Writer James Crews

Writer James Crews (photo courtesy the author)

James Crews’ latest collection, The Book of What Stays, is full of evocative landscapes and secret lives. There is the old woman in Chernobyl who refuses to leave her home and the bent, one-eyed swallows. There is ice fishing with Patsy Cline and a pack of Coors. There is “the purpling, churning CGI sky” over I-80 out West. There is both a farmer’s wife, and an arsonist’s wife. Crews’ poems have a silent power that sneaks up on you.

But it was his series of poems about the Cuban-born visual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres that left the deepest impression the first time I read The Book of What Stays.

In my experience, poetry about visual art rarely succeeds, perhaps because it is difficult for text to compete with the original work of art. (Poet and art critic John Yau is the rare exception—a writer who can use visual art as a jumping off point to make something original and brilliant).

Crews’ series on Gonzalez-Torres succeeds because it inhabits the life and work of the artist and his partner Ross, who died of AIDS in 1991. In other words, the poems are an exercise in both empathy and imagination.

The 20 poems that comprise One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes are a “speculative narrative.” “They have been imagined from the life and art of Felix Gonzalez-Torres and are not meant to be strictly biographical,” James explained to me via email.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Cat Maria, New York, New York, August 3, 1995. (Photo by John Jonas Gruen via jonno.com)

Felix Gonzalez-Torres and cat Maria, New York, New York, August 3, 1995. (Photo by John Jonas Gruen via jonno.com)

 

Crews’ poems actually add to our understanding of Gonzalez-Torres and his work. After all, biography, criticism, and the art itself are simply facets of a larger story. Crews’ poems flesh out sides of Gonzalez-Torres that might have remained hidden were it not for this imaginative narrative.

Reading Crews’ book reminded me of a conversation I had recently with an artist friend who lived in New York through the 80s, and is still there today. “You have no idea how horrific the AIDS epidemic was,” he told me. “There were funerals every week. I lost so many friends. New York became a city of ghosts, and it still is in many ways.”

One Hundred Small Yellow Envelopes, which makes up the heart of