Be Still: Poems for Kay Sage by Nadia Wolnisty

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To touch someone well is difficult. Saying, Here, take my hand requires courage I simply do not have. I am a coward. Physical touch terrifies me. Part of this is trauma, part is mental illness, and part of it is just my personality. I am uncomfortable nearly one hundred per cent of the time. Having a body is a mistake, and I think it’s rude to point out someone else’s errors. Please don’t hug me goodbye. That moment will feel so infinite and fragile, like a small painting in a forgotten corner of a museum.

If touch is so difficult for someone like me, then imagine me trying to touch the dead. I have never been around corpses: just the moments after and the bags of flesh that sincerely tried but wound up in hospitals instead. I don’t think I would make a great mortician. Besides being dreadful at higher learning, I know I’m not gentle enough.

But one dead person I try to touch over and over is Kay Sage. She’s an obscure American Surrealist painter.  I don’t know where she’s buried, and, of course, my desires are not literal.  We’ve never even met.

My first encounter with Sage was with her painting I Saw Three Cities. I was around fifteen, I think. It was during summer break, and my parents took me to the Phoenix Art Museum to see the Surrealist exhibition. (What pretentious fifteen-year-old doesn’t like Dali?)

Danger, Construction Ahead
fair use Kay Sage Date: 1940

I’m not sure what I wanted to do, exactly, but it involved my body.  Perhaps I wanted to peel off my hoodie and jeans that I was wearing despite the Arizona heat and jump in, as if the painting were a cool lake. Perhaps I wanted to crumple the painting and shove it into my mouth. Or just give it a good lick. All I did, though, given the security guards, was look at the plaque and tell myself Remember this; this is important.

Sage was born in 1898 in Albany, New York. She lived with her mother in Paris and moved around Europe. After World War I, she studied in Rome at the British School and the New School of Fine Arts. In 1925, she married Prince Ranieri di San Faustino. During their ten year marriage, Sage was reportedly miserable and painted only a little. By chance, she met the poet Pound and the sculptor Henghes, who encouraged her to keep painting.

After her divorce from San Faustino, Sage had a celebrated exhibit at Paris, where she met fellow surrealists Breton and Tanguy. Soon, Tanguy and Sage became romantically involved and later married. The lovers moved to New York when World War II broke out and then relocated to Connecticut.  Sage had exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Wadsworth Antheneum.

Despite her success, Sage was reportedly an unhappy woman. She was described as difficult and high-strung. Furthermore, her fellow Surrealists did not welcome her into their ranks. Breton, in particular, used her wealthy background and privileged lifestyle to try to undermine her legitimacy as an artist. Tanguy was also known as being difficult, frequently shouting at his own guests. Rumors of domestic abuse circled the pair.

Between 1937 and 1955, Sage produced the bulk of her paintings, honing her signature style of austere landscapes, gray-green tones, architectural elements, and a somber stillness. In 1955, her husband Tanguy suddenly died, and Sage fell into a deep depression. She also started developing cataracts and had undergone several botched surgeries. In 1959, she attempted suicide by overdosing on pills. Her maid found her and drove her to the hospital. In 1963, she shot herself fatally in the heart. Her last diary entry reads There is nothing left to do but scream.

Those are the facts, as I understand them, insofar as someone’s biography can be summed up and solidified. Sage is not one of the artists like Dali or Tanguy where you can find dozens of articles on Google or an affordable used book. (Last time I looked for a book on Sage, Amazon’s price was $200.00.) I could speculate why she hasn’t risen to the ranks of a household name, but, again, the information of anything having to do with Sage is incredibly sparse. The fact that the other Surrealists did not accept her could not have helped. Being married to Tanguy could not have helped. I don’t know why she means so much to me, so I cannot possibly know why the public all-but forgot about her.

But I don’t want people to forget. Every year, I give myself a poetic project, a poetic goal. 2015 was to perform my poetry publically. 2017 and 2018 were to get one hundred rejection letters as a way of forcing myself to submit. In 2019, I want to write a book. I have published a few chapbooks, and I stand by my work, but I want to try something different.

I have a tendency to rush. I am profoundly ungentle. I know I can churn out an okay book in a month or so. But I don’t want that. I want to give this all I’ve got. Furthermore, I want to write as not-me. People have told me I have a strong personality, and I always blithely say Thank you, even though I know it’s not necessarily a compliment.

The bulk of my poetry up until now has been highly confessional. It’s had odd ramifications. People assume they know you because you are so frank. They don’t know you adore the color yellow and have an impish sense of humor. They don’t know that you memorized everything they’ve ever told you about their grandmother because you could tell it was important. All they know is the hospital rooms you’ve talked about, the massive fracture in your tailbone, and that you have difficulty touching people. They will never guess that there are things you will never, ever write about, because you’ve told strangers so much shit already.

The editor asked me what this project is and why Kay Sage means so much to me. I’m writing a book. One poem for each painting and whatever else to get the page count. I’m doing it as a way to lie and tell the truth about myself at the same time.

I don’t know why Kay Sage means so much to me, and why I want to hold her in my mouth gently, but I would like to leave you with an image. I’m more of a doodler than a painter, but I want to give you this.

In 2017, you publish your first chapbook. You write about the time your mother tried to kill herself and said it was your fault. You write about what it was like to orgasm while being raped. You write about how it hurts so much now to touch anyone. You write about therapy.

In fall of 2018, your publisher invites to Kansas City, Missouri and read to a crowd of strangers and friends. From Dallas, you drive up with your friend and listen to Janelle Monae to keep awake. There are two jammed packed days of beer and cigarettes, and, of course, poetry.

You joke with your pressmate that you’re siblings now and that your publisher is your dad. Hey, you say, Dad, tell me you’re proud of me, while laughing.

On the third day, it’s your turn. You read a poem about OCD, a poem about being beaten, a poem about a Kay Sage painting and what it’s like to not have a face. You end on a poem about not being able to touch.

You look up, and the whole room is crying.

Your publisher is leaving the day before you are. He packs up the unsold books into boxes you can get at dollar stores. He hugs you goodbye. He says I love you, and I’m so proud of you.

You think of it days later, driving home from shitty office job that fires you the next week. You cry the whole way home.

Works Referenced
Blumberg, Naomi and Chakrabarty, Sonia. Kay Sage: American Painter and Poet. Encyclopedia
Britannica, 3 Sept. 2015. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Kay-Sage . Accessed on 23 November 2018.
Suther, Judith D. A House of Her Own: Kay Sage, Solitary Surrealist.  Lincoln, University of
Nebraska Press, 1997.
Wolnisty, Nadia. Manual. Buffalo, CWP Collective, 2017.
Wolnisty, Nadia. A Zoo. Georgetown, Finishing Line Press, 2018.

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