Reviews of The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven


L I B R A R Y    J O U R N A L

Best Fall Indie Poetry, 2015

As Lambda Award–winning and Kingsley Tufts finalist Teare explains in his preface, at the onset of a chronic illness he discovered the paintings and writings of Agnes Martin, and the austere beauty of her grid-guided art is reflected in the construction of these poems. The various spacings are elegantly balanced, with the columns of the many split-structured poems in dialog; bursts of language let us intuit rather than see his pain. Teare opens by citing “a form/ narrowed down to its final iteration,” then explains, “I am speaking/ of illness and the critical situation it reveals,” and we finally get it: art brings not relief but understanding. VERDICT Demanding and brave.


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P U B L I S H E R ‘ S   W E E K L Y

Starred Review 

Written during a period of chronic, debilitating illness, this powerful fifth collection from Lambda Award–winning poet Teare (Companion Grasses) chronicles his struggle “to learn to think with pain”—to not only endure “days of headache,” but to make meaning of those days. Observing hospital visits and “events/ like the calm after vomiting,” his lyrics are austere but also deeply affecting, intellectually generous, and formally dazzling. Inspired by the minimalist compositions and metaphysical writings of abstract painter Agnes Martin, Teare treats each poem like a “field of consciousness.” Arrayed across the page, their parallel stanzas sometimes coincide; like Teare’s undiagnosable sickness, they invite multiple readings. At other moments, their arrangements are akin to spikes of pain, interrupting ordinary syntax. Indeed, Teare’s suffering is such an overwhelming presence here that he sometimes ascribes it agency: “What is the ideal/ state of illness,” he wonders in one poem, “does it want/ to attain anything.” Regardless of its purpose, Teare manages to wring some wonder from his suffering. “Illness,” he writes, “shares/ its few virtues/ with art… in not being ‘of’/ or ‘for’ anything.” Teare’s virtues, on the other hand, are undeniable; these meditations give rare voice to an experience for which humans have little language.


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A T    T H E    S E A W A L L

Gillian Conoley

Abstract Expressionist Agnes Martin (1912-2004) used a limited palette with lines and grids hovering over subtle, sometimes barely perceptible, grounds or washes of color. Space, metaphysics, internal emotional states (happiness, joy, freedom, innocence, non-attachment) are continually explored through drawing, printmaking, and painting. As Brian Teare tells us in his preface to his striking new collection, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, Martin was often thought of erroneously as a minimalist, though the work is expansive and spiritual as the best of Rothko (whom she praised as “having reached zero so nothing could stand in the way of truth”).

For Martin, the grid became a ground through which a mythic or mystical expression could find presence, flight, release. Like John Cage, Agnes Martin experienced a life-changing, aesthetic revelation once she encountered Zen Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, whom she heard lecture at Columbia. After living from 1957-67 in Manhattan, she headed west, built her own adobe studio, and lived and worked largely as a recluse in New Mexico until her death. Martin absorbed Zen thought as ethical code. Her own aphoristic writings influenced many artists, writers, and critics drawn to both her disavowal of the art world, and to her commitment to the purity of creation.

Many of Martin’s writings carry the weight and humor of Zen koans: “The worse thing you can think about when you’re painting is yourself. It will stand right in front of you, and you make mistakes.” In a video interview conducted by Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama in Taos in 1997, Martin says, “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind, to do exactly what the inspiration calls for. It seems today that the artists have the inspiration, but before they can get anything onto canvas, they’ve had about 50 ideas.” In this rare footage of a major American artist, one discovers a generous ascetic given to short responses: “I used to meditate before I trained myself to stop thinking. Then I learned to stop thinking … I gave up evolution, atomic theories, all thinking, so that when something comes into the mind you can see it.” One of the most quoted aphorisms of Martins’: “I think everyone is born 100% ego, and after that it’s just adjustment.”

Like other artists before him, such as critic and filmmaker Lizzie Borden, or artists and writers Jill Johnston, Douglas Crimp, and Hugh Behm-Steinberg, Brian Teare, in writing The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven,engaged in a long study, relation, and aesthetic conversation with Agnes Martin, seeking out her work in all available galleries and museums, catalogues, and writings. In his preface, however, he explains, “Those who were compelled to visit Martin in New Mexico often felt they did not wish to disappoint her by falling short of the ideals she and her art embodied with admirable and rigorous purity. Alone with her work for many years, I felt the same way until I didn’t.”

