The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer’s Life, by Darcy Cummings
Reviewed by Deborah Burnham
In The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer’s Life, (Bright Hill Press, 2006), Darcy Cummings has re-created Alice in Wonderland as a kunstlerroman, the story of an artist’s development. In a series of gorgeous lyric poems, some masked as letters, journal entries and artist’s notes, some cast as lullabies and songs, she traces Alice’s growth into an expert and visionary photographer whose most personal work is rooted in her ability to see beneath her subjects’ skins. None of us who loved Alice as a child (and as an adult) could be surprised at Cummings’ expert and visionary revision of the story. Lewis Carroll’s little girl who imagined her way into and out of a parallel world is clearly an artist, one who can look surreal terror in the face. Carroll might be surprised at the power and audacity of this re-made Alice’s spirit, or, then again, he might not.
As a child, Cummings’ Alice alarms her parents and teachers by her passionate, ‘feverish” response to their dry, unimaginative lessons. She finds disturbing energy in the music and drawing exercises that were meant to teach simple imitation, not insight. They give her tasks to calm her down, hemstitching and cautionary tales, hoping she will become calm and humble. But fortunately for this Alice, the lessons do not restrain her imagination, the visionary power that lets her draw white roses and mice around her lessons, or lets her dream of infants with hooves peeking from their white sleeves.
Past childhood, into puberty, early marriage and motherhood, Alice continues to trust and welcome her intrusive, renegade impulses. In “Like a Blind Child”, she learns the dangerous glory of her body, hearing sudden winds and the “shrieks of small rabbits/bounding beneath my skin”. She grows into a young woman who believes absolutely in the possibility of transformation, in the world and in her mind and body.
Even before she declares herself an artist, she refuses the easy, the sentimental, the static. She says an emphatic no to china painting lessons, to such earnest dabbling because “violet and green/fly from my palms like shattered stars.” In “The True Subject of Photographs”, she says “I’m unlocking light, catching the rasp and tremor/of bee on flower”. She will not fall into cliché: “No still life of tiger lilies/in a glass vase, no compliant children.”
She becomes a skilled professional photographer who understands her gift, her vision so clearly that she keeps two portraits of every subject: the expected, public view and her private image, the one that pleases her. She studies psychic science, first to connect with those she has lost, and later to find all that she has forgotten, the “larks/urgent before kestrels”, the “flash of yellow and black wings.” Thus, she learns to see the memories and experience contained in hands, even in stones. She travels to California and to Mexico with an old friend, the painter who once wanted to domesticate her talent but who now seems to understand the depth and power of her vision. She finds companionship and a kind of happiness, but most important, the courage to continue pushing the limits of her art. Determined, stubborn, she photographs her own hand, a “crouching crab, dense spider, weary, but willing/to resume work tomorrow.”
In a series of richly visual and deeply musical poems, Cummings has reshaped Alice into an artist who, like her source, is unafraid of the surreal, of the dark truth hiding under all skin. The poems are carefully connected following Alice’s growth in body, mind and vision, but are also full of surprises. I found myself thinking “really?” at the beginning of many of the poems, but then “of course”, a reaction which shows how Cummings understands her subject, and how she follows the visionary logic of her re-made biography. As a life-long Alice-lover, I was initially skeptical, but became convinced that she has seen greater possibilities in Carroll’s child than I could ever have imagined. Her Alice challenges the reader to seek out the connections among human, animal and earth, the echoes in “our bones’ infinitely small cells/those unmuted, teeming chambers:/ what hums in us.”
The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer’s Life, Bright Hill Press, 2006. 86 pp.
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
The Artist as Alice: From a Photographer’s Life, by Darcy Cummings Reviewed by Deborah Burnham