Art as Oversoul: A Review of Hilary Vaughn Dobel’s The Messerschmidt Poems

In Hilary Vaughn Dobel’s The Messerschmidt Poems, art exists as a kind of oversoul, a presence that permeates even the most quotidian of tasks—chopping onions, standing in an elevator, placing one’s hand on a lover’s thigh. In her compressed, sophisticated, and graceful prose poems, Dobel plunges us into the world of artistic imagination, like an undercurrent that swells and recedes in the conscious mind, and lingers with patient influence in the unconscious.

The book’s title refers to the eighteenth-century German artist Franz Xaver Messerschmidt, who famously sculpted busts of male faces in various states of emotional pique. The faces yawn, grimace, squint, and pucker. They are taut, strained, and sinewy, even grotesque, as they depict expressions often considered aesthetically off limits in high art. Dobel’s poems, centered blocks of text framed by the white page, look almost like works of visual art themselves, and read like poetic “moments” that playfully capitalize on Messerschmidt’s provocative titles: “A Hypocrite and a Slanderer,” “A Lecherous and Careworn Fop,” “The Yawner,” and even “Afflicted with Constipation.”  

Dobel clearly understands that Messerschmidt’s “character head” titles were assigned posthumously for exhibition purposes. The poems are not traditionally ekphrastic; they do not describe, thematize, elegize, or even respond to the eponymous sculptures. Rather, they work by an ekphrasis of suggestion; the artist’s hand, the collector’s branding, and the poet’s voice mingle on the page in loose associations that together create shades of meaning. 

For example, the poem “Strong Odor” corresponds to the bust of a man with an upturned nose; tight, squinted eyes; and a tense, lined forehead. We bring to both the poem and the sculpture an expectation that involves the sense of smell. Yet that expectation is a false one; the sculpture may have been designed to represent any number of physical states, and Dobel’s verse doesn’t describe sensory experience at all. Rather, she surprises us with an unexpected image of desire:

Want, a match struck on the spine, outgrew its box – so I
held it at arm’s length and was estranged.

The match, that anticipated spark, becomes an image held at a distance, naturally “estranging” the speaker from the “want” it represents. Likewise, so many of these poems work not through traditional metaphoric association, but through disassociation, continually causing us to question what we expect from the words on the page.

There are three distinct “characters” in the poems—the speaker, a lover, and Messerschmidt himself—who seem intertwined yet also just out of reach of each other. The lover and the sculptor occupy the same psychic space in the speaker’s melancholic protestations, a technique that suggests synonymity between artist and lover. Amid these fluid, half-formed connections, something desperate grows between all of them, a quiet panic, as if desirous but not quite knowing of what. Amid this stress and longing, Dobel reminds us that her speaker is a visitor in a country that is not her own. “The Ultimate Simpleton” explores homesickness, which causes even the ground under her feet to pull away:

Messerschmidt, I want to go home. The cat is sick and
looking for a warm spot under the couch to die. Every day,
the cobblestones find new ways to sneak away from my feet.

This world the speaker inhabits holds no personal allegiance to her, nor to any of us. All the speaker can do for respite is reach out to the artist who crafts faces like hers, faces in extreme distress. 

In “The Difficult Secret,” the speaker urges a lover to embark on a romantic tryst, and in the process, captures the tenuousness of these connections:

It’s not so cold that the pretty girls have gone into hibernation.
We’ve got a few more weeks of them left. Let’s go to the
lake, my love, and sink paper boats with stones. Let’s speak to
each other entirely in quotes from detective novels, or in mime.

The poem ends with an admonition: “Just don’t tell me yet.” The speaker’s anticipated fantasy will, inevitably, give way to ruthless truth, which is never as dreamy as “quotes from detective novels.” The tryst becomes a secondary desire; the primary is to encode this loving moment in a timelessness of suspense. Yet, inevitably, the next moment will happen, as it always does, and the speaker will be again in a world in which the lover looks away, and the “pretty girls” come out of “hibernation” to take over the scene. 

The speaker seems always at the edge of trauma, bracing not for a loud, brash, crashing event, but a quiet, inward, daily wounding that might also be called “unbelonging.” Dobel’s verse reads like it wants to come out of its own skin, like Messerschmidt’s faces want to do, mediating loss often through the image of the open mouth.  In “The Sneezer,” for example:

What’s left when you are gone is the dark but populated space
inside my head. I thought you would find it easy to love me,
but then you saw what I did to the china shop. You saw low
tide and crooked bottom teeth and everything else I couldn’t
keep in my stupid mouth. 

Dobel channels the paradox of sadness in Messerschmidt’s work: the exuberance of finding the person behind a face, yet knowing such understanding happens only through contortion, approximation, and exaggeration, which is ultimately no knowing at all. It is a poetry of the inaccessible, exploring what we can only see. The poet encapsulates this idea in “An Old Man” when she writes, “Messerschmidt, I had not anticipated the violence of our seeing.” 

The collection reads like one long, continuous poem broken into fragments on each page; a narrative becomes clear almost by osmosis as we allow the speaker’s impressions to wash over us. Dobel’s project is so intricate and layered that each poem likely would not function separate from the whole. At times, too, the collection seems to present an intellectual puzzle to be solved, yet the overarching structure of disassociation leads to the possibility that there is, in fact, no solution to be found. Reading these poems is like being lost in a maze; clear guideposts are everywhere, but there is still no way out. At the same time, this disorientation seems central to how we should experience The Messerschmidt Poems, which is by way of continually drawing our awareness to the chasm between is and what is named.  

In phrasing reminiscent of T. S. Eliot’s “Let us go then, you and I,” the last poem, “Quiet Peaceful Sleep,” addresses Messerschmidt directly in a note of compassionate camaraderie and a gentle inducement to rest:

      Let’s spend the evening together, you and me, and
your fleet of cast tin heads. I’ll work their kinks out as we
listen to the television. I’ll set my palm to their corrugated
cheeks. Kiss the metal goodnight.

And that is what we do: we sit in the living room with artists, living and dead, “work their kinks out” while episodes of our favorite show drone on behind us, while we tend to our children or put on our tennis shoes, feed our pets, or drive to the grocery store. The ghosts of these artists sit quiet in the background, always there, like a lover or a friend or a co-conspirator, compelling our intellects despite our knowing—shaping, like Messerschmidt, the faces of those we see.


Sarah D’Stair

Sarah D’Stair is a novelist, poet, and literary critic. She is the author of One Year of Desire (Finishing Line Press) and Helen Bonaparte (Late Marriage Press). She received her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Photo: © Molly Schlachter.

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