If Rahm Emanuel solved all his critical problems and had time to think about something really important, he might decide Chicago needs a poet laureate. If so, there would only be one choice: Stuart Dybek, Chicago poet and storyteller. He is the ultimate Chicago guy, a guy you might have a coffee or a beer with, a guy who writes and speaks with an easy Chicago style, looks you straight in the eye, and packs his writing with names of city streets and sites you love.
But don’t let Dybek’s easy casual style fool you. He’s a highly educated and cultured person and it became quite clear in his poetry reading at the Art Institute this week. It was one of the Art Institute’s Pop Up Poetry events, held in conjunction with the Poetry Foundation. We met in Griffin Court in the Modern Wing and the group of 15 or 20 poetry lovers, AIC docents and the poet himself trooped up the stairs to the New Contemporary exhibit, made up of works in the Edlis/Neeson Collection.
The idea was for a poet to reflect on art, and the art that had influenced him, and its relation to words and language. Our first stop was at the Jasper Johns painting “Alphabet” (1959, encaustic and paper on hardboard). Dybek talked about the flow of the characters in Johns’ painting, but the focus of Dybek’s reflection here was his early experiences as an Art Institute visitor. He spoke about how he was moved by Edward Hopper’s 1942 painting, “Nighthawks,” an iconic work in the Art Institute’s holdings.
Dybek’s first reading was not a poem, but a prose section called “Killing Time” from “Nighthawks” in his book of stories, The Coast of Chicago. (it was the One Book/One Chicago selection in 2004.) He writes about a period in his life when he was looking for a job and had countless job interviews. Between interviews, he’d spend time first at the old library (now the Chicago Cultural Center), but finally made the Art institute his base of operations because “the public phones were usually empty and its restroom was modern and clean with a full-length mirror for last-minute inspections before heading out on an interview.”
The Art Institute was not only convenient. It was also “flooded with light—not only the light streaming from skylights or the tracklights focused on paintings. The paintings themselves appeared to throw an internal light the way oaks and maples seem aflame in fall, from the inside out.”
The Impressionists were his favorite painters.
“On days when it seemed I’d never find a job, when I was feeling desperate, I’d stand before their paintings and stare at them until it seemed I could almost step into their world, that if I closed my eyes and then opened them I’d find myself waking under the red coverlet in Van Gogh’s “Bedroom at Arles”. …. I wanted to be somewhere else, to be a dark blur waiting to board the Normandy train in the smoke-smudged Saint-Lazare station; I wanted a ticket out of my life, to be riding a train whose windows slid past a landscape of grain stacks in winter fields.”
“I wanted a ticket out of my life.” I thought, I wonder how many young people stand in front of a Seurat and wish they could sit down in the grass on the island of La Grande Jatte. I know I did. That was one of Dybek’s favorite paintings too.
But he always ended up standing in front of Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” where he says, “Perhaps I needed its darkness to balance the radiance of the other paintings. It was light in Hopper’s painting; the diner illuminated the dark city corner with a stark light it didn’t seem capable of throwing on its own.” It’s always about the light, he says.
Later the poet and his entourage moved on to stand in front of a Lichtenstein painting titled “Woman III.” And near a small Cy Twombly sculpture, “Untitled New York” (1953, wood, wire, twine, nails, house paint, and wax on cloth). What did it remind us of, Dybek asked? It reminded one person of the 9/11 attacks and another said it reminded him of a fence. Dybek talked about the combination of visual and narrative and how an artist sometimes insists on the title, “Untitled,” to reject the idea of a narrative.
He read a poem by W.H. Auden, one of his favorite poets, and one by Arthur Rimbaud, as well as “The Keeper of Sheep” by Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.
We moved on to another gallery, to a Gerhard Richter painting titled “Venice (Stairway)” (1975, oil). Here Dybek finally read one of his own poems, written while he lived in the Caribbean long before he had seen the Richter painting, He reads about walking down a staircase to the water, very much as we see in the Richter scene.
The Richter painting reminded Dybek of Max Richter, a post-minimalist composer who has also composed many film soundtracks. Dybek likes to write to Richter’s music. I always write to music, he said.
I thought perhaps he would be reading from his own books of poetry, Streets in Their Own Ink (2004) or Brass Knuckles (1979), so I brought along my own copies. He signed my copy of Streets. Here are some delicious visual and aural excerpts from a few of my favorite Dybek poems.
Windy City (from Streets)
At night, wind rippled saxophones
that hung like windchimes in pawnshop
windows, hooting through each horn
so that the streets seemed haunted
not by night hawks but by doves
Night of Voyeurs (from Knuckles)
It’s more than silhouettes tonight,
every window in the city lit,
shades lifted, curtains open ….
So much nakedness!
And the streets empty
except for newsboys moving through shadows,
leafless trees snatching underclothes
out of wind, the El clattering above the roofs
like a strip of blue movie.
Autobiography (from Streets)
There were autobiographies
at every corner,
legends, litanies, manifestos,
memoirs in forgotten tongues,
h a silent hiss
in every t’anks,
Autobiographies, but no history,
and by the clang of evening Angelus
the babble condensed into a drone
murmured behind a jukebox sax
tailing from an open bar.
The confluence of words, imagery and sound is present in Dybek’s expressiveness and in his writing, both in his poetry and his marvelous short stories. (The Coast of Chicago (1990), I Sailed With Magellan (2003) and Childhood and Other Neighborhoods (1980). His two new books are Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories and Paper Lanterns: Love Stories, both published in 2014.
I recommend my favorite stories. “Chopin in Winter” from Coast and “Blood Soup” from Childhood. Oh, and “Orchids” from Magellan, in which Stosh and Katman, and sometimes Angel, confess their dreams and explore the city beyond their own neighborhood.
Dybek is a second-generation Polish-American and grew up in Pilsen and Little Village during the time when they were predominantly Polish and Czech (Bohemian). He taught for 30 years at Western Michigan University and is now Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University.
Photos by Nancy Bishop, except where noted.