Review: Reading Girl, by Elizabeth Paul

Recently, I’ve become interested in the politics (and prose) of image descriptions, at least in part because of the accessibility issue of images. Because people who rely on screen readers to interpret text don’t have access to images, the provision of image descriptions is becoming increasingly common.

In Elizabeth Paul’s collection of prose poems, Reading Girl, each one based on an (unseen) painting by Henri Matisse, you see what poetry may be found here. Image descriptions are meant to “de-scribe”— that is, to write down, to give an account in words of something or someone, “including all the relevant characteristics, qualities, or events.” But these descriptions pulls upon the other definition of what it is to describe a thing, i.e., to mark out or draw. The pen described the circle. Paul’s descriptions don’t allow words to get in the way of the paintings.

There are 23 poems here, most four to five lines long; others linger over several paragraphs, but none is longer than a page. No information is given about the viewer of the paintings; no painting is given a frame. Instead, the reader is placed within the very sensual, three-dimensional context of each image. These are poems and paintings you can taste.

As an example, the title poem, “Girl Reading, 1905-06, Henri Matisse,” gives us the girl right away: “Her head never feels as heavy as in an afternoon of reading—” The reader, reading Paul’s chapbook, reads the refractive line again. Her head, my head, suddenly heavy as I read. The line continues, “there is a somnolence, an oppressive focus and abstention from the day.” I don’t know what the girl is reading, but it doesn’t matter: I know that feeling.

But I also know the feeling that follows, the one that carries the rest of the poem, in which every single thing in the room clamors for the reading girl’s attention.

Across and down the pages she tunnels while everything around her resents her inattention. The neglected pitcher trades bitter thoughts with the slighted table cloth adorned for delight. Apples and pears like preoccupied pigeons scavenge ever further from the moment of ripeness. Proud flower vases talk among themselves, making sure to be heard every now and again. The pictures on the wall hang out of reach, lucid only in denial that they had ever been hers. How is such distraction to be borne?

Each sentence here is exquisitely structured, chiseled to the quick of each of Matisse’s images. In Reading Girl, Elizabeth Paul has created image descriptions that engage both sense and sensibility, and offer no small measure of delight along the way.