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The Man Who Best Drew Women by Martin Gray
reviewed by Carmelo Militano

The Man Who Best Drew Women
Martin Gray

Ekstasis Editions


There is in Canadian letters a consistent use of poetry (a tradition?) to explore the life and times of non-fictional artists or historical figures. Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie, Gwendolyn McEwen’s The T.E. Lawrence Poems, Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter (Jazz originator Buddy Bolen) and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid and Mary di Michele’s The Flower of Youth (the young Pasolini), to name a few, are fine examples of works that use prose poetry and poetry to explore turbulent or complicated personalities and the arc of their life and times. Of course, there may be more to this list that I have mentioned, but for now we can include for certain Martin Gray’s The Man Who Best Drew Woman, a long narrative poem on the life and art of Amedeo Modigliani.

Gray is no slouch when it comes to writing poetic biography. In 1998 he released Blues for Bird, a 5,400-line biographical poem written in tri-meter on the life and times of Jazz great Charlie Parker, and a few years later in 2004 he published another long biographical poem Jackson Pollock: Memories Arrested in Space.

Gray is also an internationally recognized authority on the 19th century poet Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The general outline of Modigliani’s life, or ‘Dedo’ as he was known to his family and ‘Modi’ to his friends, has a ready-made drama built into it. He dies at the age of 35 penniless in Paris, January 24, 1920 of complications due to Pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of his lungs and which may have included TB and pneumonia. His death more than likely accelerated by copious drinking and drug use, a maniacal painting schedule, and not to mention his refusal to get medical help. Two days after his death his twenty-two-year-old wife Jeanne Hebuterne, eight months pregnant with their second child, jumps to her death from the fifth floor of her parent’s apartment.

In between his arrival in Paris in 1906 and his death in 1920 (a mere fourteen years), there is his marriage to Jeanne, who he loved dearly but treated badly; a high-minded disdain for the ordinary, quarrels with his contemporaries such as Picasso and constant womanizing. There is also his addiction to drugs and alcohol, romantic liaisons with poets and writers such as the gifted Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and a hard-scrabble existence. He often sold his sketches and paintings for the price of a meal or a few glasses of wine. Modigliani was ignored and sold only a handful of paintings in his life time and was well-known as a quarrelsome, unpredictable, and often contradictory personality. He was also remarkably generous to many artists such as Utrillo and Soutine, and was known for the ‘purity’ of his vision and spirit in the artistic communities of Montparnasse and Montmartre in early 20th century Paris. While still alive, some of his fellow painters dubbed him the ‘Prince of the Bohemians’.

Modigliani arrived in Paris from Italy a handsome, cultured and cultivated painter and then proceeded to transform himself. He died a penniless martyr to art with a capital A and his artistic vision. He pretty much fit the early 19th century Romantic idea of the tortured genius who suffered for his art and was ‘bad, mad, and dangerous to know’ to quote the romantic poet Byron.

In that mad fourteen-year period he created hundreds of sketches now lost or destroyed by Modigliani because he considered them inferior. What remains are several hundred paintings; there is some dispute over the exact number since many forgies have cropped up over the years. Nevertheless, Modigliani’s work is essentially portraits, nudes, and sculptors. No landscapes or still life.

Gray chooses to enter and write about such a rich, intense and dramatic artistic life by taking a documentary point of view, and writes a series of fact-based portrait or imaged-based poems. The poems have no titles and begin simply with the number 1 and end with number 213 at Modigliani’s death, each poem following after another in a linear fashion. The narrative flow is not arrested or confused by jump-shots, so to speak, nor a movement back and forth in time

The poems start with his mother Eugenie ‘recognizing his style with great encouragement’ (No.4) and proceed step by step to show small intimate portraits of the Modigliani’s family setting, his development as an artist in school and later in Florence, Venice, and Rome, early flashes of impish behavior and erotic transgression (Modigliani said he seduced the family maid at 16) and so on.

The poems are each small set pieces or tiles some no more than five lines and are based on the ‘facts’ of Modigliani’s life admirably assembled elsewhere, especially in two recent biographies, one by Meryl Secrest’s biography Modigliani: A Life, and the other by Jeffery Meyers, also oddly called Modigliani: A life.

The poems or tiles collectively end up creating a large mosaic/ portrait of Modigliani from childhood to his tragic end as an adult, as well as providing some insight on his method, and how he viewed his work and how others viewed him as a working artist. The other notable feature about Gray’s method is his use of free form tri-meter and the absence of his voice. Gray is nowhere to be found in this work and the tone can best be described as neutral. Thus, the poems are easy to comprehend and do not challenge or provide us with anymore than the known narrative of Modigliani’s life. This ends up being both the strength and weakness of Gray’s long narrative poem. There are endless possibilities to speculate, imagine, adopt another’s voice – say Modigliani’s- or to enter into the interior life of such an passionate and complex painter who was also a lover of poetry and a poet. There is also the rich cast of his contemporaries. Instead, Gray sticks to the facts as documented elsewhere and converts for the most part the significant details of the life and art of Modigliani into transparent and uncomplicated poems. The result is that the narrative poem often sags in energy, and feels both prosaic and chilly. Gray’s desire to let the life and work speak for itself ends up sometimes creating poems with a flat surface regardless of the complexities of his use of rhythm, juncture, and accent in the various poems. It would have been far more interesting if Gray chose on occasion to enter into the consciousness of Modigliani or any other member in his orbit such as his wife Jeanne, or adopt the voice of say Picasso or even his mother in poetic form. This is not to suggest, however, there are no fine individual poems to be found in this long narrative and that Gray does not understand his subject. Poem #195 describing Jeanne and Modigliani’s love for her is beautifully rendered. The lucid poem #168 which quotes Modigliani on his method is picture perfect, no pun intended. The series of poems (#110-129) describing Modigliani’s passionate and sometimes violent relationship with Beatrice Hastings are also good examples of where letting events speak for themselves works very well. But a poem, in this case a long narrative poem, on an artist and poet whose artistic life had the elements of a Greek tragedy combined with a Horatio Alger rags to posthumous riches story suggests a different poetics, a different use of language, or even a more varied approach. Modigliani was an artist who was the proverbial blazing comet across the night sky, but he was also one who, like Yeats, could cast a cold eye on death and art in equal measure. Gray’s long poem The Man Who Best Drew Woman gets half of that equation. The rest is silence.

Carmelo Militano is a poet and novelist. His latest work is Lost Aria, a short story collection. (Ekstasis Editions, 2018)

This review originally appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books 24.