With the exception of “Tracking the Amish Quilt,” most of Jane’s poems are not narratives, but lyrical compositions assembled from moments in her “meadow mind.” Jane had been raised on a farm, but in Virginia, where her father raised Tennessee walking horses.[5] The next four poems in the collection--“Pictures at an Exhibition,” “Red Flannel,” “Farm in my Mind,” and “Metaphor”—all incorporate images from her landscape of origin in Virginia, as well as from a time after the Rohrers had moved back to the city from their farm in Christiana.

Warren and Jane met in Virginia during the summer after Jane graduated from Eastern Mennonite School[6]. In the fall Jane joined Warren at Eastern Mennonite College (now, University) in Harrisonburg, VA, not far from Jane’s home in Broadway, VA.

“Picture at an Exhibition” evokes glimpses of the landscape of Jane’s Virginia birthplace, triggered when Warren picks up binoculars at the breakfast table to discover the source of a “red streak” he sees at a distance. The pictures in this exhibition include a cameo of Warren, but also glimpses of a world she holds in her memory before she met him, before “the west wood” was cut down. She instructs readers, over and over, to “imagine,” to bring the images to life in their own minds.

In “Red Flannel,” the poet reads a description “on page thirty-five” in the Red Flannel Rag of “my great uncle Luther Kirkpatrick … meanest man in Hopkins Gap.” Seeing his name reminds her of Twenty Minutes in June, the title of Warren’s painting accompanying this poem. Specifying both the page number and a light-specific time period is a way of playing with the relationship of verbal and visual arts to time.[MOU2] The path of Jane’s poem leads us from the specific to the speculative as she addresses an imaginary Luther, places him in her imaginary wheel barrow, and lugs him to the Art Museum, “where you might feel at home/ with the villagers of Hieronymous Bosch.” Jane’s implicit comparison between painting and poetry echoes that of Georg Lessing in his essay on Laocöon, in which he argues that painting and the visual arts are necessarily limited to one moment in time, whereas literary arts thrive on time and a succession of moments.

“Farm in My Mind” comes closest to abstraction in its conceptual structure of any of Jane’s other poems in the collection. The poet conceptualized the world as divided in two, symbolized[MOU3] by lower and upper lower fields in the farm of the poet’s mind, matched by the actual upper and lower fields at the Rohrers’ Christiana, PA farm. The two fields of the poem contain, respectively, the past and present, existing in tandem, a theme that is re-echoed in some of her poems of mourning. The poet gives one example of the “they” who “stay in the lower field,” her mother, whose appearance is more a dream-like visitation than a visit. Meanwhile, the poet tells us she lives “most of the time” in an “everywhere” that is the “upper field.” Here, the sun shines, “rain baptizes the shingles” and “children laugh from high in the orchard.” Implicitly, because the upper field is “everywhere,” it contains the lower field as well. However, the poet doesn’t seem eager or able to visit it on her own. The poem is hauntingly paired with Warren’s painting “Yellow Yellow.” In spite of its double title, the painting consists of a single panel, a broad golden middle group, with a light band of yellow horizon above and a darker band at the bottom of the painting. Although the painting is non-figurative, the eye wants to read it as a landscape, with a sky and an underground.

In “Metaphor,” conceptually titled, Jane embeds a recollection of the twenty years she spent on the farm – absorbing “the look of the orchard and the fields” . . .

until, in loneliness,

one day I left it

and began to long for it

like everybody else.

The gap between the immediacy of the moment and the memory of that moment is the precondition of art. We strive to recreate, in words or images, moments of presence in which our participation was so total that art making was rendered unnecessary – until later, when the moment has evaporated. One thinks of Wordsworth’s definition for poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of emotion, recollected in tranquility.” In the poem’s final stanza, the distance between past and present, signifier and signified, collapses into a single overheard word. But instead of giving us the word, the poet keeps us hanging in the in-between space of possibility. Warren’s “Hornet’s Nest” is an intriguing pairing for this poem. Painted the year before the Rohrer’s moved to the farm, it predates Jane’s poem by over twenty years. Yet, its composition, in which a nest-like shape is surrounded by a field, suggests the possibility of worlds existing within worlds.

The last four of the thirteen poems in this selection are poems of mourning, in which Warren is very much presence in his absence.

“Widow” invokes Warren’s beloved trope, boustrophedon, the ancient Greek metaphor for writing, the back and forth movement of ox and plow in a field. The back and forth motion in this poem is also a form imposed on grief, to make it bearable. The pairing of the poem with Warren’s nearly white painting, “Back and forth,” keeps Warren’s presence close, the memory of a field deeply covered in snow.

