Poetry

“Private Collection,” by Shelley Wong

 

Private Collection

            At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 
the ocean drawn in pencil is no longer 
            on display. I once thought I could wreck
…………………that water. My partner liked a painting

            of a blonde woman reading a newspaper,
a sister to a Dutch painting I admired
            back in New York, where a woman 
                         contemplates a water pitcher 

            in cathedral light. We walked gallery to gallery 
& no women resembled us. I’m charmed
            by certain French words, but forget what they mean
                         & never properly pronounce them—

……….mélange, de rigueur, au courant. Sometimes
couples become echoes of one another.
            We wore quiet glasses, our hair in low ponytails
                         like George Washington. She would photograph me 

            when I looked away from her, as I glanced
at the curves of the Grand Tetons, a curator’s note
            on the lone Greek caryatid at the British Museum
                         or a winter forest floor 

            somewhere in Oregon when we were nineteen 
& I couldn’t meet the camera’s gaze,
            though I knew she was there & that she 
                    would hold me, from a distance.

 

“Private Collection” will be published in As She Appears from YesYes Books in 2022 and is used here with permission of the author. Preorder the collection hereListen to Shelley Wong read the poem here

 

Shelley Wong is the author of As She Appears(YesYes Books, 2022), winner of the 2019 Pamet River Prize, and the chapbook RARE BIRDS (Diode Editions, 2017). Her poems have appeared in American Poetry ReviewGulf CoastKenyon Review, and The New Republic and are forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2021 and New England Review. She has received a Pushcart Prize and fellowships from MacDowell, Kundiman, and Vermont Studio Center. She is an affiliate artist at Headlands Center for the Arts and lives in San Francisco. 

 

Poet’s Note

At the end of 2018, SFMOMA presented a Vija Celmins retrospective, her first in North America in more than twenty-five years (she is 82 years old). That abundance called me back to my first viewing of her work at the museum with my partner at the time. I kept seeing echoes across art, memory, and place. Writing the poem enacted a retrospection on youthful queer longing and imagining.

 

Commentary by Amanda Moore

As the world reopens and we are able to find safe ways to reengage with activities, outings, and locations previously shut down due to the pandemic, I am thrilled to be rediscovering my favorite art museums, which I appreciate anew after so much time away. In returning to galleries and paintings I’ve visited before, I am not only able to enjoy these works in the current moment, but I also feel my previous selves and experiences alongside me, informing my reactions and feelings and creating a conversation across, time, space, and memory. 

Today’s poem, “Private Collection” by Shelley Wong, perfectly captures this experience of museum-going. It begins in the present tense at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which happens to be my hometown museum and one of my all-time favorites, noting not which exhibit or painting the speaker is visiting but rather that “the ocean drawn in pencil is no longer / on display.” What is on display isn’t mentioned, however, because the poem’s narrative goes on to follow a thread of association, filling the gallery where the speaker doesn’t find the drawing with, instead, layers of memory and consciousness: paintings, a lover, landscapes, and photographs that combine to become an exhibit of its own, albeit a private one that only the speaker can experience.

With a few deft moves in the poem’s opening, Wong covers a lot of narrative ground, taking us from a present moment in the gallery through a memory of an impulse the speaker had in the past while viewing the previously mentioned, now-absent ocean drawing (“I once thought I could wreck / that water.”). Next, the speaker moves on to two other paintings she viewed in the past: one her partner liked “of a blonde woman reading a newspaper” and “a sister” painting which the speaker “admired / back in New York.” We cross time and distance here, moving from one side of the country to the other, San Francisco in the present to New York in the past, and are exposed to three works of art that crowd the speaker’s consciousness. The two “sister” paintings are of women, a blonde reader and “a woman / [who] contemplates a water pitcher,” giving rise to the revelation that, as the speaker and partner wandered from gallery to gallery, they found that “no women resembled” them.

The speaker and her partner’s inability to find a likeness of themselves in the galleries and paintings opens a few streams of commentary within the poem. One is about who consumes art, especially in museums, and while this is rich territory to explore, particularly in consideration of the poem’s title and the reference to the “curator’s note” in the British Museum, I’m much more interested in what it says about the subjects of the paintings and the speaker herself. Based on the poem’s description, I’m guessing the speaker is talking about the work of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer, perhaps “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window” or “Woman Reading a Letter” (I’m partial to the first because the subject is more noticeably “blonde”) and “The Milkmaid” or “Young Woman with a Water Pitcher.” The women in these paintings from the 1600s are depicted in the domestic sphere, participating in quiet, domestic activities. They are white, likely European, dressed in period clothing, and playing traditional roles, not the least of which is as a subject of an idealized portrait. 

In contrast, the speaker and her partner are modern and wear “quiet glasses, [their] hair in low ponytails,” resisting models of traditional femininity and domesticity. The poem highlights the couple’s travels to such places as the Grand Tetons, England, and Oregon, a contrast to the single small corner of home “in cathedral light” where Vermeer set many of his paintings. Significant as well is that the speaker compares herself and her partner to George Washington, whose portraits depict him crossing the Delaware in full uniform or posing for his presidential portrait, images evoking independence, daring, and authority more representative of these modern women than the quiet, domestic, Eurocentric scenes of Vermeer’s work.

One of the most compelling elements of the speaker’s struggle to find her resemblance or analog in museums is informed by the poem’s queer sensibility and experience. This piece centers on and celebrates a relationship between women not often depicted or represented openly in museum galleries, yet another way that Wong’s poem interrogates art and representation. It is significant that the women in the poem don’t simply consume art; the speaker’s partner makes art, and the speaker herself is the subject. Similar to Vermeer’s subjects, she does not meet the gaze of the camera or viewer, and she is depicted reading and observing. However, that she reads museum notes and observes the natural world makes her a more worldly figure. Moreover, the way she is “held” by her partner, even “from a distance,” is intimate, interactive, and tender, as opposed to how Vermeer observes his subjects from an objective, reserved point of view.

Despite the narrow margins of museums and classical paintings, the speaker doesn’t fully dismiss the joy of experiencing that art. Her introduction of “certain French words” reminds us that she can find things “charming,” even if she doesn’t know what they mean and can “never properly pronounce them.” She and her partner admire the Vermeer paintings in the same way she is charmed by expressions such as “mélange, de rigueur, au courant”—words she may not wield or understand but that nevertheless bring her delight and inform her imagination and understanding of the world. 

The title “Private Collection” speaks to the poem’s many layers and meanings, evoking from the very beginning the art world Wong explores in the poem. It of course connotes the exclusive nature of a museum or collector’s “private collection,” a phrase one would encounter on the label beside an artwork to indicate its source: collection, gift, or bequest. At the same time, it acknowledges the individual and the private way a viewer incorporates their “collection” of associations into the viewing of a piece. Standing in a museum gallery, our speaker sifts back through other galleries, thoughts, and experiences as a woman and as a partner, a private (re)collection of sorts. It is this reading of the title that invites me to explore my own series of associations, the poem enacting its meaning and creating an experience as surely as it conveys it. 

 

 

Amanda Moore‘s debut collection of poems, Requeening, was selected for the National Poetry Series and will be published by HarperCollins/Ecco in October 2021. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies including ZYZZYVA, Cream City Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Currently a Brown Handler Resident at the San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: Clementine Nelson.

 

 

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