And so with Teare, we get a poet who is sorting through her ideas, entering the work in a way that ekphrastic work often does not: through inquiry, argument, and yes, sometimes, agreement –– though he is no acolyte. Instead, Teare is engaged in his own journey through a chronic illness. He first discovers Agnes Martin at the onset of the disease, and found in her Writings, and in particular “The Untroubled Mind,” an ease, a possible respite from pain. How can one write oneself into empty mind so the pain disappears? In one poem, Teare writes:

reading Agnes Martin
on the bus I think
about her “perfection”
for about four blocks
until I begin to hate it

in the drawings I love
she leaves evidence
of process fraying
the grid’s edge
like leftover math

This seeking, skeptical, questing impulse, driven by a seriously ill human being seeking relief and comfort (the happiness, the release Martin’s work often promises and provides) is what separates this book so exquisitely from ekphrasis (which we should remember in Greek means “to define”). It seems that if, like Martin, Teare can get himself to quit thinking, he can move past the pain. And so, throughout the book, it is as if Teare lays the grid of his poem onto the grid of Martin’s paintings. The titles of his poems are either titles of Martin’s work or excerpts of her writing. One witnesses an artist (poet) sorting, pushing through, engaging deeply into the work of another. It may be important here to remember that Teare is not only a poet but a fine book maker and printer. One senses the physical hand and placement of Martin in this book as much as one experiences the care and exactitude of Teare’s hand. In the first poem, “watercolor and graphite on paper, fifteen by fifteen inches,” Teare writes:

::    and complete because of its tensions     I am speaking         ::

::   of illness and the critical situation it reveals     as my own   :: 

::   embodied gaze     the loom upon which materiality turns    ::

::   pictorial its likeness to fabric heightened by fibers swollen  ::

::   torqued by tintcaught in its operations     I insert a knot      :: 

::   between the warp and weft of the observed surface words  ::

::   to stop the work of the lyric     to stop the mortal thought   ::

Many of Teare’s poems enact a grid-like surface, while others allow a reader to read the lyric either horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or circuitously, as though to indicate there is no one way in, but many. This process reproduces how one might gaze at an Agnes Martin painting–– with our eyes free to roam a grid just before or at the moment one sees a whole or gestural shape released:

illness shares
its few virtues

with art   pain
as anomalous
as imagination

in not being “of”
or “for” anything

even language
lacks the quality
of their solitude

pure process
like artillness is

Perhaps most thrilling is the way Teare creates a third space between the work of Agnes Martin and his own lyric. Teare invites us into the work as one might be invited into a room:

to write is to draw
between the mark
and its support
the soft grid a size
I can walk into

Throughout the book one senses the slow, careful building of Teare’s extraordinarily crafted poems; each word feels almost carved then pinned to the page, as one would hang a print on a wall: “I needle each word / until it bleeds” is the last line of a poem that begins with the more casual, wry, Zen-like tone of “illness means a lot less / self which isn’t so bad.”

Agnes Martin was born in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan in 1912. One of the few details we know about her life is that she claimed she could remember the exact moment of her birth, entering our universe as a small figure with a sword: “I was very happy. I thought I would cut my way through life … victory after victory.” Martin’s mother, however, was a silent, rejecting figure, and Martin felt despised as a child. Martin revealed to her friend journalist Jill Johnston that in later years she did come to find value from the sternness, rejection and emotional pain inflicted by her mother: self-discipline, solitude, and self-reliance. Teare weaves these biographical details of Martin’s life beautifully into the imposed discipline and solitude one also experiences in illness. The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven is full of poems that pierce, ache, and arrive at a rare courage. Eventually, in some of the most haunting, gorgeously rendered lines, both Martin and Teare dissolve, and art reigns:

a little figure with a sword         I have this mind
I thought I was going                  from present to future

to cut my way through life         no joy    no sorrow
victory after victory                     I was sure     this body steadfast

I was going to do it                     one thousand three hundred nights



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