“Fields in Snow” is an elegy in which the poet addresses her lost husband in a voice that could also be a prayer. Again, Jane explores the tension between signifier (word) and signified (field):

But, is it landscape

or is it art?

It’s all so confusing

with you coming from the other side.

She notes the calligraphy of broken cornstalks in the snow-covered field – or is it a canvas? Is it snow, or is it the colors of white, the lure her beyond the material sphere? The final image returns us to earth, and to duality. “We’ve been split like a schist./ Here I am, there you are, parallel.” In using the image of a schist for her union with Warren, she chooses a material of earth—metamorphic rock endemic to the soil. The schist is formed by pressure, but its layers can also be chipped off. Although Warren is no longer present in the “upper field” of her life, he still has his part of the schist in that other word, suggesting that their union survives this transmutation.

In this final selection of poems, the poem/painting pairings are especially evocative. Viewed together they suggest a third dimension beyond either art form—a dimension that exists between the paired works and the receptive reader/viewer. They draw us into the union of word and image. In Warren’s “Field: Two Marks,” a rose hue seems to press up against the whitish surface, while a grey layer at the edges suggests a slate-like bedrock. Larger markings in the whitish surface look like letters not yet readable as a message. The diptych is stacked vertically, suggesting the upper and lower fields of Jane’s poem, “Farm in My Mind.”

“Valentine” is paired with an untitled oil on canvas, a white painting with a lower back border, looking rather like a piece of manuscript with small rows of letter-like markings. The impossible offering of a “valentine of snow” evokes the fingers and lips of the beloved, no longer present or able to melt the fragile missive.

Throughout the four poems that conclude the selection, the poet moves from the confining traces of her deep grief to more expansive pastures of mourning. In the final poem, “Leaving Venice,” she has traveled far to a new—yet ancient—setting, symbolic of art, grandeur, and loss. Addressing the reader on her departure, she laments how little of her experience she can take with her, let alone articulate. “If you go for more than a minute/ you will die for its decaying perfection when you leave . . .” she laments. “You will come to sound like a lonely cello./ But then I am not talking about Venice.” The selection closes with “Two Elements,” an oil painting by Warren in deep indigo and purples—the complementary reds and blues making up a gorgeous spectrum of color in their mixing. When I look into it after reading Jane’s poem, I can imagine that a glimpse of Venice has just disappeared beyond the horizon of purple waters, rippling beneath a darkening blue sky.

Writing this review during COVID-19, as yet only able to peruse the paintings in the gorgeously printed catalog, I am especially grateful for the ways in which word and image, skillfully forged and paired, have the power to bring absent things to mind. For this section of the book alone, the catalog is worth the price; the entire book contains many more treasures. Studying this work has only sharpened my desire to get even closer. I can hardly wait to walk in the exhibit spaces and to experience the actual paintings in the company of poems.



[1] Kasdorf et al., eds. Field Language: The Painting and Poetry of Warren and Jane Rohrer, Palmer Museum of Art, University Park, PA: Penn State Univ. Press, 2020.

[2] It also offers a glimpse of the Woodmere exhibit, “Hearing the Brush,” which will open April 9, 2022 and run through July 10, 2022.

[3] Christina Rossetti, “In an Artist’s Studio.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/146804/in-an-artist39s-studio

[4] The actual exhibit was in 1971. See Janneken Smucker, “‘Tracking the Amish Quilt’” in Field Language, 66.

[5] Hostetler, Ann, ed. A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Univ. of Iowa Press, 2003), 9.

[6] For more fascinating detail on this event and much more in Jane’s life, see Julia Kasdorf’s biographical essay, “Truths of a Woman’s Life” in Field Language.


About the Author

Ann Hostetler

Ann Hostetler is the editor of A Cappella: Mennonite Voices in Poetry (Univ. of Iowa Press 2003) and author of a collection of poems, Empty Room with Light (Dreamseeker Books 2002). Her poems and essays have appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies including The American Scholar, Nimrod, Poet Lore, The Valparaiso Poetry Review, Literary Mama, Rhubarb Magazine, Testimonies and Tongue Screws: Poems, Stoires, and Essays Inspired by the Martyr's Mirror, and Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets (2010). A professor of English at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, she is the web site editor of the Center for Mennonite Writing and co-editor of its Journal.