The Word Made Flesh:
On Encountering the Work of Marcel Broodthaers
My husband and I fantasize about what we will do when we abandon poetry. He says cobbler. I choose seamstress. Anything to avoid the existential aggravation that comes from tying yourself in knots for a readership that seems to be made up almost exclusively of other poets. We got to see just such a transition enacted at MoMA’s retrospective of the work of Marcel Broodthaers, a Belgian poet turned visual artist, who died in 1976 at the age of 52.
Broodthaers announced his abandonment of poetry and embrace of the visual arts in 1964, after having spent several months holed up in his new studio. In the catalogue for his first show, he wrote: “I, too, wondered whether I could not sell something and succeed in life. For some time, I have been no good at anything. Finally the idea of inventing something insincere crossed my mind and I set to work straightaway.”
In that first show, Broodthaers encased leftover copies of his book, Pense-Bête, in plaster, eggshells, and plastic balls. The overall effect is both desecratory and dear. While it clearly could be interpreted as a rejection of poetry—“I am done with this art and all its petty, ephemeral preoccupations, I therefore subsume it into the more substantial, ocular, high-flying conceptual world”—it also has a quality of grasping for solidity and permanence, as if the paper and sentiment that make up these poems are too fragile to hold up to the forces of the world without a little plaster to stabilize them.
Though I identify strongly with the artwork Pense-Bête, I am most attracted to the work that immediately follows. Broodthaers spent from 1964 to 1968 building large sculptural pieces featuring shellacked mussel shells and others from heaps of cracked egg shells.
Granted, I am susceptible to the pretty, and these pieces are very pretty in their monochromatic simplicity and fragility. I cannot stop thinking about how hard it must be to transport these pieces from one place to another without a catastrophe of shattering shells. But I am also reminded of the Zen saying: “No matter how many times you say the word water, it will never be wet.” Of course, it is an exhortation toward direct experience, though when I first heard it, I resisted its tone of wise certainty. I do believe in the power of words. I believe in the power of words to make me feel wet even when my skin and hair remain dry. But even as an evangelist of the word, I am moved by the directness of Broodthaers’s eggs and mussels. They transport me to another family’s breakfast table. Into the life of a lonely office worker stopping for Moules-frites on his way home to his dim apartment. They reek with sorrow for the chickens and the mussels, too. And what about the busboy who cleared the plates? Who separated the trash?
There is one piece in particular that reveals the shallowness of Broodthaers’s bravado. He said he did it for the money, the art, but Maria is where his tenderness leaks through. Maria is simple enough—a navy blue housedress hung on a wooden hanger with the belt draping from it as it would in the closet. Tied to the bottom of the right sleeve is a paper shopping sack printed with a faded cheese ad dotted with broken eggshells. As these things do, the dress seems impossibly small and frail. But the cracked, stained, and haphazard eggshells glued to the shopping bag are all dailiness and loss and brokenness. It is as if mortality attached itself to a shopping bag.
It makes me feel naïve and provincial to respond to a major New York retrospective in such a simplistic emotional way. And in ordinary times, I would have walked away with a vague sense of affection for Broodthaers and his tender and rollicking transition from poet to conceptualist. But on March 21, 2016—two days after we visited MoMA—three men blew themselves up in massive, coordinated bombings in Brussels. Two were in the airport. One was at a Metro station. Thirty-two people were killed, and over 300 were injured. The news of the attacks spurred another worldwide wave of fear and recrimination, knocking even Donald Trump out of the headlines for a while. Even then he was already was ever-present in the news, though we did not yet know what was to come.
Though I hate to admit such superficiality, the experience of having been to the Broodthaers exhibit made Belgium feel much closer. Not only could I envision Brussels more clearly, but it sharpened my physical connection to the event itself. I could almost feel the reverberations of the blasts tremor through my body.
In the ensuing—and righteous—debate over why we publicly mourn brutal attacks in Brussels and Paris more than we do the ones in Lahore and Iskandariya and Kabul, we are right to question whether we are racist and colonialist and Euro-centric in valuing some lives over others. But I wonder if some of our failures in attention also stem from a lack of imagination. That is not to say that we should not interrogate our own callousness toward brutality everywhere, particularly if it is informed by colonialism and racism, but it is to affirm the value of art like that of the Broodthaers shell period. The straightforward connection to the body created by pieces like Maria tied me to Belgium physically and viscerally, increasing my imagination in favor of the people of Brussels.
That is a feat in this era of 24-hour breaking news, maudlin public mourning, and compassion fatigue. Broodthaers delivers breakfasts and dinners and off-beat patriotism. He forces me to imagine chickens and dockworkers and dishwashers with their particular sufferings and quickly passing lives. His work expands who I worry about and who I mourn. It takes Belgium off the map and places it squarely in the kitchen. It makes metaphor three-dimensional. It gives poetry flesh.
Wendy Willis is a poet and essayist living in Portland, Oregon. She also serves as the Executive Director of the Deliberative Democracy Consortium, an organization representing more than 50 foundations, nonprofit organizations, and universities, collaborating to support research activities and advance democratic practice in North America and around the world. Willis’s next book of poems, A Long Late Pledge, will be released by Bear Star Press in September 2017.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.