Elizabeth Bradfield & Antonia Contro, Theorem, Poetry Northwest Editions, 2020
Reviewed by Jessica Johnson
Theorem is a collaboration between poet Elizabeth Bradfield and artist Antonia Contro born out of overlapping interests. Over a period of time and across a distance, Bradfield contributed words in response to Contro's images and Contro contributed images in response to Bradfield's words. From separate creative spaces, they had a conversation. A book about shapes, Theorem itself has taken more than one: it's been a limited edition art book, a visual presentation for live audiences, and now a trade paperback.
In the afterword, Bradfield and Contro gloss the mathematical language that frames their work. A theorem is "a general proposition not self-evident but proved by a chain of reasoning; a truth established by means of accepted truths." In their case, the proposition was, "Let's collaborate." Theorem is named for a kind of reasoning between two artists.
Bradfield is a working naturalist as well as a poet. Her poems often take place within the tension between observer and observation, interrogating with precision how we know what we think we know, how we make meaning of what we think we see, how we position and orient ourselves toward a deeply, if quietly, desired world.
I learned of Contro's work through this book. A visit to her website revealed other collaborations through which her visual pieces take on unexpected dimensions. Viewing and listening to Correspondence, a recent collaboration with a violinist and a cellist, I spent an inordinate amount of time with a blue mitten, watercolor, made temporal by deep string tones. The longer I stayed with it, the more it seemed to throb, to become an impossibly dark sky above a line of picket fencing—a mitten-shaped space rather than a mitten. I wondered if I was imagining the impact of something so apparently simple, if I was reaching for it. And then my six-year-old wandered by, looked at the screen, turned wide eyes toward me and said, "What is this? I want it before I go to bed. It reminds me of something."
In Theorem, Contro's drawings and paintings place forms in relation to each other, in tension or correspondence or conversation. Some have unexpected shadows that read as more substantial than the bodies that cast them.
One way of engaging Theorem is reading each spread, where image and text often (though not always) sit side-by-side. In a striking spread early in the book, Bradfield's text asks, "What could allow me to approach myself (my secrets) safely?" And after a large white silence, "Even now (even now) they have power." On the facing page, a straight black glove stretches, palm up, from the bottom of the page to the top. A small bright sphere hovers over each finger. At the bottom of the glove, an odd detail tells the truth: where a small button should latch one side to the other, there's white space where that sureness should be. No button, no loop, no dark interior. Further down, a thin line of black paint bleeds from the glove to the page's bottom edge. The glove is then a form made of paint; it couldn't hold anything. Like the self that grows around a secret, the glove is a fine, tall form. It participates in the vernacular of use, but is not straightforwardly useful. It's neither filled nor empty. The glove is filled by what's not exactly there. What is this? It reminds me of something both familiar and forgotten.
Of course, you can also read Theorem from the first page to the last, following the lines of Bradfield's thinking, a thinking enriched and darkened and deepened by Contro's images and by the book's design. Theorem has sections but no page numbers, and between each section, the pages are black, like space.
The poetry of Theorem has an essay-like sensibility in that it's a sustained attempt at understanding. But while the essay often thrives on information, an absence of information lies at the heart of Theorem. Central to Bradfield's meditation on geometry and memory and mapping, is a secret that Bradfield does not—will never—disclose. The existence and absence of the secret creates a meta-narrative, so that you're reading not to find out what the secret is, but to understand what it shapes, to make sense of it spatially and mathematically, as a form. The secret itself is not just an absence, you suspect, but a kind of anti-matter with a physics all its own.
The poetry reckons first with an interior understanding of the secret and its consequences, then move toward family relationships and memory, then geography and mapping, before concluding with a final reckoning with the secret and its meaning. Throughout, Bradfield's poetic instrument is capable of fine distinctions. The voice that rises from the page is alive and smart and the opposite of overwrought.
Opposite a tower of tinted rounds and ovals, Bradfield writes, "I did not know what, aside from me, was precarious. // But physics tells us that, once in motion, even the smallest things—/given length of run and type of terrain—can carve huge swaths." These lines are part of the unfolding meta-story at the core of the book, but they're also an aesthetic statement. The book is a field that gives small things—utterances, visual details, and aesthetic moves—the length of run they need to carve huge swaths of meaning, cast outsized shadows. Theorem hums withBradfield's choices about what to say and what to leave silent.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, a new non-routine stripped the day of its patterns. I could work from home and time replaced commuting. On rare occasions when I left the house, empty lanes took the place of cars. I didn't want to go to campus, or any of the particular places I couldn't go. But someplace to go was gone and I didn't know how big a place in the mind that was until it was an absence. Someplace to go became a sort of X in my day plan. In the absence of that X, we began to reconfigure.
I have forgotten a lot, but in these weeks of shifting, periods from the past looped back to overlay the present. Weeks inside with a newborn. The years before I could drive. The books and songs from when someplace to go was only in the imagination. Cypress Hill, for example. After not having listened to it for years, one night after the kids were in bed, K. and I put on House of Pain and jumped around.
One way of ordering the days gave way to another. First, cocktail hour. Later a walk. Up a hill and down, every day, no matter what. Same hill, different ways up and down. Along the way, viewpoints: nothing between us and the city, traces of a grid perceptible through the thickness of trees. And then one day, a hawk hanging in the empty air turned the space between us and town into a field where all sorts of things might happen.
In the absence of X, the occupants of the house took on new shapes. They were the same bodies that had always been there, but around them there was only space. They became stars and planets. And if they were, wasn't I too? We'd been a family, four people, each with our own trajectories, and then we were a constellation turning together through a dark sky.
I was reading Theorem at the same time I was processing some early experiences of the pandemic, writing things down mainly for my family to maybe look back on, knowing that this experience may shape our futures in ways we can't now understand. In doing so, I imagined the ways in which seemingly small differences in circumstance determine large differences in experience. (Imagine if I was a nurse or warehouse worker instead of a community college professor. Imagine if I had a different number of children or older or younger. Imagine if they were different ages. Imagine if I were alone. Imagine if one or both of us lost a job. Imagine if my spouse wasn't immunocompromised. Imagine if my parents weren't just a minute up the hill.) I spent hours on Zoom with long distance friends, all of us in different-but-similar circumstances trying to find the shape of things, trying to make some fluid kind of sense, and ending up with, at best, a highly provisional kind of knowledge.
I'm not sure if Theorem's moves seem timely or if they're just especially resonant. While reading it, I could hear echoes of Theorem in the ideas I had about my own life, the experiences I marked as notable. "To cube is to find the 3 of x," Bradfield writes. "It is to leave the planar, the plain,/ thus permitting shadow." Theorem's visual-poetic logic left the page and haunted my thinking.
Bradfield opens the poem aspect of Theorem with this declaration, spread across two white pages: "At 13, I fell in love with the tidy solutions of geometry.// Neat in my notebooks, they made architecture of chaos, denoted/ all I could not allow myself to say—//contained it in measurable forms." Theorem leaves the chaos unnamed, but marked. In playing out this premise, the book works through all sorts of forms but avoids tidiness—in the sense that tidy connotes facile, reductive, convenient, less-than-fully-honest, over-simple. Theorem ends not in an answer, nor in a central insight, nor in a vague kind of solace, nor in a sense of moving on, but deeper inside its inquiry—with its questions rigorously developed and unresolved.