Poet Dean Rader at Babylon Salon

Poet Dean Rader at Babylon Salon

Even before the writing of his T.S. Eliot Prize-winning collection of poems, “Works & Days” (2010), University of San Francisco professor and City Brights columnist Dean Rader started a series of poems about Paul Klee paintings. The soon-to-be-released “Landscape Portrait Figure Form” has now become one of the latest in Omnidawn’s chapbook series.

“I got about six or seven poems into the project and decided that I didn’t want to do a whole book of poems about Klee,” Rader said by phone. “What I really wanted to do was start playing with all of the ways that I thought poets and painters do similar kinds of work.”

Of the book’s three sections, one is devoted to Klee paintings. But the poems focus more broadly on the ways in which the language of poetry and art – and their execution – overlap.

In “Becoming Klee, Becoming Color,” Rader writes: “He finds he knows shapes the way the sea/ knows its waves: the thing it flows// in and out of. He sees crimson so clearly he/ becomes crimson, black with such// clarity he turns blind. Instead of image./ Over and over he rides the color wheel// deep into his mind’s night, hoping to arrive/ at the right shape.”

This is a good example of how the poems in “Landscape Portrait Figure Form” flirt with the metaphysical – i.e., can talking about art still be art? – while presenting something definite: an experience that comments on the artistic but also delivers it, even guiding the reader along.

Other poems take this to another level, subsuming the authorial into the act of creation. “The Poem Chooses Its Own Adventure,” for instance, starts with “And now the poem is on a bus somewhere” and contains lines like “The poem/ is tired of you. It needed to get away. You ask so much/ of it these days. Your demands are extravagant. You/ wanted the poem to take you to Paris. You entertained/ fantasies of coffee and croissants.” It even wonders “When is the/ last time you did anything for the poem? It’s always about/ you, still is you know. Even now in line nineteen, you can’t/ get past your own expectations. But the poem has needs of/ its own.”

“What paintings and photographs do that written literary works don’t do is hit you quickly,” says Rader, who will read as part of the quarterly Babylon Salon series on Saturday. “I want the book to actually feel like you’re entering a gallery of some sort.”


Babylon Salon: With Dean Rader, Ben Loory (“Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day”), Adam Mansbach (“Go the F- to Sleep”), Anita Barrows (“A Year With Rilke”) and L. Tam Holland (“The Counterfeit Family Tree of Vee Crawford-Wong”). 7 p.m. Saturday. Free. Cantina, 580 Sutter St., S.F.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Photo by Jill Ramsey